Article 2: An Interview about Bilal Kaafarani


Hürriyet – Vahap Munyar - April 17, 2011


He covered Murat Ülker in his best-selling book and came to challenge Yıldız 


YILDIZ Holding's (Ülker) Corporate Communication General Manager Zuhal Şeker Tucker arranged for me to meet with the group’s Global Innovation and R&D Group Chairman, Bilal Kaafarani, recently transferred from the Coca-Cola Company. The author, Bilal Kaafarani, who is of Lebanese origin, immediately handed a copy of his book to me. 


Breaking Away (How Great Leaders Create Innovation that Drives Sustainable Growth - and Why Others Fail, co-authored by Jane Stevenson and Bilal Kaafarani. 


Zuhal Şeker Tucker advised me:  

-Bilal Kaafarani signed the book for you. He wanted to add a note in Turkish. You must look at it. 


I opened the book:  “Vahap Bey, with the hope that this will help you to fulfill your dreams.”


One of the members of Zuhal Şeker Tucker's corporate communications team, Director Bahar Erbengi quickly added this note: - In the United States, the book has made its way onto the Barnes & Noble list of “best sellers”. 


Bilal Kaafarani spoke first about the book: - In the book, my co-author Jane Stevenson and I examine the concept of innovation. We emphasize that, to be innovative, in all cultures and all companies, a different kind of leadership is necessary.


During the writing of the book we interviewed 150 executives of the world’s giant companies of which 50 were CEO’s. After those meetings we developed a synthesis. While he was explaining the book, I interrupted him: 


How did the idea to transfer to Yıldız Holding begin? 

- Now let’s talk about Jim Zaza who used to be a member of PepsiCo's management. I also had a meeting about the book with Jim Zaza. He recommended that I speak with Murat Ülker (Chairman of the Yıldız Holding Board of Directors) "as a representative of the developing countries”. 


Your first meeting was for the book. . . 

-Yes. . . As a matter of fact some of Murat Bey’s opinions inspired me when I was writing the book. In the list of those 150 executives that we have interviewed, there is Murat Ülker and Jim Zaza.


Was it Murat Ülker who later made you the offer?  

- I was very impressed by both Murat Ülker and his vision.  I saw the offer from my standpoint as a “new challenge” and I agreed. 


During our conversation Bilal Kaafarani reminded me frequently: 

- Today is only my 3rd day at Yıldız Holding. 


Then he pointed to a book cover upon which the words of General Electric President and CEO Jeff Imelt were written: 


- "Breaking Away not only defines the innovation principles that drive sustainable growth, it couples them with the leadership and cultural elements that make or break success."  


Bilal Kaafarini has been honored by BusinessWeek as one of the world's "Top 25 Masters of Innovation."  His first Project for Yıldız Holding was to establish an “Innovation Room” in the Istanbul Çamlıca headquarters building: 

- In this room we will brainstorm. Initiatives for future ways to increase the success of Yıldız Holding and inspiration for improving existing methods will be ignited in this room. 


After Yıldız Holding’s acquisition of the world-renowned brand name of premium chocolate, Godiva, Murat Ülker pointed the group in its new direction as a “global manager”.  


A while ago Ahad Afridi left PepsiCo (USA) and was appointed the head of Yıldız Holding's Marketing Department.  This time, it was Bilal Kaafarani who jumped ship.  He came to Yıldız Holding from the Coca-Cola Company, where he had been the Global Innovation and Technology Senior Vice President. Kaafarani began his duties with Yıldız Holding on an enthusiastic note: 


- This is a “new challenge” for me.  


He will give training to upper management of GE and proceed the earnings from his book to an orphanage


During our conversation Bilal Kaafarani told me about his dreams:  

- One of my dreams was to write a book.  With “Breaking Away” I made that dream come true. Now I have another dream that I want to fulfill. 


What is it? 

- Proceeds from the book will be used to build an orphanage. This dream of mine is also supported by my book partner, Jane Stevenson. When I explained my dream to a friend, he offered then and there to donate a million dollars. 


Where do you plan to build your orphanage? 

- It’s not yet certain.  


Later he emphasized that sometime in the days that follow he will go to the USA to give training to their upper management of General Electric (GE).  


- While working for one company is it right to train another one? 

- That is also in my agreement. Murat Ülker supports all of the jobs related to the book.


It is not ethical to work for the beverages department being an ex Coca-Cola employee


The first announcement that Bilal Kaafarini was to leave Coca-Cola to become the R&D Group Chairman dealt with the ethical concerns about his duties as they related to the beverages department of Yıldız Holding.  


I asked him for some details about this matter:  

- In the announcement, it was stated that “Kaafarani would be responsible for all areas except the beverage operations". Did the Coca-Cola Company forbid you from speaking about this subject? 


– When I left the Coca-Cola Company I gave them that guarantee. Everyone who leaves the employ of the company, no matter what that person’s position may have been, is treated in the same manner – not just me.   


What would happen if you didn’t keep your word on this matter? 

– It wouldn’t be necessary because I find that sort of thing unethical.  It’s morally wrong.


 He then highlighted the Yıldız Holding’s (Ülker Group) point:

- Anyway, Ülker’s main interests are not centered in the beverage sector. 


Turkey and its currency are very strong.  


BİLAL Kaafarani mentioned that the successful stage Turkey come to has played an important part for his decision.


- When I came here 20 years ago, the Turkish Lira had 6 zeros on it. Now we have a completely different Turkey. The economy has become a lot stronger. The country’s currency has consequently become stronger, all those zeros were gotten rid of. 


He went on even further by saying:

 - Turkey will be a powerful world center. I want to share in that success when it comes. Then he added: 

- Until today, I have always realized my dreams. I have big dreams for Turkey and Yıldız Holding. 


We were close with Muhtar Kent

I bring back the days at Coca-Cola Company headquarters in Atlanta to Bilal Kaafarani: 


- I had two opportunities to visit the President and CEO of Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent, in his Atlanta office.

 – Why didn’t you visit me?

 – I didn’t know you at that time.

 – My office was on the floor below Muhtar Kent’s. 

– How often did you meet with Muhtar Kent? 

– I saw him any time it was necessary. Apart from this, we are close friends with his wife, Defne’s, family. 


What was the reaction when you left the Coca Cola Company and took a position with Yıldız Holding?


 – That is something between Muhtar Bey and myself.  I don’t wish to talk about that. 


My American wife watched a football game with Murat Ülker and supported Fener

When he mentioned that his wife was American, I asked BİLAL Kaafarini: 


What did your wife think about moving to Istanbul? 

– During one of my visits, Murat Bey invited my wife Janice and I to a football match.  She watched the football match and cheered for Fenerbahçe. My wife is not really interested in football.  Murat Bey and I cheer for Fenerbahçe. She supported the idea of us settling in İstanbul. 


How long is the term of your agreement with Yıldız Holding? 

– Well yes, there is a term but that term can be extended if we both desire it.


Later he talked about his children and grandchildren: 

- I have 4 children and 3 grandchildren. We went to the Grand Bazaar to buy Nazar beads for my grandchildren. 


Ülker's roots are strong;  we will draw a new road without covering them


As seeing that BILAL Kaafarini was so sure, I wanted to ask about his plans for Ülker Group


 - Sabri Ülker, established and built the Ülker Group on the strongest of foundations. And Murat Ülker has so successfully carried the flag that he has been handed. My duty is to blaze a new trail, without treading on those strong foundational roots, and take Yıldız Holding into new and different places.  


How did Yıldız Holding’s acquisition of a world-renowned brand name like Godiva affect you? 

– The Godiva incident illustrates Murat Ülker's vision



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