Interview: Süreyya Ciliv of Turkcell

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Former Microsoft executive Süreyya Ciliv has been steering Turkcell to become one of the most innovative operators in Europe

Passion for telecoms in Turkey while shareholders wrangle about stakes

Süreyya CilivSüreyya Ciliv: It’s all about offering a unique value
proposition where people are selecting you because of
the difference

There’s one word that comes to mind when interviewing Süreyya Ciliv, the CEO of Turkcell: passion.

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 countries.

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.

“It’s 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.

Microsoft offer

“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 services.”

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 again.

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 details.

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 company.”

Supportive board

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 12.”

Without Turkcell’s funding, they would drop out of school, he says. “We help them continue their education.”

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 says.

“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 away.”

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 goals.

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.

Three priorities

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 important.”

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 emotion.

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 mouth.”

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.

New lifestyle

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 continents.

“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. GTB