Interviewing A Billion Dollar Company CEO, Engineer Dr Sani Sener of TAV Companies

Featured Interviewing A Billion Dollar Company CEO, Engineer Dr Sani Sener of TAV Companies

By Gediz Karaca, MSc * - Without the benefit of experience in business management, it can be easy to underestimate the importance of the decision-making processes in companies. These processes can appear easy to master when judged by the standard of their respective results. As a young businessman with limited experience, I would argue that decision-making is indeed one of the trickiest duties of all. As the future is unknowable, senior business people are forced to make predictions with limited data. One poor decision can bring huge losses or can even push a company out of business. Young professionals have much to learn and benefit from senior business people’s experience in these matters: how to behave, how to forecast, and how to make successful business-critical decisions without suffering significant losses. To this end, the aim of this article is to share engineer Dr Sani Sener’s unique perspective and experience with young professionals on their journey of learning the art of business management and decision making.

Dr Sani Sener is the Founder and CEO of TAV Airport Holding, which currently operates airports in three continents, seven countries and fourteen different cities serving more than 100 million passengers annually. TAV Airport Holding has a unique business model that considers the entire life cycle of the airport, starting from design/construction, through operations and all the way up to eventual decommissioning. The performance of TAV Construction is regularly recognised by the Engineering News Record (ENR), a globally recognised publication in the construction industry, wherein 2014, 2015 and 2016 consecutively TAV Construction ranked number 1 in the world in airport development. TAV Construction undertook an extensive list of projects worth more than $19 billion, rapidly becoming the undisputed leader in the region and the industry. TAV Airport Holding prides themselves in contributing to the development of underdeveloped countries and generating impact, prosperity and well-being of the people living in those countries. In 2010, Şener was selected the “Investor Relations CEO of the Year in Turkey” by Thomson Reuters and Acclaro. Şener became the head of the Turkish-French Business Council at Foreign Economic Relations Board in 2012. Sani Şener represents the European region at Airports Council International World Governing Board –the global industrial body of world’s airports. Şener received the "Industry Hero" award at the Global Airport Development Conference held in Nice, France in 2013. The award was to honour his outstanding performance for keeping TAV Airports' strategy and vision intact during turbulent times in the aviation industry. Dr Sani Şener was presented with the Georgian State Medal of Distinguished Service in 2016 by the Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, for his contributions to the development of the country. In 2016, Dr Sani Şener received the Legion d'honneur of the Chevalier order by France in recognition of his remarkable contributions to the development of the Turkish-French bilateral relations. Dr Sani Sener has ranked 7th in the power 100 list of Construction Week Magazine, which is one of the most prestigious publications of the industry, concerning the construction sector in the Gulf Region.

This interview attempts to capture Dr Sener’s personal perspective on business, work related issues in general and TAV specific topics.

What did you do right in your life?
This is a broad question, but judging by my results, I think I have done a lot right in my life. At the same time, I have made lots of mistakes. Looking back today, I would have done some of them differently. In 1990’s at the end of the cold war, I went to Russia to do business. We signed big contracts, but the lack of legislative authority due to the transition from communism to capitalism ended up costing us large sums of money, so I consider entering the Russian market in that time a mistake. We thought that it would be an opportunity –lots of companies seized that opportunity— but we couldn’t make it happen. This taught me that one should learn to be international in stable markets first. Becoming global is, in itself, a big challenge and different mindset which your organisation has to be adapted to. Entering a rapidly evolving market without already being international was a big mistake. I suffered significant losses because of this error and the greatest failures of my life stem from that period.
How you achieve work/life balance?

The honest answer to that question is that I have failed to balance work and life through my career. Though, I strongly advise and help the younger generation to achieve that balance because those two strongly influence each other. During my career, our generation was trapped between political and sociological changes that shaped our habits in our work environment. Starting from 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, globalisation started all around the globe, but Turkey was left out and could only start to participate in globalisation in the 2000’s. The combined effect of lagging behind the global economy and our losses in the Russian market meant that we were forced to work overtime and keep working hard for many years. In this process, I could not attend my children's activities in the way that I would have liked to. This shouldn’t have been the case. I would have balanced work and life better if the circumstances had been different.
Can you be friends with colleagues in the work environment? What should be the boundaries of this friendship?

Absolutely yes! You can be friends with your peers in your work environment. Furthermore, you should not differentiate people according to the positions they held in the organisation. You can be terrific friends with the lowest ranking employee in your organisation while being a top executive. Jack Welsh who is the legendary CEO of the General Electric gave a real-life example: “When I got recruited for as a chemical engineer in the company, a secretary was hired as well and we started working the same day. Years passed and I became the CEO of the enterprise, and she continued being a secretary, and she was my friend for thirty years. I always ran to her room to chat because it was my greatest joy in the work environment.” My addition to this approach is slightly different but principally the same. Although my level of interaction and closeness to all of my colleagues are the same during work hours, I decide to become friends after the work hours only if I see fit.

