Ahu Büyükkuşoğlu Serter, Serial Entrepreneur, Investor, Business Strategist FPlus Ventures & Arya Women Investment Platform. Series of interviews with investors in Turkiye n°15.
Chasing Ahu. Could definitely be the title of a movie. The background could be Bodrum, a popular coast place in the south of Turkiye that started as a cool place for artists, became a popular place for tourists and also the place where I finally met Ahu.
I never was in Bodrum before, but I was lucky to combine a trip from Izmir and visit some good friends of my wife, with my wife. Some live there, some have a summerhouse and an American girlfriend. It was summer, hot and beautiful, although I spent a night and a day in bed, swept off my feet by hay fever. A yearly ceremony I don’t look forward to.
Casa dell’Arte was the place where we were going to meet, very excited as I heard great things about this place, a hotel and a gallery combined. Turkiye and art in one sentence was for me kind of unusual when I came to Istanbul to continue my life and work. In the meantime, I discovered that there are great artists, in the past and contemporary, but not as exposed as in the big cities in Europe. Art has different faces here; the more artisan expression, Calligraphy, my favourite Tulip design and contemporary art to name a few. I must say that the contemporary art by Turkish artists is among my most admired.
Talking about a hidden pearl, we sure found one. The combination of art in rooms, actually all over the hotel, including the garden with sculptures, is a great experience, entering a world that is unknown, but very pleasant and intriguing. Here we find Ahu, with sea view and some great food to accompany us. Ahu was born and raised in Turkiye, her education at Bilkent University in Ankara, Business Administration and Management, followed by an MBA at Pace University in New York. She stayed some years in New York to start her professional career as a hedge fund manager. No doubt a great preparation for what follows in Turkiye as her further professional life was designated here. Her father started what she would continue today and I suppose for quite some time. Her sister went into art; Ahu was ready to continue the business side.
Yunus Büyükkuşoğlu, born in Ankara, founded Farplas in 1968, as an automotive spare-parts sales company and since then the company became one of the biggest suppliers of the automotive industry and a Fortune 500 company. He served as the chairman of Farplas before he transferred the leadership to Ahu in 2012.
Ahu consolidated the companies under FARK Holding, along with FArplas there is FArel, Farform , Faraero , Farkim, FArtur- Hotel brands Casa Dell`Arte, Hotels of Arts and Leisure, Casa Hermanas; under FArk Holding now. The newly added company to the group is Fplus ventures, a corporate CVC, investing in smart transportation technologies.
In addition to being the president of FARK holding, Ahu has invested and built her own ventures such as Mata Automotive, Hecha Castiron Cookware, MissLOCMA and Arya Women Investment Platform.
Even from the names, it is clear that there is an interesting mix, industrial activities, tourism and art. Yunus, her father was already into spare parts and at 16 years old Yunus bought his first piece of art, a painting he still has hanging in his house, the depiction of a ship struggling with the storm, made by a painter named Servet. The name reminded me of Servais, Belgian painter-cineaste. What is very obvious while discussing the startup scene with Ahu is that she, like her father, has this duality of being able to grow the industrial part, Farplas is among the Fortune 500 Companies, and at the same time continues the work of her father, collecting art and most of all, sharing this art in a very interesting and original way. She just opened a hotel in Lissabon, Portugal in continuation of Casa Dell’Arte in Bodrum.
Hard to access has a reason of course. Being the President of FArk Holding is one thing, a very big group by now with different activities, with some parts more relying on her than others. To top it off she is a member of Galata Business Angels, active in F+ Ventures, a Corporate Venture Capital setup, and an investment platform focusing on female-owned companies, named after her daughter, Arya. ARYA has so far made 5 investments and invested close to a $1 mn.
In total, all investments of all initiatives together, Ahu has an investment stake in over 30 startups and companies. This brings me to the topic, how to manage this. I see a returning challenge among the majority of Turkish investors that they combine a C-level or higher level daily activity with investing in new ventures and startups. Ahu explains that the managing and reporting have no straightforward solution by now. She has 2 core teams, one managing FPlus and one ARYA. Among each team, there are subteams either rebuilding or managing the ventures.
This brought us to a hot topic, and that is the reporting as an action for the startups she is investing in. She gave a typical example of a startup that she could connect with an accountant or a professional website builder, but in the end, there is always a family member who can do it too. The result is of course that by rejecting professionals, the brother or sister or cousin does a bad job or none at all and after 2 years nothing is realized. As you are not a major shareholder you cannot impose but the non-result is, of course, frustrating as you, as an investor, want to see progress with your invested money. Trust is a big hurdle in Turkish culture, so family always comes first, not the fact that they are professionals.
Ahu likes the detailed reporting, however, thinks too much detail can stain the startups, which are already lacking in resources and divert their attention from sales to reporting. Ahu believes that stricter reporting principles should be enforced, after a company reaches a certain size and maturity. At first a simple one pager, keeping the key figures and KPI’s of the company in a clear overview helps the team to prioritise their actions is sufficient for her.
Ahu is managing several companies with different sizes ranging from 0 turnover to 200 mn Euro’s, her personal preference is managing mid-size companies ranging from 15 to 50 mn Euros. She is very sales oriented and likes to see invoicing in a startup. More specific it means that she likes to invest in companies that make money-making a priority rather than fundraising.
She feels very comfortable with the CSV approach that she implemented in Fplus Ventures. More control, more engagement and you share a lot of knowledge which pushes everybody forward. One of her first incubations in Fplus, a connected car platform provider, Comodif, has signed partnership agreements and cooperates with FIAT for its own connectivity needs.
As an investor, she gets a bit upset by the list of questions she gets about investments. There is too much focus on how much, how many. Ahu comes from a business environment where making money is the desired action and she would rather be asked what are you investing in and how are you helping these companies to be successful?
