Samer describes himself as a born tradesman. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years”, he says with an cheerful grin. Having sold electronics in Syria before moving to Turkey, and dabbling in food manufacturing for a few years upon his arrival in Turkey, it was only a matter of time before Samer saw what he describes as an opportunity in the Turkish food distribution market, following which his company was born.
Dealing primarily with the export of non-perishable foods to countries in the region including Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, Samer could barely contain the secret to his competitive advantage. He shows us an innocuous can of tinned halal meat and starts to talk animatedly. Our translator can barely keep up as Samer tells us about how he now works with Turkish food producers to ensure their product labels are dually branded in Turkish and Arabic. This seemingly simple change to product labelling, Samer describes, was the key to unlocking distribution channels to new markets across the region.
When asked what he’d do differently, if he had to do it all over again, Samer doesn’t second-guess his decision to start a business. Rather, he pauses to reflect on some of the challenges he has faced, and the lessons he has learned. “One [challenge] has been to understand the rules and regulations of the Turkish government, and the banking system here in Turkey because [back in Syria] we rarely used banks. We used cash [for business transactions] and personal relationships, so this was completely new territory for us…I feel like we wasted a lot of money because we did not know what we were doing, and because we did not have the right information on accounting and legal procedures.”
While Samer is keen to expand his distribution network to other countries in the region, he notes two key constraints, which have hampered his ability to grow his business. The first is mobility outside Turkey – “Although the Turkish authorities have treated me very well, because I am on a Syrian passport, I am unable to obtain visas to travel outside Turkey to attend conferences and meet with international clients.” The other, he explains is continued difficulty with the banking system, which treats Syrian clients differently, and includes different layers of verification and rules for transferring money outside Turkey, which limits his ability to conduct business with international clients.
“We are able to survive [these challenges initially] because of our own personal assets, and now because we are well established, and we have good accounting and legal support, but other small businesses are not as fortunate”, Samer explains.