INTERVIEW: Healthy profits from healthy living in Turkey

By bne IntelliNews October 19, 2009

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -

It's a staple of made-for-TV movies: The swanky restaurant, huge steaks and well stuffed suits shaking hands on billion-dollar business deals through billowing cigar smoke. A world few would choose to leave - least of all for one of fruit juice and raw vegetables. But that's exactly the leap made by one of Turkey's top telecom executives, Ersin Pamuksuzer, who has swapped his position with Turkcell to open Turkey's first detox centre and an international chain of vegan restaurants.

Having begun his career with Ericsson in the early 1990s, the Swedish-educated Pamuksuzer was fast-tracked to head up the company's Turkish operations. It was a role which involved founding Turkey's biggest GSM operator Turkcell, which with 36m subscribers is currently the third biggest in Europe. Despite the rapid success, by 2002 Pamuksuzer found himself looking for a new challenge and found it thanks to a chance introduction to detox therapy and juice cleansing. "I thought I knew everything, but I discovered I knew almost nothing about my own body," he laughs.

After months spent reading up on nutrition and healthy eating, he found himself dining at a New York raw food restaurant called Pure Food and Wine. "It was a life-changing experience, I was simply astounded at how good I felt after eating," he confesses, explaining how those traditional business dinners had left him heavy and sluggish.

With his telecom career winding down after Ericsson sold off its stake in Turkcell, Pamuksuzer took the decision to turn hobby into business and in 2004 founded The Lifeco as a platform for new ventures aimed at making a healthy profit from healthy living.

Detox delight

First of these was a 24-room up-market detox centre built among orange groves on Turkey's Bodrum peninsula, with money raised from friends and business acquaintances.

With nothing more advanced than word-of-mouth marketing, some 60% of the high-paying client base came from outside Turkey and Pamuksuzer quickly realised that selling people the keys to healthy living could be every bit as profitable as selling them mobile phones. "In the US, 93% of deaths are caused by conditions such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure - all of which can be caused by bad lifestyle," he explains. "Basically, until you get sick, you're in the hands of the food industry; then when you get sick, you're passed on to the disease industry," he laughs."I realised that there was a huge market for giving people the support and education they need to ensure they don't just wind up as patients."

With that in mind, he opened a "wellbeing centre" in the heart of Istanbul's stockbroker belt offering both detox and similar anti-aging therapies on a day-visitor basis, together with Europe's first vegan "fine dining" restaurant created with help from the internationally renowned US chef Chad Sarno, who prepared the menu and helped train staff.

Named Saf - the Turkish word for "pure" - the restaurant's cutting-edge menu was so well received as to prompt the opening of a London branch. With Saf London flourishing on the back of rave reviews, talks are far advanced with a UK manufacturer to launch a Saf brand of healthy snack foods.

Meanwhile, back in Turkey work is progressing on a full-on $20m "anti-aging centre" to be sited at an existing golf resort close to Istanbul - aimed at high-end local and international clients. Similar in concept to his two existing centres, the new venture aims to go one step further in actually helping customers address lifestyle problems that threaten their health. "We will offer diagnostics with early stage treatments and education that can help people step back from illness," he enthuses, mentioning that he's already in talks to export the model to Egypt and Korea.

All a far cry from the multi-billion-dollar world of mobile telecommunications you might think. Not so, says Pamuksuzer."We started Turkcell from a single back room in Ericsson's Istanbul office, and like everyone in the business, we never expected it to grow quite as fast as it did," he says. "Who's to say the healthy living business can't grow as quickly."

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