How do you manage to control your emotions while deciding on a crucial matter, or manage stress in high-stress situations?
Because I sincerely care about the business, I try to avoid the emotional influences on the firm. I cannot claim I always maintain an objective stand and separated my emotional influence on the outcome of my decisions. For example, imagine you have two colleagues in the work environment, one of which is also a close friend outside of the work place. If a conflict arises and you have to decide which course of action you would pursue, you must remember your first and most important duty is to be just and faithful to the company. If you are just, you will inhibit your emotions to govern your decision process. Another aspect of becoming non-emotionally involved is about governance. If you want to rule the forest (i.e. a company) you have to know the trees or the individuals that comprise the forest. People generally say that leaders have to manage the forest but I say if leaders don’t know about the trees how can they manage the forest? Leaders should not manage the trees but know about them to be able to decide. My philosophy is to know all of the trees in my forest. I specifically used the word “to know” instead of “to manage” because I do not believe in running every part of the business. I give utmost importance to gathering information about the organisation. If you can collect that data fast enough and process it swiftly, you will be very successful. If not, you will get stuck in the details. If you know the trees well enough from this information, regardless of how stressful the situation is, you will make the right decisions in every single time. Once a person knows what to know he will only make the right calls and a person who lacks that knowledge would drift away with the emotions and anxiety involved in the high-stress environment.
What would be the importance of the chance factor?

A professor once asked his students in an MBA programme about the importance of the chance factor. He asked if opportunity was crucial to their success before their MBA studies and whether they consider themselves to be lucky. Out of 100 people, 36 of them said they were not lucky at all, 14 of them stated that they are neither lucky or unlucky, and the remaining 50 people responded that they think they were lucky. The professor then distributed a newspaper to each student and asked them how many photos there were in the newspaper. Some of the students responded in the first five seconds with the correct answer, and others responded in three minutes again with the right answer. After looking into who answered fast, the professor showed that the majority of the people who responded quickly were the people who consider themselves lucky. The professor explained the difference to the students afterwards. The Professor deliberately placed an advertisement on the second page of the newspaper saying “There are 41 photos in this newspaper.” The ones who considered themselves lucky were the ones who skimmed the text with an open mind and focused on analysing the situation without bluntly starting to work straight away. The difference between one who seizes opportunities and one who does not is the difference in how fast they can identify an opportunity and utilise the most efficient ways of getting a job done. It is not about hocus pocus, it is all about focus.

I do not believe in the chance factor in business. I believe that to become successful you first need to be focused and maintain your focus to be always on top of your business. Second, you need to work hard and put whatever is needed into your business. Finally, as the last and maybe the most important point, you should understand the dynamics of the current nature of the business landscape to seize the opportunity. You need to catch the time. You need to adapt to the current technological advancements. In the book of Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, he explained that the richest ten Americans are those who seized the opportunity when they had a chance. The top five Americans, including Rockefeller and Ford, were the ones born around 1835 and seized the opportunity of the Industrial Revolution, and the other five Americans, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Paul Allen, who were born around 1955, seized the opportunity of the Computer Revolution. All those people were focused, hardworking and on top of that, they seized an opportunity which made them richest people in the world. This is no coincidence. They all identified an opportunity and used a revolution for their benefit. Catching the time is very important in that respect.

I would like to connect the topic to TAV Holding at this point. In TAV we understood the need and seized the opportunity. At the end of 1990’s, while Turkey began to understand the meaning of the globalisation and started to privatise the majority of Turkish Airport operations, we realised this business model will be a major business focal point in the future and decided to get into the airport construction and operation business. In the beginning, the business people in Turkey were mocking with our business model. They thought a “Build, Operate and Transfer” model would never work in the Turkish business environment. While we were preparing to get 300 million USD loan to deliver the airport construction contract, the Turkish government was struggling to get 300 million USD credit from International Monetary Fund. Our plan was to get a foreign credit of 300 million USD and finish the project under 30 months. We managed to get the loan, and in fact, we completed the construction in 22 months— eight months ahead of schedule. If you focus on your goals, work hard by putting in the effort, catch the time by identifying needs and how to address those needs, you can create your chance and become the master of your destiny. Remember, it is not about hocus pocus, it is all about focus.
Can you elaborate how to create our chances and opportunities?

