The first time I visited Russia 25 years ago, the most remarkable structures there bore the signature of [Turkish construction company] ENKA Holding, headed by Tarik Sara. Last week, I traveled to St. Petersburg for the International Economic Forum and this time I came across frequently the hallmarks of Ronesans Holding. I cracked the secret of the company’s success when I met its founder, Erman Ilicak.
If you wonder what I mean by success, here you go: Ronesans Holding is today the undisputed leader among foreign contractors in Russia, boasting projects worth $2 billion and employing 25,000 people, 30% of them Turks. Number two on the list is also a Turkish company, but its turnover is barely a third of Ronesans’.
Ronesans is active in 11 countries and has a total turnover of $3.2 billion, in which Russian projects account for 65%, while those in Turkey only for 10% ($320 million). In fact, Russia is the country where Ilicak started his business and founded his first company. His story is intriguing, if not unique.
Starting at ENKA
Born into a family hailing from Malatya, Ilicak graduated from Ankara’s TED College and then the Middle East Technical University. While in university, he met with Sara, the ENKA boss, and worked as an intern in his company during the summers. Following his graduation, he took a job at an ENKA construction project in Moscow, one of the many ENKA won in Russia in the 1990s as the country ushered into a new era in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Excited by the bustling opportunities, Ilicak, then a young engineer, begged leave of his boss in 1993 and moved to St. Petersburg, where he started his own company — in a small hotel room and with $30,000 worth of savings.
The birth of Ronesans
Why St. Petersburg and not Moscow? Here is how Ilicak explains his decision: “I went to Russia in 1992. The oligarchs were just emerging. Opportunities abounded and everyone scrambled to establish themselves in Moscow. I opted for St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, where the completion was less fierce. My first clients would come to my hotel room and we would talk business sitting on the bed, for the tiny room had no table.”
And how does one find clients in a strange city, operating from a tiny hotel room? Ilicak put small ads in a Russian newspaper, advertising “meticulous refurbishing and painting services.” For a 26-year-old who did not even speak Russian, it was nothing but a crazy adventure.
Rotating tower for Abramovich
Today, Ilicak is building a 52-story rotating tower for Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, knows personally 80 out of 100 Russian oligarchs and his company ranks 64th among the world’s largest international contractors with total assets of $6 billion.
Ilicak has an important message for Turkish business people: “Russia is Turkey’s second largest trade partner after Germany. For Russia, in turn, we are partner number six. In my view, doing business in Russia is very easy. Previously, Germans were the best in understanding and deciphering the Russians, now it’s us. Russia is so much like Turkey. The [business] relations are built on trust and cordiality. Building confidence is hard, but once you win their trust, Russians never let you go. Thanks to Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s efforts, the relations in recent years have grown as close as never before. Russia is the market where we can achieve the fastest and most reliable growth. Here we can turn natural gas to products and sell them from Turkey to the whole world.”
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly