Turkish small business in Germany about more than kebab shops

By bne IntelliNews April 25, 2012

Sherelle Jacobs in Cologne -

More than 50 years have passed since the first Turkish guest workers touched down in Germany, after the two countries signed an unprecedented labour agreement. Their experiences have become the stuff of folklore - scores of young Turkish men would disembark from special trains, known as the "kara tren" or "black trains" in reference to the fears and uncertainties felt by those aboard, which snaked their way arduously from Ankara and Istanbul. They would then take up modest posts as unskilled labourers in Germany's coal mines and steel factories, becoming a vital (if undervalued) cog in the country's post-war economic machine.

Fast forward to the 21st century and a drastic transformation has occurred. The Turkish population in Germany is now 2.5m-strong, by far the largest Turkish population in Western Europe. And, crucially, as the Turkish population has exploded, so too has Turkish entrepreneurship. Between 1985 and 2000, the number of Turkish self-employed multiplied by 170%, and more than a decade later, over 80,000 Turkish businesses are now in operation across the country.

Intriguingly, stereotypes of Turkish entrepreneurship consisting of kebab chains and greengrocers, although not obsolete, fail to do justice to the increasingly varied array of sectors that Turkish entrepreneurs have broken into. "[The first] generation were only involved in the 'ethno-market' for Turkish products - restaurants, retail, travel agencies and tailors," says Ahmet Güler, a representative from the European Confederation of Turkish businesses (BTEU). "Second- and third-generation entrepreneurs are now found to be the same as your average German entrepreneurs."

He adds that a higher level of education and vocational training has become noticeable in new German-Turkish start-ups, and while most still operate on a micro-level employing fewer than three people, one-tenth now have a workforce of more than 10.

Indeed, German-Turkish entrepreneurs have moved into a number of cutting-edge new areas that are a far cry from catering or retail. In fact, 20% of Turkish businesses in Germany are now active within the service industry. One particular trend is increased activity in the ICT and technology sectors. Take Exitcom, a leading company in the field of recycling electrical and electronic equipment. Since the company was launched in 1999 by Murat Ilgar, a Turkish entrepreneur living in Germany, it has expanded at a rapid pace, securing new profits and investments and recently expanding operations to Turkey. Another high-profile success story is the video game company Crytek, which was founded by three Turkish brothers, Cevat, Avni and Faruk Yerli in Coburg, Germany in 1999. Having been involved in the development of a number of popular games, the company now has around 600 employees and subsidiaries in Ukraine, Budapest and South Korea.


The reasons for the successes of Turkish entrepreneurs in Germany is multi-layered and complex, according to experts. Some commentators draw on cultural factors: "To be a self-employed 'saint' is a status symbol to aim for in Turkish culture," says Güler from the BTEU. "The Turkish entrepreneurs are brave and willing to take risks."

The cultural proclivity of Turkish communities to help fund the businesses of those close to them has also provided many Turkish start-ups with vital finance. "They have capital support from family and friends," Güler explains.

Some observers also note that the lack of conventional employment opportunities for Turks in Germany has acted as a powerful force propelling Turkish people towards starting up their own businesses; unemployment rates amongst the Turkish community have consistently been the highest amongst all the country's minority groups.

Interestingly, the dramatic economic rebirth of Turkey itself has opened up lucrative new opportunities for Turkish entrepreneurs. The exciting growth of a wide range of sectors in Turkey, including textiles, automotive and ICT, has been noted by German-Turkish businessmen; stories of such businessmen finding new commercial ventures and contacts when visiting Turkey on holiday are increasingly common.

These entrepreneurs become involved not only in traditional operations of importing Turkish products such as textiles to Germany, but also the inverse - many Turkish businesses are seeking to profit from the demand by Turks for western products and services by exporting German goods to their market. A reflection of this is the recent proliferation in Turkish-owned consultancy firms in Germany; Turkish entrepreneurs have spotted the demand from German companies for help breaking into the tricky Turkish market and have set up agencies to offer such services.


Experts note that German-Turkish entrepreneurs see investment in the Turkish market as carrying less risk because of their knowledge of the language and local culture. Some businessmen also assert that German Turks have the best of both worlds because it is sometimes an advantage to be from the West; Turkish consumers are said to exhibit a strong preference for products and services associated with the West.

Nonetheless, deeper research suggests that such advantages may have their limitations. It has been suggested that being perceived as western can constrain German Turks in their business activities at times: "Turkish citizens in Germany are often labelled as Almanyal or Almanc," explains Bettina Schulte in a compelling paper on the topic. "The latter has a rather negative connotation in Turkey, which is rooted in certain behaviour of Turks from abroad when coming back for holidays, mostly labelling those that left Turkey as rather simple farmers from Anatolia in the 1960s that would eventually return."

Schulte also cites differences in German and Turkish business culture and habits as potentially hazardous for German Turks, who can struggle to effectively balance the two. "One of the perceptions is that Turks from abroad are much softer in their interactions and they are not aware of some of the conventions like respecting the elder generations," she explains.

Moreover, Turkish businessmen also still face serious challenges in Germany itself, with many complaining that banks are reluctant to give them loans. On the other side, German businesspeople claim the founders of Turkish start-ups are less likely to seek advice or carry out effective risk analysis in advance of investing in their businesses, a potentially costly strategy. "The Turkish entrepreneurs have to adapt themselves more to the German economy," says Güler.

It may have been more than half a century since their forefathers first touched down on German soil. But today's Turkish-German entrepreneurs display a similar stomach for venturing into the unknown. And it seems they too have some formidable obstacles to clear on their paths to prosperity.

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