You need to manage the future. If you follow some other person or company to lead the way you cannot control the future. The only way to control the future is through creating your future. To do this, you need to forecast the future, understand the business landscape, follow the knowledge and use cutting-edge technologies which would deepen your understanding of the world. Without a proper understanding of the world, you cannot identify genuine needs and how to tackle those challenges in a most efficient way possible. You will come up with some failures; it is the natural part of this trial and error process. You should be okay with aborting an attempt at any step. You should always remember that the ultimate decision maker is always the customer. If the customer does not see the benefit you are claiming, you should stop developing the idea as soon as possible. On the other hand, you should always be ready to seize an opportunity when it presents itself. You should always have the necessary organisation, human capital, technology, and funds to capture the opportunity. If you look into the business structures, there are three main issues you should always be aware of: first, people issues; second, technological issues; and third, financial matters. You need to vet all those three pillars to reduce the reaction time to a given opportunity. If you reduce the response time to an acceptable value and if you maintain the focus, hard work and the perspective of catching the time, you can consider yourself and your organisation ready to seize opportunities.

Can you talk about how you perceive risk and how we should manage risk?

To explain the concept of risk, we need first to differentiate the meaning of risk and crisis. Risk management is something like preventive medicine. It is a collection of protective measures and rules. It is a means of governing the company. These rules are defined for probable adverse events that can happen in the future and they overlay what would be the course of action if those events occur. These rules sit in your corporate memory, and by doing lots of exercises and training, you try to embed the principles into your organisation. If the risk management is the preventive medicine, the crisis management is like surgery. In crisis management, the adverse outcome has already happened, and you try to minimise the effects of this issue. Crisis management is done in the field with direct administration of the operation whereas risk management is conducted from the office.

Let me give a recent example from TAV Holdings. On 28 June 2016, we experienced a major terrorist attack in our largest airport in Turkey- Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. After only 17 days later, on 15th of July 2016, we experienced a military coup attempt where the same airport was one of the places where the military tried to take control. From these extreme cases, we improved our set of rules and understood once again the importance of leadership in the crisis management. You need to sustain excellent communication. We benefitted massively from our “connectivity is productivity” culture. All the software, hardware, operators, and supervisors along with the machine to machine, man to man, man to machine connections should be intact at all times to respond every aspect of any full-fledged crisis.  
Do you like change?

I like change. Furthermore, I have to like change. The global business arena is changing faster than ever and to be successful; you need to adapt to the changes. In the first and second industrial revolution, the change was linear, and you could keep up with it pretty easily. After the third industrial revolution, with the help of tremendous increases in computing power, the change has become exponential. Now we are seeing the incoming fourth industrial revolution, which will be of the artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and the internet of things which would push the rate of change even further. To understand and track the changes, you should attend conferences and read lots of articles from good sources. In today's world, you have to follow the change continuously, or you may become obsolete in no time. As I mentioned previously, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and globalisation started, this trend formed a distinct difference between generations. Generally speaking, there are two sets of people in the business landscape right now. The first type is the wall guy who experienced the world before the Berlin wall era and prefers the traditional way of doing things without the use of technology. The second category is the web guy who uses technology comfortably and does not have any prejudice towards a new way of doing business. I am inherently a wall guy, but I try to be a web guy because I know that I have to understand and adapt the new efficient and effective ways of doing business. On the other hand, being only a web guy is not enough, as you need some hard skills developed in the course of the traditional way of managing businesses. The most significant change nowadays is the digitisation of the businesses. You need to understand the processes to make them digital in the first place. I always give the example of Uber; I am pretty sure that the co-founders of Uber have their own experience or a relative who was involved in traditional taxi business because it is not possible to digitise a business process without internalising it deeply. If I am proved wrong, then they must be frustrated passengers. Change is always generated due to an unfulfilled need either from the business side or the customer side.

To give an example, our TAV IT team knows operations in as much detail as our operations team. If they are not aware of the procedures well enough, they cannot digitise the processes. To increase the revenues and reduce the costs, we have to use the practical applications of IT systems, and when you are using the practical applications of IT systems, you have to obey the rules of the change. You cannot deny the change and become successful at the same time.

What would you advise to young MBA students who are reading this interview?
My first advice to my younger colleagues is that they should not obsess about the discipline they studied in their undergrad degree. The degrees for which you study when you are twenty years old cannot define a forty-year career. Life is long, and your degrees have an expiration date. You need to renew your knowledge base every four years like a credit card. You need to continue learning like you were studying at university. Every four years, you need to accumulate knowledge equivalent to your undergraduate degree if you want to be compatible with the current business trends and practices.

