Passion for telecoms in Turkey while shareholders wrangle
Süreyya Ciliv: It’s all about
offering a unique value
proposition where people are selecting you because of
There’s one word that comes to mind when
interviewing Süreyya Ciliv, the CEO of Turkcell:
He speaks about his company with passion, about computers
and telecoms with passion, about his career — with
Microsoft and other leading companies — with passion
and about his ambitions for Turkcell with passion.
Turkcell is 16 years old and has 36 million customers in its
home country, Turkey, and another 26 million in neighbouring
He’s been in charge for just three years, after
a full decade in senior positions with Microsoft, including
seven years in the headquarters in Redmond running its
worldwide partners team.
Ciliv has brought many of his marketing lessons from
Microsoft directly back to Turkcell. "I feel I am in the right
place at the right time," he says.
Turkcell has a reputation in the industry for innovation,
much of which comes from its own technology centre close to its
head office in Istanbul.
all about offering a unique value proposition where people are
selecting you because of the difference," he says. "How do you
create higher, superior value propositions?"
Ciliv is a Turkish-born engineer who has spent most of his
career in the US. He went to US university with "a scholarship
for industrial and operations engineering, but my heart was in
computers". He then went to Harvard Business School and worked
for a Boston start-up, Metagraphics. "Five years later I started
a new software company, NovaSoft Systems." That was a document
management company, of which Ciliv was chairman until it was
bought by Cimage Enterprise Systems in late 1999.
"I was considering a third start up but Microsoft made me an
offer to run the company in my home country and I had never
worked in Turkey before," he says. "I got a little bit
emotional and returned."
After three years Microsoft took him back to the US,
reporting to Jeff Raikes, then president of the Microsoft
business division. "I learned a lot at Microsoft, running the
worldwide partners team."
But then he got the call from Turkcell, which he joined in
January 2007. "My last day in Microsoft was a Friday and I
started in Turkcell on a Monday — it happened like
that. It was almost a smooth transition. I found people in
Turkcell at the same level as the most advanced technology
companies in the world. They are inspired to do world class
It’s tough, though. "The last few years have
been the most rewarding for me personally. I don’t
think I have worked harder. My family is still in the US, in
Seattle. They come and visit in the summer, and next week I am
going to Boston to meet them — my wife is American and
the kids were born in the US."
His children are at school in the US, so he
doesn’t want to take them out of the system: "They
are very passionate about what they are doing." Passion
It’s been tough on a different level —
because some of the shareholders in Turkcell have been in
dispute with one another for years.
About a third of the shares are traded publicly —
Turkcell was the first Turkish company to be listed on the New
York Stock Exchange — and the rest are held by
strategic partners, including Turkey’s diversified
Çukurova group plus two telecoms companies,
Scandinavia’s TeliaSonera and
Russia’s Altimo — formerly Alfa. There
have been disputes between them, some fought in courts in
places such as the British Virgin Islands.
But in late 2009 "it was announced that TeliaSonera and Alfa
have resolved their differences", says Ciliv.
"It’s a positive step that these disputes are
resolved." But it will take up to two years to work through the
Has that made it hard to be a CEO? "It makes it more
challenging. I felt as a new CEO, I had so much to do. I
don’t try to solve all of the world’s
problems — I focussed on the things under me that I
can solve. I try to make the best decisions for the
And, he is quick to point out that "the Turkcell board has
been very supportive of me in the past", he says. "Though from
the outside they look like adversaries, in the boardroom they
know that Turkcell, like any other company, needs to be very
serious — we need to be innovative, fast moving.
"In the boardroom all the members are supportive and I hope
that continues. I am not a big complainer about the situation.
It made it a bit more challenging."
So what has Turkcell achieved? "Turkcell is only 16 years
old and we have already become the number one company in Turkey
in many dimensions," says Ciliv.
"I have a passion for people and a passion making a
difference. We really execute on this. Let me give you an
example: every year we give 10,000 scholarships to young girls
in less developed parts of Turkey, starting at the age of
Without Turkcell’s funding, they would drop out
of school, he says. "We help them continue their
He’s clearly delighted to be in a
communications company. "I did not want to be in the telecoms
industry 20 years ago — I wanted to be in the computer
industry. But now I want to be in mobile communications," he
"But I don’t even call this communications. We
redefined our business in 2007 and early on we said we are not
only a GSM company — we are a total telecommunications
and technology company."
There are problems in the world, he notes — listing
global warming, the economic crisis, endless political
tensions. "But what is probably the best news is that 4.6
billion people around the world are connected," he says. "If
you punch in a few digits you reach somebody in the Amazon,
somebody in Turkey, somebody in New York. Just a few clicks
And that inspires him to improve the technology. "Today,
that connection wire is a thin wire — it only sends
voice and SMS. But that pipe is getting big."
He demonstrates his iPhone, which shows clips from the
Turkcell-sponsored football league in Turkey. A results page
leads, with one click, to videos of a team’s
Incidentally, his old friends in Microsoft should take heart
at the knowledge that Ciliv carries two mobile phones: as well
as the Apple iPhone, an HTC device running Windows Mobile.
