His goal remains the same since day one: To be one-step ahead of other competitors when it comes to production, competition, our relationship with our customers, and quality.
Two brothers, Sabri Ülker and Asım Ülker, learned plenty from their summer job at the biscuit factory when they were still students. Sabri Ülker eventually went on to study at the Sultanahmet School of Economics & Business Science. Back then, getting an education moved you not just one
, but several steps ahead. They watched as Turkey’s economy literally come to a grinding halt before their very eyes due to the ravages of war. However, they knew that once the war was over, things would take a turn for the better, and even gain momentum. With this in mind, they decided to go into the food production business. They considered sales and distribution – known as ‘trades’ at the time --- as services that would support their industrial activities. They had their eyes not on trade, but on industry, i.e. production.
They had to design their production model around Turkey’s then introverted approach to economics, where the principle of zero error was the rule of thumb. Contrary to the ways of the Western world, they had no chance or rather no time to do things by trial and error. The; Turkish system simply didn’t allow it. They had to reach a standard of excellence at once, or be reduced to nothing. They couldn’t afford the luxury of making a wrong move. Making mistakes meant losing. They had to be 100% certain of both what they produced and how they produced it.
Therefore, they chose biscuits, an area where competition was plenty. They lacked the manufacturing machines to compete against their (significantly more powerful) rivals. All they had on hand was an old, borrowed machinery that malfunctioned. With this in mind, they needed to be perseverant and patient if their plans were going to work. Sabri Ülker became a makeshift mechanical engineer overnight and fixed all of equipment until he could get it up and running.
As soon as the production line was functioning, the next thing they had to do was compete.They thus had to set certain goals for themselves. Target No.1: Beat their competitors. The only way to do that was to come up with high quality products. First, quality became the pillar of approach to manufacturing, from raw ingredients to packaging, a novel idea way ahead of its time by Turkish standards. Next, they decided not to limit themselves to Istanbul. Instead, they looked to Anatolia where their competitors couldn’t reach them. They traveled from grocer to grocer across Turkey, took orders face-to-face, and personally oversaw where their products were to be distributedStanding out from their powerful competitors, they led Ülker to being as nationwide as it is today.
‘Ülker’ brand grew on the basis of the solid foundation that Sabri Ülker built for it, first with biscuits, and later with chocolate. During the 80s, Turkey gradually opened up to the rest of the world and took a more liberal approach to its economic policies. This shift inspired Ülker to change its strategy to a business model that fit the requirements of the new open economy.
Yıldız Holding was born out of that strategy in 1989. Since then, Ülker continues to exist as a subsidiary of the Holding. Besler Gıda a key force driving Ülker’s growth was founded in 1992. In 1993, it partnered with Cerestar Group, Europe’s largest starch producer, and began operating under the umbrella of Pendik Nişasta (Yıldız Holding). Beginning in 1999, Ülker took important steps to foster growth both at home and overseas.
It set up factories in Karaman (Central Anatolia) and Jeddah (Saudi Arabia).
In 2000, Sabri Ülker transferred the management of his beloved company to Murat Ülker, his son. In 2007, Sabri Ülker got to pick the real fruit of Ülker’s vast experience when it acquired the prestigious brand Godiva. Sadly, although Sabri Ülker died on June 12, 2012, his spirit still lives on, as his opinions and ideas continue to illuminate the path of all of Ülker’s employees to this very day.
Sabri Ülker was born in Crimea in 1920. The influence of the Soviet revolution made his childhood in Crimea quite difficult. This made his resolve to create Ülker based on the belief, “We believe that every person has the right to live a beautiful childhood, no matter what country they happen to live in.”
He and his family immigrated to Istanbul in 1929, fleeing ever-growing troubles in Crimea. Sabri Ülker was nine years old at the time. There, he attended Kadırga Elementary School and, while his life improved, he would never be able to erase from his memory what he had lived through back in Crimea. In his own words:
“We suffered from very painful moments that lasted not days, but months. Who can forget it all? All of our orchards, gardens, and fields were confiscated and we were told that our land was now the property of the State, and that it was to be redistributed. Our beautiful plots became unrecognizable. They began exiling educated, hardworking people, and people who failed to abide by their opinions to Siberia or the Urals. They would line people up and begin shooting them at point blank range. Scenes from the movie Dr. Jivago were repeated literally hundreds of times across the whole region. They constantly tried to force my father and us the children to join the groups of exiles.”
After elementary school, Sabri Ülker enrolled in İstanbul Erkek Lisesi. In his second year of middle school, he won a full scholarship to attend a boarding school in the city of Bilecik. He completed middle school there, and attended high school in the city of Kütahya. World War II broke out just as he got accepted into the Sultanahmet School of Economics & Business Science.
