He's made the company "American" enough to persuade even Pakkan, the onetime naysayer, who joined AirTies' engineering team in 2006. "It was comforting to me that I was going to come here and work for a U.S.-style company," Pakkan says. And though a driver may be waiting outside his office, Çelebi's created an American feeling inside the office, says CFO Okan Karliova, who returned after 12 years in the States. "The culture of the company is, when you step out, you're in Turkey, but inside it's so much the United States." AirTies is earning money American-style, too. The company had just $700,000 in revenue in its first year, 2004. In 2006, it had $24 million, and this year, Çelebi is projecting $50 million.
"Turkey is a shame culture, while America is more of a guilt culture." That's the Çelebis' 14-year-old son, Aydin, discoursing, as he does his homework at the dining-room table, on the different punishment frameworks of the two countries. Timur, Aydin's 10-year-old brother, is bent over the long wooden table, sketching muscles on a formidable red monster. Their amused parents are watching them from the sunken, latte-colored living room, where they're sipping Turkish wine and eating fleshy local olives. The Çelebis' duplex is in a part of town called Etiler, in a complex of new and boxy apartment buildings. The lower floor is serene and open, with glass doors overlooking a small garden; upstairs, the narrow hallway is littered with children's shoes.
Aydin and Timur were just 11 and 7 when the Çelebis moved, young enough, their parents hoped, that they'd learn the language and adjust quickly. But while the notion of having your children grow up bilingual and bicultural is appealing, the reality of it can be startling. The Çelebis thought about putting the kids in English-language schools, but found those schools didn't teach Turkish language or history. "Part of the reason we were moving here was to get them exposed to a different culture," says Bülent. "So we ultimately said, you know what, we're just going to put them into the fire." Maria, who took a year off from her law practice (she's now a partner in a Turkish firm) to help the kids adjust, remembers Aydin's first day at his Turkish-language public school. When she dropped him off, the fifth-graders were lined up outside reciting a pledge to Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. As an uncertain Aydin walked toward them, the teacher directed a few boys to befriend him, and the boys engulfed him with the hugging, touchy physical intimacy that's common in Turkey but decidedly not in the U.S. Maria was left watching her discomfited boy from the sidelines.
Now her kids are becoming Turkish, and she's an immigrant mom. Her looks--brown hair, bangs, thin frame--don't mark her as a foreigner. But everything else does. The kids tell her to shush when they approach school--her American accent is embarrassing to them, and when she speaks English it's even more mortifying. And could she please hide that cross necklace? (Almost all of their schoolmates are Muslim; Maria is Greek Orthodox.)
Looking up from his drawing, Timur announces that he's started to think in Turkish more than English. Aydin, having finished his thoughts on the different penal ideologies, is analyzing the Turkish class structure. It's hard to know what part of this is a performance for a stranger and what part innate, but it's even harder to imagine the children developing such cultural awareness in a California suburb.
When the current government of Turkey came to power in 2002, it promised anti-corruption measures and economic development. Part of this was a populist response to the inflation and recession that had dragged Turkey down, and part was a bid for European Union membership. Additionally, Turkey's huge trade deficit--$52 billion last year, more than twice the United States' as a percentage of GDP--makes it obvious the country must encourage homegrown businesses. Change is slow in Turkey, but this government's approach to business is getting good reviews.
The economic development includes several incentive programs, which AirTies is taking advantage of. They start with tax breaks. The government has created economic zones inside technoparks, office buildings where R&D companies can apply for space for their engineers. Once they're approved, as AirTies recently was, they get a 10-year reprieve on corporate income tax for any product developed at the technopark. Additionally, companies don't have to pay payroll taxes on their engineers working at the park; that's about a third of AirTies' 90 employees, and nearly all of its most expensive ones. The government offers low-interest five-year loans on half of start-ups' R&D costs for projects it approves, and outright grants of up to 50 percent of engineering costs, also for approved projects.
All this may make Turkey seem like entrepreneurial heaven, but good ideas get tangled in red tape here. Take the technopark. Companies get a bye on payroll taxes only for the hours the engineers are inside the building, so if they're visiting a customer or just outside smoking, the tax break isn't in effect. Or take the loan, which is available only to a start-up that can get a bank guarantee; if the company could get a bank guarantee, it wouldn't need the loan.
These are irritants, but the programs are a big help. It's other government interference that really hurts. Last summer, a clerical error led to AirTies releasing four boxes of routers without customs paperwork. The government threatened to sue the entire management team--under Turkish law, corporate officers are held personally responsible for tax and liabilities owed to the government. The AirTies lawyers negotiated their way out of it--but $400,000 worth of inventory sat in customs for six months.
Had AirTies bribed the officials, things might have moved more quickly. Corruption in Turkey is still rampant. It's rarely overt, but "people that know us and know them come in and make these vague insinuations," Çelebi says. AirTies ought to hire a specific "consultant" to get a project approved, for example, or pay a "mentor" to get AirTies in to see a potential customer. It's not unheard of for companies to buy cars or lease apartments for government officials. "We still refuse to do it," Çelebi says. "There's no end to it once you start. Plus, it's purely an ethics thing." Many of the bureaucratic requirements, most notably the extraordinary amount of paperwork, are meant to protect against cheating and corruption but end up being absurd Colonel Cathcart-esque exercises.
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