"The pipe is getting bigger. We are keen on making it a
great user experience," says Ciliv.
When Ciliv joined the company he set three priorities for
its long-term direction: "winning against the competition,
driving customer satisfaction and loyalty, and growing the
business profitably", he says.
Winning means "having a superior value proposition compared
with the competition and getting that message out".
The satisfaction and loyalty challenge means a bit more.
"Every day we will win every customer again: the Turkcell brand
represents technology leadership but the human touch adds or
takes away from that. Everybody in Turkcell is important, and I
emphasise the team effort."
In terms of growing the business, Ciliv is learning directly
from his Microsoft experience: "There is tremendous leverage in
partners, including dealers, value-added services partners,
advertising agencies and our PR agencies. We call them the
Turkcell team, the Turkcell ecosystem."
He’s helped to develop a culture throughout the
company and its partners in which they all focus on innovation,
operational excellence and customer-centricity.
"We want open, direct and respectful communication with
customers," he says. If there’s a mistake, ask the
question: "How do we do better in the future?"
Turkcell was becoming big, he notes. "We wanted speed and
agility, moving fast and taking charge, empowering people.
Speed is important to serve the customers better. So agility is
He lists his other priorities: "We want to make a
difference," he says. "We are all living in this life for a
short time. While we are here, let’s make a
difference. We said to all our people: you are important, as a
human. You can make a difference, individually."
Passion for people
And then passion again: "passion for people in Turkcell, and
passion for people in our partners, passion for our customers,
young people in the communities we live in, all the citizens in
the communities." Passion is Ciliv’s driving
In practice this meant understanding customers in the
consumer area and in business, "and knowing what is
Turkcell’s value proposition and what is the
competition’s value proposition", he says. "What
can we do to differentiate, to make Turkcell the preferred
choice? What can we do to make them choose Turkcell?"
And then, "we had to make the message simple and get it out"
he adds. "We got the message out to all the people in Turkey
— not only by advertising but also by word of
That’s a lot of people: Turkey has a population
of around 77 million. "First, I said I am going to talk to
10,000 people." And he told all employees "to talk to 1,000
people", he says: "Tell everybody why Turkcell is better. Tell
everyone around you. I’m always talking."
He’s not a person to sit next in an aircraft if
you want a peaceful flight: his passion is likely to lead him
to tell you about Turkcell for the duration.
Innovation is a key part of his strategy. "Innovation gives
us the differentiation," he says. "In Istanbul we are working
at 28 megabits a second, with HSPA+. In which other industry
does the performance improve so much?"
But "innovation is not just for R&D departments", he
says: "It’s for sales, marketing, finance,
customer service, for everybody. How can we improve and do
better? We have 36 million customers in Turkey. That makes us
the second largest operator in any country in Europe."
With its operations in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia,
Moldova and more recently Belarus, Ukraine and northern Cyprus,
the company has 62 million customers.
Ciliv demonstrates his two phones. "The number of laptop PCs
has passed the number of desktops, but the future is mobile
computing," he says. "The next platform for computing is this
pocket PC — merging mobile with computing makes this
new world. A new world is starting and a new lifestyle, for the
consumer and the business person."
Turkcell’s technology centre has 321 software
engineers, 40 kilometres outside Istanbul, on the Asian side of
this ancient city, which uniquely in the world is in two
"We want to provide new applications and mobile services for
our customers." He lists the football service, and another that
shows traffic jams in Istanbul, but he’s looking
at others: "mobile internet, video calls, sending group video
messages, mobile health and education, mobile TV, mobile
security, and so on", he says.
There’s a team looking at mobile payments,
working with Turkish banks. "You can pay for parking or buy
food from stores: you order online, the store delivers to your
home and they add it to the bill." The system allows bills up
to 35 Turkish lira — around $20 — to be paid
via the phone bill, he says.
The company is working on mobile health, allowing people in
Turkey’s 40,000 villages to be seen —
"real live video" — by a consultant, who can also view
X-rays and heart monitors over the connection.
There’s work on mobile signatures, allowing
customers to approve legal documents over the network. The
company is talking to other operators around the world about
sharing its technology, he adds.
Turkcell is investing heavily in its 3G network —
$1.6 billion in 2009, he notes, spend mostly on Ericsson kit
but also on Huawei. "We have 60% geographic coverage now."
Speeds in Istanbul are faster than in London, he smiles.
Tests of LTE
And next in sight is LTE. "We have already started tests and
we are working with our vendors," says Ciliv. "I think we are
two to three years away from LTE. It is not going to be a major
step: it is going to be incremental," he warns.
Meanwhile discussions continue on the ultimate shareholding
for Turkcell, in negotiations between Altimo and TeliaSonera
that also involve the Russian company MegaFon, which may
involve the Russian operator MegaFon, ending up with a new
listed company. The future is still unclear as there are many
regulatory hurdles to overcome, not least in Russia.
According to reports in late 2009, the deal will not affect
Turkcell’s operations in Turkey itself —
though its holdings in neighbouring countries will undoubtedly
be seen as attractions. If the deal succeeds, it will create a
powerful new force in telecoms across eastern Europe.