By the time Sabri Ülker had graduated, the war was-over. He and his older brother Asım wanted to produce biscuits for children who had otherwise forgotten during wartimes what they even tasted like. During their early teens, they worked at the Besler Factory. On top of that, their family had briefly run a confectionery shop. Relying on the know-how that they had learned from both, the pair decided to set up their own biscuit business out of a workshop in Eminönü Nohutçu Han in, Istanbul. Sabri Ülker would later recall those days: “It’s hard to put into words just how difficult it was to get a hold of manufacturing machinery in our young Republic [Turkey] during World War II. One autumn morning back in 1944, I visited Nohutçu Han which
, back then was Istanbul’s business center. I headed up to the third floor, and walked in, passing through a low door. Before me, in an area of about 100 square meters were boilers, scoops, molds, an oven and other tools in the back. I examined everything one by one. Then, I stood back and said to myself: “I have to succeed at this.”
The two brother success was a miracle. The workshop’s owner had sold it to other businesses before. When they failed, they would sell it back to the owner at a lower price. He was almost positive that Asım and Sabri Ülker wouldn’t succeed. He is reported to have said, “You will see. In a few months, they will sell it back to me.” Those were no idle words, he knew something. The machines were old
, and kept breaking down. Moreover, there were no spare parts, making the repair process all the more difficult. Lo and behold, Sabri Ülker learned how to fix everything, and before long, he and his brother found themselves producing 200 kg. worth of biscuits per day in their first year alone.
Their patience and determination eventually paid off. Ülker biscuits soon decorated shelves in grocery stores across İstanbul and its surroundings. Sabri Ülker always pursued innovation and distinction, and believed that survival meant doing the job differently. He applied this principle to everything from production and distribution to branding and promotion. This principle led him to
Sabri Ülker left Yıldız Holding whose main business is food and drink to the next generations. As of 2015, Yıldız Holding and its acquisitions overseas make it the third largest biscuit, the tenth largest chocolate producer in the world, with 77 factories in 14 countries (including Turkey). It produces more than 300 products and exports them to more than 80 nations. At such a scale, it contributes a significant amount to both the Turkish and the world’s economy.
The secret behind Sabri Ülker’s success
Sabri Ülker had four keys to his success: “The first principle at the heart of my success is earnest work nevergetting bored, and never giving up. The second is honest work. The third is quality work. For a product to be good, it must cater to customer needs that is, it needs to be worth the money consumers pay. The fourth is paying the utmost attention to advertising. I want to focus on that last note in-depth… We’ve considered advertising extremely important since day one, and wewill always continue doing so… We’ve been advertising Ülker since 1950. When you advertise a quality product well enough, the outcome can be gigantic.
“Daddy, don't forget to bring Ülker in the evening.”
During an era when importance of advertising was virtually unknown to Turkey, the classic slogan, “Daddy, don’t forget the Ülker when you come home tonight” summarized everything that Sabri Ülker wanted for children, for Turkey, and for Ülker: To reach every household and every child, and to do so with delicious, healthy, hygienic, quality products.
Sabri Ülker had a wonderful sense of vision - a trait that people back in his time called “forward thinking.” He had discovered the “business ideas” that [the rest of] Turkey would eventually be introduced to in the 90s. He implemented them at Ülker, turning him into one of Turkish industry’s and the food sector’s leading entrepreneurs.
With great foresight, he founded Ülker’s Research & Development department in 1974 to compete with international companies. Since the 80s, Ülker’s production diversity has
Sabri Ülker had come up with the idea of integrating the global market long before the globalization movement. For Ülker, this process took place between the 80s and 2000s. Sabri Ülker once explained the logic behind his pioneering approach as follows: “We were the first biscuit company in Turkey to invite experts from overseas. We have worked with the best international experts. We have partnered with many a foreign companies and benefited from their know-how and experience. We have made some of our companies public. The health of our customers has always been our top priority. Therefore, one of the first moves was to create the hygiene department. We followed every global development with the objective to match their pace. We invested in boosting our capacity. We set up new factories and provided people with jobs. That is how we and our products won customer hearts.”
A modest life
Behind Sabri Ülker’s business success was his cheerful private life. He and his beloved wife, Güzide Ülker, lived a modest life, and encouraged their children and grandchildren to do the same. The couple’s greatest sorrow was the loss of their son Ali Ülker at a young age. One of their grandchildren is named Ali Ülker after him to honor the memory of their lost son. Their other children, Ahsen Özokur and Murat Ülker both, embraced the family’s modest values and their father’s sound business principles.
Sabri Ülker stood by those principles for the rest of his life. In 2000, he was became the Honorary President of the Ülker Group, whilst Murat Ülker was positioned as the took Chairman of the Board of Directors of the company, the CEO of the holding. Sabri continued to lead the Ülker Group with his ideas until his death.
Sabri Ülker suffered the loss of his beloved partner in life, Güzide, in 2010. He himself took his final breath on June 12, 2012. Sabri Ülker played a leading role in contributing to Turkey’s economic and social development. He supported many joint projects with the Ministry of National Education to strengthen Turkey’s educational infrastructure. He stated that he believed in the importance of working in coordination with NGOs so that he could leave Turkey’s children a more livable country and planet, and thus was one of the founders of TEMA (the Turkish Foundation for Combating Erosion, Re-forestation, and the Protection of Natural Habitats) Foundation. With this incentive, Ülker became the first Turkish organization to support TEMA’s projects to develop rural villages.