Interview with Taher Gozel, Head of Green Tech, Azerbaijan

Azersun is a holding company based in Azerbaijan and one of the leading food producers in the Middle East and CIS countries. Founded by Adolbari Gozel and his family in the early 90s, Azersun has become known for its growth and impact in the region. The Gozel family continues at the helm of this huge operation and Tharawat Magazine sat with Taher Gozel, second-generation family business member and Head of Green Tech, an Azersun subsidiary, to speak about the pursuit of growth, why it is not synonymous with happiness, and how to navigate new realities.

Taher Gozel, Head of Green Tech, Azersun, Azerbaijan
Taher Gozel, Head of Green Tech, Azersun, Azerbaijan

How was your family company founded?

My father started out as an entrepreneur at 16 years old, working on the border between Iran and Turkey. Even from an early age he had the reputation of being a reliable man; a man whose word could be trusted. He was very careful when he made a promise to be sure he delivered on it. He always felt that his name should be a brand name and that it should mean good things to people. That’s extraordinary because he grew up as an orphan, in a very difficult environment.

He founded his business on this vision of trust and reliability. In the beginning, he traded livestock between Turkey and Iran, at a time when the relationship between the two countries was very tense. He started small with no more than 20 livestock, taking them by truck across the border, to sell in Iran. By the time he was 25 he was trading 250’000 livestock into the Iranian market and had become one of the largest players in the region, despite his youth.

In 1982 after the revolution, he decided that Iran was too restrictive an environment to do business, so he made the decision to move his family to Turkey, which was just opening up.

This was a turning point for our family business. We won access to the market because our family had strong experience in the sales side of the business and also because we understood the local traditions.

It was also the moment when the Unilever Corporation was looking for trustworthy and reliable business partners to sell its products in the Middle Eastern region. My father’s reputation gained him an interview with the CEO of Unilever and we became their partners. This was a turning point for our family business. We won access to the market because our family had strong experience in the sales side of the business and also because we understood the local traditions. At the same time, we were learning how to produce and manufacture.

In 1992 the Soviet system was dissolved, and Azerbaijan suddenly became a very attractive business prospect. My father moved into that market, beginning to trade Unilever’s products and then moving on to others. When the government was set up, in 1993, the then-president called my father and asked him to set up manufacturing capacity in the country. We asked Unilever if they could co-produce with us in Azerbaijan and that became our first investment in the country that we would eventually call home.

Adolbari Gozel, Founder of Azersun and Taher Gozel
Adolbari Gozel, Founder of Azersun and Taher Gozel

You took so many risks. How did you know what was going to make you grow?

My father has a saying about this: “Always consult your body. See how you feel deep inside, not just in your mind or your intellect.” Once we started to develop our industry it just kept on growing. We ended up with 38 manufacturing units in Azerbaijan. We are not only in Azerbaijan; we have started to invest in Russia and in Georgia, albeit still mainly in the food and beverages sector but we do have some interests in petroleum transportation.

In 1996 we moved to Dubai where we still have the family office, which we use as our trading headquarters.

When did you join the family business?

At 15 years old I was already sitting in an office next to my father. In fact, some of my best memories of my father are when he would say to me, “Taher, I have to make some meat deliveries tomorrow. Why don’t you and your sisters go down to the warehouse and pack some extra meat?” I would get a sense of pride in helping him. So, I started at a very young age and when I’d finished university, I came back to join my father. When I started out, my first task was as a planning manager based in Dubai, but doing the planning for Azerbaijan.

Today, I am still involved in the day to day business activities of our family business and together with my sister and two brothers, also sit on the board. A lot of my cousins are also in the family business, especially one cousin whom I am very close to – we work together all the time and he is like a son to my father.

Is Azerbaijan home now?

I would say my home is Azerbaijan but my business mind has settled down everywhere in the world.

Greenhouse, Green Tech a subsidiary of Azersun, Azerbaijan
Greenhouse, Green Tech a subsidiary of Azersun, Azerbaijan

How do you feel businesses in Azerbaijan are dealing with regional and global growth opportunities?

I think Azerbaijan has a great agricultural potential which remains under-realised.

When we came here there was nothing. Investment-wise the country was like a pure desert and everything we did was a novelty. It was such a tremendous opportunity to be able to grow in this country, but of course, Azerbaijan is a limited market. The population is 10 million. I think Azerbaijan has a great agricultural potential which remains under-realised. This is because we share a border with one of the greatest agricultural markets in the world: Russia and its population of over 60 million people. Interestingly enough, the border between Azerbaijan and Russia is a region where the amount of sunshine is critical for vegetable growth; this is a great competitive advantage looking forward.

What does growth mean to you and how did you achieve it in your business?

The growth of a business actually has nothing to do with your own growth. I believe you can’t grow as such; you already are what you are i.e. you smile, you have a simple life. Take joy in the life’s simple things; you already are complete. The idea that you’ll be a better person through having a bigger company is an illusion. I firmly believe that courage and character don’t come from the turnover of your companies, but are a matter of reflection and meditation. I think that is the greatest potential pitfall for an entrepreneur, who is someone who should stay calm and dissociated from the company’s growth.

I want to make it clear that we grew because we knew two things. One: we are investing in a geography no multinational would even dare to look at. Two: we had know-how about the multinationals, because we’d worked with them before. What does it mean? It means we understand process control, quality control, and kaizen  (a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices). At the same time, we had the local entrepreneurial knowledge. We knew we had these two very unique advantages and that’s why we knew that we would succeed in whatever we did here.

For me, the most important aspect of growth is that you have to be extremely realistic about your environment. Don’t be romantic about anything. Have a very sharp mind that is separate from your businesses. Think about what is unique about you. Think about where you are and what aspect of growth you can achieve. All this has to be a process of meditation and self-reflection.  If not, you could be fooling yourself for a long period and thus waste precious time and effort.

Do you remember an example where you failed to grow a business?

That is what I mean about doing things for the wrong reasons or with the wrong attitude; it will cost you time and money.

Absolutely. We were very successful in the tea business in the region and I wanted to expand to Turkey. I remember saying “I will give it a shot.” Just the fact of saying that means it is a recipe for failure because it shows an attitude that is short-term and opportunistic. However, we set up a tea packaging factory, as we had done everywhere else. After the third year of losses I said, “I gave it a shot and it didn’t work,” so we closed it down. My attitude was wrong. I should have looked more closely at the reality of Turkey and tried to understand the implications of entering that giant market. I should have said, “Let’s think again; let’s not enter next year. Let’s wait.” Then if I had decided to continue and had dug in, I probably would have been one of the largest tea manufacturers in Turkey, by now. That is what I mean about doing things for the wrong reasons or with the wrong attitude; it will cost you time and money.

Truck fleet, Azersun, Azerbaijan
Truck fleet, Azersun, Azerbaijan

What should owners do when a business doesn’t grow anymore?

I would say if your business is not growing, that could itself possibly be the best news ever. It’s fantastic because it’s more than likely your business is a cash cow. Maybe that is the time for a family to reflect and not do anything. Wait two years and decide what you want to do. There are so many people out there with great ideas, seeking money and who want to partner with family businesses. Open up your mind and learn about a new industry which you could invest in. Growth can be painful, and in fact, a fast-growing business can be a nightmare in terms of finances and retaining the right talent. We’ve been growing rapidly and it is really hard.