turkish market

Business as Mission in Turkey: Opportunities and Challenges

Turkey is a country that defies easy classification. A famous (and cynical) British diplomat long ago said “Turkey is a country of enormous as yet unfulfilled potential. It always has been. It always will be.” As the country lurches toward authoritarianism this seem depressingly accurate. But while the challenges that underlie these observations call for sober reflection, they are also reminders of the need for BAM and for a clear and credible witness for the Kingdom in this remarkable and complex society.

Turkey is now the world’s 16th or 17th largest economy. It has grown enormously in the last 20 years and its trade with Europe, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East are all significant. Turkey manufactures white goods, automobiles, textiles, glass and F16 engines and fighter jets. Turkish construction companies dominate throughout the Caucuses and Middle East and European trade shows now feature many Turkish brands and joint ventures. 

Turks generally view their country as an emerging powerhouse and have designed regulations accordingly. They want foreign investment, but they want it on their terms. The regulations for foreign investment here are designed around multi-million euro investments and intentionally build barriers for small scale foreign companies – see the Invest in Turkey website for the official guide for foreign investors. This is a great challenge for BAM by foreigners. Small scale startups are possible but difficult. Unfortunately, the current political and economic climate also makes large scale investments much more risky than they were just two years ago. So proceed with caution.

There are some very successful BAM companies in Turkey, but they are few. Most struggle to survive. Many have failed. Overt Christian presence in the company is damaging to its chances in the market in most places and sectors. The local Christian population is miniscule – around 7,000 believers from a Muslim background, and perhaps 60,000 Armenian, Orthodox, Catholic and Syriac Christians in a population of more than 75 million. Most Turks have never met a Christian and surveys indicate an extreme negative view of Christians. Turkey continues to be the largest unevangelized country in the world. For 1,000 years Turks have viewed “The Christian” as their enemy and this view is reinforced in the media, in schools and by nationalistic politicians. That means our witness as Christians must be made with great wisdom and sensitivity. Rumors of being a “missionary business” are fatal to a company’s market and possibly to the owner’s ability to stay in country.

Probably the biggest challenge is work permits.  The government now requires a company to have 5 Turkish nationals employed and paying Social Security for each foreign work permit they grant. Minimum wage is now 1300 Turkish Lira per month, or about $450 US. When Social Security and employee paid income tax are added the total grows to about $800 US. Very few startups envision or need that sort of initial staffing. To start with multiple expats then becomes a nearly impossible hurdle. There are some clever work-arounds possible, but they each have their down sides.

The other challenge is language and culture. Turkey is deceptively complicated. It seems a very easy place to live and the large cities look very Western. But just under the surface things are quite different. There is a high turnover in the foreign community as so many come not properly understanding the spiritual and social dynamics. Those who will succeed in this country need to be flexible, humble and patient. 

The best plan to do BAM here is to prepare for several years by getting a job with a Turkish company and/or getting an MBA at one of the better universities here. There are some excellent English language MBA programs in Istanbul and Ankara which allow a potential BAMer to get used to the country, build a network of friends and also get a decent education in business. Working for Turks is important to get a “feel” for how the local population interacts in the workplace. Most foreign Christians don’t want to run their businesses like Turks do, but it’s important to know the base.

Sadly, the Turkish church is so very small that the opportunities for partnership with like-minded business people are few. It is certainly worth exploring, and learning business hands-on is a key part of discipleship for a capable believer. 

There are few models of foreign owned BAM that seem to have worked better than others, including:

  • Training and consulting. This is generally lower overhead than other types of businesses and if marketed properly can work. Most Turks don’t like to pay for information – they prefer to get it free from friends or to steal it! But with a good name and reputation companies will pay for training.
  • Subsidiary or licensee of a successful foreign company. 
  • Local manufacturing for a foreign company. Turkey isn’t the lowest cost country in the world – far from it – but it competes well with eastern European countries and has some excellent capabilities if properly managed.
  • Importing and distributing a foreign product. 

In all of these models exclusivity is what matters. The general rule for selling locally is that it is extremely difficult to compete head to head with a local company. Some will cheat on taxes and undercut you on price. Others will copy your product. You need a product that is either patented or very difficult to copy. The good news is that products and services like these are popular and can do well. 

The need for BAM companies in Turkey is as strong as ever. There are a few long term BAMers and some mature and capable local Christians who can advise newcomers. But be prepared for a long road with many hard passages. Turkey is a lovely country, but it’s not for the faint of heart!

by Robert Andrews

Robert Andrews is a westerner who has lived in Turkey since the early 1990’s working in manufacturing, consulting and business training. Part of Robert’s consulting work is with TransformationalSME.org, managing the global mentoring process for missional businesses. Robert also serves as a leader at a Protestant church in Turkey where he often teaches on the theology of work and on discipleship in the workplace. Robert tells us he married a woman he doesn’t deserve and with her has raised a bunch of great kids who are now raising grandchildren for him!

 

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BAM is a global phenomenon. God is on the move around the world, calling men and women from all continents to start businesses for His Kingdom purposes. To highlight just some of what He is doing, and emphasise that business as mission is a global movement, we will take a tour around the BAM world for the next six weeks or so. We hope you enjoy the trip!

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