Airtech steps out

Capitalising on the country’s unique location between Europe and Asia, Turkey has positioned itself as a vibrant manufacturing centre with a strong export focus. But the nation’s rapid growth has recently been overshadowed by political and economic uncertainty in the Middle East. The rise of the Islamic State in neighbouring Iraq, civil war in Syria, as well as on-going concern about energy independence and internal political strife all muddy the plot of an otherwise straightforward economic success story.

Standing tall amongst the turmoil is Aktaş Holding, parent company of up-and-coming air spring brand, Airtech. With a history dating back to 1938, Aktaş is not only one of the most successful privately held manufacturing businesses in the young nation of Turkey, but also one of the oldest. Starting off as a tyre repair shop in the town of Bursa – a three-hour drive down the Marmara coast from Istanbul – it has grown into one of the nation’s most successful, and diversified, suppliers to the automotive industry.

As such, the company has become somewhat of a poster child of economic determination in a country that has had its fair share of negative news in recent history – culminating in Turkey escalating its involvement in Syria’s civil war last month and launching a new campaign to bombard camps of Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.

“Turkey is a nation in flux, especially over the last year or two,” says Aktaş CEO, Sami Erol. “For us as a proud Turkish business, it’s important to not let the chaos confuse us so we can continue to build our nation’s future. It might sound a bit patriotic, but we strongly believe that Turkey has the potential to be among the world’s top 10 economies by 2023, so it’s up to all of us now to stay focused.”

According to Erol, it can be frustrating to see political conflict slow down Turkey’s rise to international prominence, but he says the private sector has shown time and again that it is strong enough to weather any storm. “In 2012, everyone was talking about how Turkey would be the next big thing, but the tone has changed dramatically since then. Now there’s more political debate in and around our country and people have become more cautious when it comes to investing, so our job is to step up and make sure we don’t fall behind.”

In fact, chief executive Erol says Turkey has a tradition of turning crisis into opportunity – kept alive by a savvy workforce and a unique way of thinking revolving around the individual’s well being. “Turkish businesses and entrepreneurs have had significant success globally in the past, even in saturated markets like North America, so I think it’s safe to say there is something special about them. Maybe it’s that they not only focus on key areas like product quality and sustainability, but also on personal satisfaction – they want people be genuinely happy with a deal.”

He adds, “It’s an open secret that Turkish people are highly emotional and empathetic, which is why they make great salesmen. When you genuinely care and try to understand the customer and their business, you create something special.”

However, Erol says that emotiveness alone is not enough to create a globally successful business model. “To us, doing a good job today implies the promise that we’ll do a good job tomorrow, so we always try to have that next step in mind and act sustainably,” he says – adding that Aktaş is currently investing three to four per cent of annual revenue into R&D, with the aim of upping it to five per cent “very soon”.

But, it is by channelling the Turkish people’s inherent ability to forge an emotional bond that Aktaş has been able to set itself apart globally, with personal engagement becoming a key selling point in the fragmented modern business world. “While we have a strong growth agenda, we will never compromise on traditional values and principles,” Erol says. “We have what we call a human-focused approach to business because we know very well that the secret of success is to enable everyone to come out of a deal with a smile.”

In abstracting the concept, Erol adds that Turkey is the only market where global beverage giant Coca-Cola has changed its name into the local language (spelt with a K, ed.) to be part of the local culture – showcasing just how impactful the nation’s emotional connectedness can be on international business.

For Aktaş, tapping into the cultural potential of its 600 staff has paid off notably. In 2014, the company recorded a turnover of US$110 million (€99 million), with year-on-year growth in the 12 to 15 per cent region, according to Erol – more than four times the country’s GDP growth rate. “By the end of this year, we’d like to see the figure rise to 35-40 per cent,” he says, pointing at the fact that the company is now operating in four key growth areas – transportation, construction, green energy and industrial products.

Erol says to achieve the ambitious target, Aktaş’ internationalisation strategy must be pursued with the utmost determination. Production sites in Turkey, Bulgaria and China already make for a cosmopolitan footprint, while logistics bases in Germany and the US ensure the company’s presence in prestigious key markets with a high OEM presence. “The main focus for us going forward will be on export,” he adds. “Not just because of the instability here in the region, but because we believe we’re good enough to compete with the best.”

Aktaş’ trusted Airtech brand has been chosen as the vehicle to carry much of the company’s latest expansion wave, with the ultimate goal being market domination by 2023. First launched in 1999, Airtech is arguably the most prominent product from the Aktaş stable today and has been embraced by global players both on an aftermarket and OEM level. “Airtech is a product that got the price to quality ratio just right. It combines high quality engineering with a different price point than the competition, which helped it grow quickly and against the trend,” says Erol.

With Airtech also paving the way for online parts sales globally after opening the first-ever virtual air spring shop in 2007, Aktaş chief Erol is convinced the brand has built sufficient equity to take the world by storm. In North America, for example, it has grown a “significant” presence over the past five years, he says, driven by Turkey’s unique approach to sales and marketing and a strong focus on engineering excellence.

“We always try to improve,” he emphasises. “Moving the business online was an important milestone as it helped us differentiate the brand and bring something new to the market. Our most recent project is now focused on cross-functional development, where the work we do for rail, defence and in the electronic suspension field all feed back into the commercial vehicle division and vice versa. We’re actually in the process of building a new plant right now to consolidate our production in Turkey and streamline our R&D work.”

Erol says despite political turmoil in Turkey, a public listing of the growing Aktaş empire can’t be too far off – both as a means to collect the funds necessary for global expansion and to represent Turkish ingenuity on the international business stage. “Aktaş has long been somewhat of a hidden champion, but maybe it’s time now to step up and show the world what we’re made of,” he says. “Turkey is a proud nation that has a huge role to play in the Middle East, and we are happy to carry that message out into the world.”

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