She points out that even for a company president, it is not easy to convince your board to invest in startups with no provable action plan. When she started with F+ Ventures, one method she used to convince the board was to match the investment amount the company made in a venture, from her personal money. That is what I call commitment! And it convinced the board. It made Fplus an investor in the Renown charging company, Chargepoint in the US.
It has been repeated many times but ticket sizes are rather small in Turkiye. To make it even more complicated, the valuations, proposed by the startups, are way to high.
With Arya, started in 2013, there was also the problem finding women founders with a business that was already making money and could use the extra money to accelerate that growth. Ahu makes a remark here I have not considered before. Women founders are more into creating a sustainable business, instead of high growth just for the sake of it. I guess the lack of testosterone helps here, as we know from studies that female founders have a higher return on investment than men. As a VC she feels more comfortable though in higher ticket sizes in scale-up startups, closer to her own skill set. Micro-investments in early stage needs more follow-up, mentoring and most of all, time. A scarce good for Ahu. In Turkiye, we need a lot of face time and although she likes the journey, there should be more than having çay (tea) all the time and she needs to prioritise her tasks and spend her resources accordingly.
The domains that attract Ahu most are AI, robotics and smart transportation. Robotics is hot for Ahu as it is part of her core business. Robotics, Industry 4.0 and new materials are in her highest interest. In March 2018 she attended “Exponential Manufacturing” in Silicon Valley to get aligned on a world level. Industry 4.0 sounds a bit weird as most of us have not seen the 2.0 and 3.0. I guess to summarise, what is 4.0, can be brought back to the word SMART. Everything becomes smart thanks to IoT, Big Data and Machine Learning. In that sense manufacturing in Turkiye is in front of a huge update as we have a majority of SMEs who will probably not be able to take that leap. Cheap labour will not be a differentiator anymore. It will take a long-term vision with short time decisions and balls to enter in the next version. In that sense, I compared her to Richard Branson. We are far from the Virgin Startup initiative in Turkiye but Ahu is active at different levels, from CVC to Ahu Women trying to impact the local ecosystem but also being actively part of the future. A schizophrenic situation where you constantly balance between optimisation, creating added value, also for shareholders, and impact from a social point of view where the added value can be different from money in the short run.
She has many tattoos, her next tattoo is “My Ship” because she likes doing business her way. This means also doing business in a personal way, and with 2000 people in your organisation it is far from evident. She sees start-up investing as a corporate learning method. Today FArk Holding is among the top 3 startup investors next to Dogan Holding and Sabanci. And they are very big holdings. So you can not seduce Ahu to share very specific comments on the startup ecosystem in Turkiye, although being very aware of the difficulties we face today at different levels. She is more focused on making things happen, rather than criticize or complain.
Ahu is a very positive person, open minded and confident in what comes. When she talks about her daughters it is clear that she wants them to stay in a discovery modus and open to what can come, without prejudices.
Ever heard of the concept of Total Happiness? I tried to find it through Google, but no success. So I went to Plato, in the hope he could help me. In his view, we must be moral in order to be truly happy and that is part of a discussion of the four main virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.
That first one, wisdom, is quite important as it kind of steers the 3 others. Being able to control the primitive desires, eating, drinking and sex add to happiness. Not sure if that also aligns with Ahu’s definition. She has never been unhappy, something not too many can state I imagine. Learning, curiosity, independence are here values she sees as key. So happiness in private life and business should not be disconnected. Her family, with 3 kids and her husband are the focal points. Raising her kids is something she is very involved in, and together with her husband, she tries to find a good balance in spending time with them. In her view, raising kids is a 2-person job, there is not 1 person responsible but they use common sense and distribute the effort and time between her husband and herself. The kids get their KPIs from a young age, not in a strict way, but there are clear guidance and purpose. They make them start working at 12 years old, in a way that they understand where value is created and respected, especially when you are raised in a family where from the outside all is taken care of. Combined with changing countries, becoming world citizens. Her only complaint is that she felt like staying too long in Turkiye with the kids because before they changed countries every 7 years and they stayed in Turkey more than 10. As she is involved now in projects in Portugal she even thinks of that place as their next destination. She shares the story of her oldest daughter who is interested to become a culinary chef, so she enrolled her to a professional program at MSA, while she is still doing her senior year at High School to experience what this choice implies. This at 17 years old. For Ahu, kids are a source of happiness, different colours, different personalities in life.
Family is happiness and marrying her husband, that was an important choice. One of the best decisions she ever made, according to Ahu! She was at High School at 16 when she made the choice and after that, they shared the same desk at college and during MBA. They met in Istanbul Erkek Lisesi, she was the best student in class and he was the not caring, rebellious type. He brings a lot of challenges and adventures in the family life, and that Ahu likes a lot. They also work together as partners, being involved in investments occupying board seats, handy with a background as a controller. So I guess the concept of “Total Happiness” is explained, as it is a holistic approach to living and working together. Still, living and working in 2 different places cannot be easy. Travelling between Florida/Boca and Istanbul/Gebze, not to mention the other places. She sees it more like a flow, as in yoga. You flow in and out of situations, countries and subjects.
Then we come to Business happiness: create successful businesses with great people and have fun. Short and to the point. Somehow, when compared to art, building a business can be the same thing. Creating the business is the journey, success the destination or as Ahu points, maybe the destination is not the most important thing. From art, I can even bridge to her hobby, driving a bike, for long distances. Also here the journey is the real fun. Ahu’s life is definitely a journey and more fun without a well-described destination.
It was hard to interview Ahu, not because it was hard as such, but because it is great to exchange reflections with her and before you know, you forget why you sit in front of her. That journey you know.
Patrick Bosteels, Stage-Co Co-Founder
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