What does the term “strategy” mean to you?
Strategy needs a goal. After you have a goal, you need to plan the route to achieve that outcome. This course is called strategy. But this is not enough to execute strategy. You need to assign the right people the right roles in your organisation. After that step, as Jack Welch says, “implement like hell!” Set your target, design your strategy for this target, put the right people in the right seats and implement like hell!

Which duties can be delegated?
The only thing that you cannot delegate is responsibility. Other than that, you can delegate everything. When you delegate something, decisions should be made by the staff you appointed, with your approval. If the person cannot generate a decision, you should not delegate any duties to him/her. You should delegate to people who can handle decisions, and you should be the person who gives the approval. Let me tell you how this situation should work in detail. Discipline and freedom are not mutually exclusive. Discipline is the corporate governance and freedom is situational. Discipline is the authority; freedom is the autonomy. Sometimes authority should govern autonomy, at times autonomy should govern authority. If you gave autonomy, you do not even need to delegate. TAV is managing lots of airports all around the world, the balance of customization and the centralization is the heart of our management philosophy. For example, if I need to meet a prime minister of a country; I can delegate this duty if I am sure that this person can handle the situation. Or else I would say let’s go together if I think my input would be valuable. This approach is a mix of business theory and the business experience coming from lots of years of decision-making.

Do you think the concept of fixed working hours has lost its importance?
Set working hours hasn’t lost its relevance because it implies discipline. Discipline and freedom are not mutually exclusive so you should maintain a minimum level of discipline while giving the utmost freedom to the taught processes of your staff. Let me give you an example; if an employee’s child is ill and would like work from home for a week, it is not a problem, but he/she should communicate it well. It won’t be acceptable if he/she did not communicate beforehand and decided not to come to work on his/her own. Another important point about preset working hours and work environment is the synergies the employees generate when working face-to-face together.
What is your opinion about automation and loss of jobs?

I do not believe it would have a significant effect. In the first industrial revolution, when locomotives and machines are invented, this resulted in the loss of lots of jobs but giving birth to a lot more jobs like, such as installing rail tracks for those locomotives. I think the work that involves repetition would diminish after the automation revolution, but it would create other jobs in the process as well.

What do you think about the recent trends of the use of electric motors?
If you ask me what the greatest invention of all times is, I would say the engine. The globalisation is mobility. There are two kinds of mobility. The first is the mobility of knowledge and money which is in the scope of ICT (information and telecommunication technologies). Electricity and light transmitting information are the cornerstones of the civilisation. The other is the mobility of people and goods. The mobility of individuals and goods are far more important, and the motor enables it. It is the same engine used in cars, trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft. Without the engine, this wouldn’t be possible. These two revolutions are changing the world as we know it. Logistics of knowledge and logistics of individuals and goods will be driving the future as well.
Do you think personal air vehicles would be a major element of the future?

We are seeing that drones are spreading all over the world, and there are even initial applications which can carry one or two people short distances. The physics of flying is known and understood. The applications would be diverse and expected. I am not too fascinated by those new applications because they are the natural next step of the advancement.

Would it be a competition to the airports?
Absolutely, for example, in 15-20 years’ time, the commercial plans would start to practice vertical takeoff and landing, like harrier jets. This means our runways would be obsolete. You can build terminal buildings in different environments if we can change the runway requirements. We should watch for those advancements and position our strategies to seize the opportunities whenever they arise. We as TAV translated Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future book into Turkish. In this book the author forecasts that in the 2030’s, there won’t be any television or personal computers and every item would be smart; by 2070 there would be no lawyers and doctors. We are in a rapid development and evolving state right now, and there is no room for error if you want to sustain your relevance.

