When Ahmet Nazif Zorlu took over a bankrupt Turkish television manufacturer called Vestel in 1994 with the idea of reviving it, few thought he would succeed. True, Zorlu had built up a thriving textile business in Western Turkey, but he knew little about producing consumer electronics. What's more, the company was making just 360,000 TVs a year -- a fraction of the production of American and Japanese rivals. Unless he could speed up production fast, "there was no way to compete, there was such a difference in scale," recalls Zorlu.
Still, Zorlu was ready to make a bet that Turkey's low-cost production and its duty-free access to the European Union would pay off. And it certainly has. Today, Vestel boasts $1.6 billion in sales and turns out 7.5 million televisions a year, not to mention almost 5 million other products such as phones and DVD players. In Europe, Vestel's largest market, Vestel's TVs are sold under the brand names of former competitors such as Sharp, Mitsubishi, and Sanyo. And Zorlu, 59, has global ambitions. He plans to double production over the next two years, partly by expanding outside Turkey. He will soon open a large plant 100 km north of Moscow to serve the markets of the former Soviet Union.
Vestel is just one part of Zorlu Holdings -- a $4 billion conglomerate that Zorlu, group chairman, has built up since he dropped out of school at age 15 to work in his family's modest textile business in the Western Anatolian town of Babadag. His openness to modern manufacturing and distribution methods gradually helped his family's business gain an edge over other mom-and-pop competitors. By the mid-1970s, Zorlu was running the show and by the 1990s, the company had become the world's largest polyester yarn producer and curtain manufacturer. Starting with the 1994 Vestel purchase, Zorlu began to diversify into other businesses such as energy and retail banking. Denizbank, a small bank taken over in 1997, has been transformed by Zorlu into the country's sixth largest.
Turkey has bigger industrial groups, including Koc Holdings and Sabanci Group. But analysts say that none have the entrepreneurial verve of Zorlu Holdings and its self-made chairman. Of his textile business, Zorlu has no doubts. "We will do whatever it takes to be the biggest and best in Turkey," says the star entrepreneur. Few who know Zorlu doubt that he'll do that for the entire group as well.