Interview with Ahu Büyükkuşoğlu Serter, President of Farplas Automotive.
The Business of Mobility is a series of interviews with business leaders in sustainable mobility.
Turkish company Farplas Automotive was founded in 1968 as an auto parts supplier and over the years has grown into a global Tier 1 supplier. More recently, under the inspired leadership of second-generation entrepreneur Ahu Büyükkuşoğlu Serter, it has branched out into startup incubation (Fark Labs) and corporate venture capital (F+ Ventures), and has become a key player in sustainable mobility, among other areas. We spoke to Farplas’ President about her vision for the company.
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(Note: Turkey’s official name has been changed to Türkiye.)
Autonomy: You were working at a hedge fund in New York in the early 2000s, before returning to Türkiye to take up the CFO position at Farplas.
Ahu: Yes, that’s right. My father, Yunus Büyükkuşoğlu, had founded the company back in 1968 and this was a real opportunity for me to lend my vision and inspiration to the organisation.
Autonomy: Your influence has been almost revolutionary.
Ahu: I wouldn’t use that word. Farplas was always an excellent business, but as an automotive supplier we were vulnerable to disruption. We had to do something about that.
Autonomy: What was that story in getting Farplas to where it is today?
Ahu: Have you come across the business book Dual Transformation?
Autonomy: Sounds familiar, is that the one where they explain why Kodak went bust and how you can avoid the mistakes they made?
Ahu: Yes, that’s part of it. I read that book a while ago and it made me think differently about our business. In this age of tech disruption, you need to make bold calls and transform your organisation. It’s about finding new growth engines and using your unique assets to leverage advantage over the competition. Ten years back we started to invest more in R&D, and we also looked at how to cater to the EV value chain.
Autonomy: Was that about the time you took over as president?
Ahu: In 2012 I became president of Farplas Automotive and then we really committed the organisation to being on the right side of the innovation curve. We ourselves needed to create new industries, and to become the disruptors, not the disrupted.
Autonomy: Was that why you started doing your own venture capital?
Ahu: Yes, in 2016 we launched F+ Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of Farplas.
Autonomy: And you’ve been successful with picking winners?
Autonomy: That’s an interesting spread of companies. ChargePoint is one of the world’s biggest EV charging infrastructure players; Valens is a leading provider of semiconductor products; and Garaj Sepeti is one of Türkiye’s top digital platforms in the automotive industry.
Ahu: Yes, we’re very happy with our investments there. Building upon that success, we wanted to do more to promote startups. So three years ago we launched Fark Labs, to incubate and accelerate startups and help corporations transform their legacy businesses.
Autonomy: Based in Türkiye?
Ahu: Yes, we have innovation centres in Istanbul and Ankara. Plus we have a network of innovation centres in Seoul and Paris, with new ones planned for Shanghai and Detroit, Michigan. We also have manufacturing plants in Croatia, Romania, Thailand and of course in Türkiye. This means we have the production capability to take startups from idea, to funding, right through to manufacturing.
Autonomy: How do you keep a handle on all that innovation?
Ahu: Good venture capitalists trust themselves to make bold, early investments. It’s to our advantage that we started out with our corporate VC arm, and then in 2019 we launched Fark Labs.
Autonomy: And that’s separate to F+ Ventures?
Ahu: Yes and no. Fark Labs is an idea incubator, a place for young ambitious minds to dream big about a startup idea that could become a unicorn. F+ Ventures retains its investment structures and disciplines, and won’t fund a project unless there is a good business case. So, sometimes those two align and we both invest in and incubate a startup. You also have to be disciplined about funding your own startups, knowing when to spin them off or kill them off.
Autonomy: I see that one of your startups, DUCKT, is exhibiting at Autonomy Paris.
Ahu: Yes, it has developed the world’s first universal charging and docking station for micro mobility. The team went from initial idea to investment stage in only 17 months. It was recently acquired by San Francisco based e-bike company ACTON, and this shows the viability and strength of our startups. We also incubated Comodif in Fark Labs, Türkiye’s first connected car platform; it has a range of smart mobility offerings.
Autonomy: What are your other verticals at Fark Labs?
Ahu: Besides mobility, our verticals are life sciences, sustainable lifestyle, and emerging technologies. But mobility is still our most important pillar and we are very involved in Türkiye’s pivot to more sustainable modes. The European Institute of Innovation and Technology has regional innovations schemes (RIS) across certain countries. Fark Labs leads Turkiye’s RIS. So we have an important role to play in promoting mobility innovation in our home country.
What’s more, Türkiye has a programme of supporting innovation through TEKMER (tech development) centres. We provide office space, business development support, and a collaborative working environment through our TEKMER centre.
Autonomy: Can you help a foreign player who wants to set something up in Türkiye?
Ahu: Yes, we’re very passionate about promoting business and entrepreneurship here. I think Türkiye is a wonderful environment, rich with engineering talent, and costs here are relatively low compared to Europe. We can be a proof-of-concept partner or even a manufacturing partner, for a foreign startup here in Türkiye.
Autonomy: You also have densely populated cities that were built before cars, which of course is ideal to test new mobility solutions.
Ahu: That’s right, no doubt our cities are going to improve from shared, connected and active modes of travel.
Autonomy: Fark Labs also came up with an interesting last mile solution … Smart Box.
Ahu: Yes, one of our startups, MOBIQU, has sophisticated solutions for last-mile delivery. The idea started with cold chain transport, particularly in the pharmaceuticals industry.
It’s a testimony to our collaborative ecosystem that we could integrate that idea into last-mile food delivery. There were two separate projects that were united into a last-mile solution, and now Domino’s Pizza in Türkiye and Fuudy, a premium food delivery company, are among our primary partners on the Smart Box.
Autonomy: You are an example of a Tier 1 automotive supplier who has reinvented yourself in the investment and tech space. What advice do you have for those thousands of small and medium-sized businesses (many of them family-owned) who are being disrupted by the rise of new mobility?
Ahu: Yes, many family businesses will be disrupted in the automotive sector. Unless they can pivot away from being only a supplier and go back to their roots as entrepreneurs. The second and third generation who enter the family business should act like the first generation and be entrepreneurial. It’s important that the new generation writes its own story. This is an area we also support. We work with corporates that want our help in transforming themselves, and we help them do that by drawing on the experiences we’ve had in transforming Farplas Automotive.
Autonomy: Thank you very much, and we look forward to seeing Farplas Automotive and Fark Labs at Autonomy Paris on 16 March.