My professional career started in 1984 at Price Waterhouse during my senior college year at METU in Ankara. Perhaps the only break I had to date had been my MBA studies in Boston. Even then I worked as a research assistant, had my masters and more importantly my first son. As my wife was working and studying at the same time, I had to become a good parent to look after him. Taking on a challenge to become a good dad was the best thing that happened to me as all the moments I spent with our baby were priceless and made me a better man.
With that exception, I worked nonstop in the last 32 years as a professional manager. And in the last 20 years as a general manager/CEO.
One of the challenges of today’s organizations is the timely successions. Many leaders fail to come to terms with the fact that they are not irreplaceable. Power is the ultimate seduction. Most people surrounding strong leaders feed themselves off their power. Most leaders’ “friends” are friends with the position and not with the person. Of course smart leaders know this. Nevertheless many find it hard to leave such powerful positions even after long years and successive terms.
I would like to believe that I have not been one of them. Not only I did change jobs often, but also most of those changes were to start over.
And I believe now is the right time to make a fresh start again.
I left Price Waterhouse after less than a year and moved to Istanbul to start a banking career. I did not know and like banking much but I liked consulting even less at such a young age. The pay was better in banking I must admit, and I thought I could do different things in banking in an environment when the country was opening up its economy to the world.
After few years in banking just as I was promoted, I earned a Fulbright scholarship. We (along with my wife who was working at another bank) were brave enough to stop everything, moved and lived at Harvard Square as MBA students without any job guarantees for the future.
Coming back after two years, I went on to establish Bank24, the ATM network, which became the retail arm of a bank engaging itself into a new era of banking. I learned a lot working on this project as I knew nothing about ATMs or debit cards before. (my first reaction upon hearing the word PAN number, was to ask “pan like in pancake?”) I literally started the whole department as its manager at the 28 years of age, hiring 100 young people. The bank is not there anymore as it is acquired by another, but Bank24 brand is, as they kept it!
Then I went on to reshape the credit cards department of the same bank which had only two small private label programs. We were able to launch Visa and MasterCard programs with many interesting features and became the third biggest card issuer in the country only in 3 years. I did not know much about credit cards when I started there either. I had to ask Visa Europe for sample org charts of the UK banks. But we learned and then became the first visa issuer in Europe with photos of the cardholders on the cards back in 1993. After I left, most people I hired there went on to set up or grow retail banking units of other major banks.
Then following a management change, I made a decision to quit and convinced MasterCard to open an office in Istanbul. We could not even get a legal permit in the first 7 months and I had to work from a shared office all by myself. MasterCard had 90 thousand cards when I started. I left it 7 years later with 14 million cards. We did so many things in so many countries that helped banks to grow their customer base with attractive products. I hired everybody in that office too. Those people are among the best MasterCard regional staff in the world if you ask me.
When I joined Garanti to set up its payments company, again I had to start all over. I had great help from everybody at this wonderfully successful bank. Yet setting up a new company and set it on a course to change the payments in Turkey and introduce a new brand with the bonus card name have been really challenging. It was even more so in a country with so many sudden macro changes in its economy and banking regulations. What started as a new company to help a bank with 500K cards and 6% market share to grow faster, eventually became an excellence center for new payment ideas, brought 10 million new customers, created a love mark and helped Garanti to transform itself from being a mid-size commercial bank to become the largest and most profitable bank in Turkey. We licensed bonus card to 10 other banks as it provided real value and branding that even other banks wanted to benefit. We also took bonus card to Romania when Garanti wanted to expand there. That whole journey has been so successful and special, I actually decided to write a book about it. “The book of bonus” is still a work in progress.
I stayed at Garanti for 13 years. Perhaps I was being seduced by its success and comfort.
Hence as I was enjoying myself at the top of my game, I decided to take on the challenge to go global and change the world!!! I joined BBVA as the head of its payments business. At the age of 49, I started traveling not only to Madrid but to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, New York, Houston, San Francisco, São Paulo, Mexico City, Caracas, Lima, Bogota, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. I even went to visit our banks in Montevideo and Ascension. I lived in what we called “Ikea apartment” in Madrid almost like a student. And of course I had to endure many video and conference calls late in the evenings because of the time differences of our countries. Was I able to change the world? Of course not. (The sad fact is that the world has actually gotten much worse in the past several years) But I would like to believe that I was able to bring a fresh approach to BBVA with our famous bridge strategy in which we put retailers and cardholders together to create value for both parties. We have done great projects in Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Peru, Chile, and in the U.S. We showed our colleagues that we could create global products like BBVAWallet. I firmly believe that BBVAWallet will help to ignite a major transformation of the payments business globally. Rather than watching what the world was doing, we were brave and took initiative.
I feel privileged to lead BBVA from 68 to 80 million cards but more importantly I take pride in transforming BBVA from an issuing bank to being a marketing partner of the retailers in all the countries we do business. I hope I touched the life of millions of cardholders and thousands of merchants around the world making a very small difference.
I have been very lucky in my life as I mostly ended up working with the people who were good, wise and helpful. If one person achieves anything as a manager it is always due to the great people he surrounds himself with. Of course an executive can always claim that some of those wise people are his hires, in reality they constitute only small part of the bigger organization. There are many others in the company who are at the same or higher levels and all need to work in harmony to get things done. Although I might have encouraged them to start the journey, results were created with all those smart and talented people.
With this sincere gratitude after 4 years at BBVA and with the same unfounded braveness as before, I am embarking on a new journey where I can finally be my own boss at my (to be set-up) payments company. I would like to put a sincere effort to create and run a successful fin-tech business around payments to offer both the cardholders and the retailers a service level that they deserve but not get in the U.S.
So for now, good-bye to 32 years of professional career and hello to entrepreneurship.
Thank you all for a great journey.
Time to move on, one more time.