Can you give more information on TAV?
In TAV we captured the opportunity on time. We understood that the privatisation of airport business would be a good business because of the privatisation of airline companies and the potential of expected passengers who would use air travel. When we entered this business, Turkey had 30 million passengers per year; now this number soared to 300 million per year. Our first airport, Ataturk Airport, had 10 million passengers per year, and now it has 60 million passengers per year. We captured and forecasted this tremendous growth. This is the primary reason for the success of the TAV. Secondly, we managed to complete our projects on time, on budget and with desired quality. Those factors were the golden rules of project management in the past. It was good enough to finish the projects in those terms. We added another layer to this model, sustainability. The project should open a window of opportunity for future projects. After building Ataturk airport in Istanbul, we successfully won the bid for Ankara, İzmir and many other airport projects because of our mentality of sustaining the success. We are now operating seventeen airports around the globe. Right now, TAV construction is in the development process of seven different airports. We have many service companies to operate our airports to the fullest extent. We integrated both vertically and horizontally all of our service companies with the use of matrix management structure to achieve operational excellence and governance. We incorporate the diversity of all the operations like duty-free shopping, food and beverage, ground handling, maintenance services, airport management, IT systems, and security. At the same time, because we integrate every of them into a collective system, we are managing a matrix portfolio. The organisational architecture is significantly different compared to competitors in our sector. Some of our peers in the Airport business are doing ground handling. Some are doing only duty-free. We are the only company doing everything. Also, we design and construct the airports that we operate. Last but not the least, we finance this entire development process. The integration of all those services and expertise creates a unique synergy for our company that creates a steep competitive advantage compared to competitors. As I told you earlier, in TAV, we added another integral layer into our project management cycle, which is sustainability. There are two types of sustainability. The first one is the traditional use of the word which reflects the environmental sustainability, resource utilisation in a sustainable way. We give utmost importance to environmental sustainability. We are participating in a CO2 offset accreditation programme of the Airport Council International. We are using natural gas instead of fossil fuels to reduce our carbon footprint. In some airports, we applied solar electricity generation methodologies to improve the green nature of our airport. We implement waste-water treatment systems to increase the use of grey water in our operations. The second use of the word sustainability is regarding economic viability. Economic sustainability comes with the corporate governance. We never grow our organisation inorganically. We are after smart growth meaning we never outpace the financial and operational capabilities while growing.

It seems that TAV grew significantly. What was your plan to tackle with stagnation and bureaucracy in the company?
The use of technology is the fundamental solution addressing this problem. We prioritise digitisation. Just to address our connectivity to our community, we opened a Facebook page. Eight thousand people use TAVFACE to make sure that everyone would be aware of what others are doing. Let me give an example how we are utilising this particular technology in the company. When an employee realises there is a problem in a system/process in some part of the airport, he/she immediately writes this issue with the photos of the problem. All the other parties would see it and write their opinion and solve the problem really fast. This way we can see all the problems from one place and all the members of TAV would learn from this experience. The use of this system increased both the pace of our problem-solving practices and capabilities of our lessons learned. This technology is not only employed in solving problems. We give real time data on what is happening at the corporate level as well. We tried to form a collective mind of the corporation and learn from each other in a better way. This is our response to stagnation and bureaucracy you were mentioning. We are seeking to simplify procedures to reduce friction in the organisation. If you have a good system in place, managing a multi-billion-dollar company is easier than managing a small business. In TAV we have an established system. We never allow anyone to keep the cards too close to his or her chest. We want them to show their hand. This is very important in avoiding plagiarism and nurturing connectivity in the company.

You have established an impressive system. Are there any problems with information security?
We are using the latest technology in our IT systems, but you cannot create a fool-proof system because of human interaction. We do not practice information compartmentalization. We believe that information should freely flow in the corporation to maximise productivity. Because of this fact, if an employee leaves they may transfer knowledge that is sensitive in nature. Because our human capital turnover is low, and we are not at a high risk because of this fact. Our people like to work in TAV and do not want to leave the company. Our competitors know they can learn what we are doing, but we are sure that they cannot find out how we are doing it. We are using a holistic approach which is very hard to imitate.
What do you think of consultants?

You cannot be an expert in every subject. We are digital managers, we try to understand as much information in our responsibility horizon as possible, but after some point, the information becomes analogue which is expert oriented. We use experts in deep knowledge areas. We appreciate the expertise of the consultants, and we like to learn from them.

As a last remark, what will the future bring? Would you like to implement a growth strategy or a consolidation plan in the near future?
Our growth strategy will continue. Today there are 20 thousand commercial planes in the world. Airbus and Boeing predict that this number will increase to 40 thousand. There are 7 billion passengers per year in the world, so according to Airbus and Boeing’s predictions, it will increase to 14 billion passengers per year. The airports are already working over capacity, so the demand for more airport infrastructure is evident. If we look from another aspect, it is predicted that in the next decade one billion people will emerge to the middle class and they will start to use airport infrastructure. The emergence of mega cities will also drive the air traffic. Although we have placed ourselves in a superb strategic position, we are only after smart growth strategies. We are not looking for adventure. TAV will continue being the reliable home for our employees and our stakeholders. This is our priority.

* Mr Gediz Karaca conducted this interview on 7th of June 2017 in Birmingham, the United Kingdom for Said Business School students of the University of Oxford. Mr Karaca is the Chair of Oxford Business Network for Real Estate for the 2016-2017 period. The photo used in this article is published with the permission of Dr Sani Sener.
Gediz Karaca is a Chair at Oxford Business Network for Real Estate, MBA Candidate at University of Oxford

Last modified onFriday, 07 May 2021 15:23