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In Conversation with Hakan Bulgurlu
Leadership

In Conversation with Hakan Bulgurlu

Our CEO, Adam Penny, spoke to the business leader and environmentalist about his personal journey to becoming a sustainability leader, how business can shape the world for the better and what it takes to tackle Mount Everest.
1st Apr 2022

Just under three years ago, Arçelik CEO Hakan Bulgurlu reached the summit of the highest peak in the world. Despite tackling Everest in what has gone down as one of the most treacherous seasons in history, Hakan stood 8,849m above sea level – and came down a different man. 

His new book, A Mountain to Climb: A Summit Beyond Everest, charts his journey from deciding to climb the mountain, to how the experience has impacted his leadership and business decisions.

Our CEO, Adam Penny, spoke to the business leader and environmentalist about his personal journey to becoming a sustainability leader, how business can shape the world for the better and what it takes to tackle Mount Everest. 

Adam: You became CEO of Arçelik in 2015. What did you inherit when you took over as CEO? What did you immediately want to change?

Hakan: The first thing I had to accept was that we needed to change. We make appliances that make people’s everyday lives easier, but they consume a lot of energy and require a lot of carbon-intensive materials to make. We have 29 large factories around the world. Our impact is significant because we have scale. 

And it has got to be scaled businesses that begin to transform and become more sustainable. That’s one of the things I noticed when I took over in 2015 – no one else at this level seemed to be doing it. And the bottom line is that it makes good business sense to differentiate yourself from your competitors by doing the right thing. 

Consumers are living through climate change – they see the wildfires, the floods, the heatwaves. They are going to vote with their money and buy services and products from businesses that have gone through this transformation. 

It’s difficult because nobody wants to do it. It’s difficult because it’s uncomfortable. And the first step to getting cleaner is admitting that you’re dirty. It’s not an easy journey.

Adam: How do people become concerned about the environment? Why do we connect with nature? 

Hakan: I credit my parents with exposing me to nature at a very young age. It was always combined with storytelling in the form of history and mythology. I also had a deep love for the ocean, and remember being concerned about the cleanliness of beaches, the abundance of sea life from a very young age. I think that awareness led me to pay close attention to the changes that have been happening to our planet in the last 30 or 40 years. 

“It has got to be scaled businesses that begin to transform and become more sustainable.”

Unfortunately, since my birth, we have destroyed 68% of ecosystems and habitats. And when future generations ask what has happened, we have no excuses: it is us. There is no one else to point the finger at. 

Adam: What were the main challenges you faced on this journey to transforming Arçelik into one of the pioneers of sustainable business? 

Hakan: Possibly the biggest challenge is people being bored by sustainability. For many, it’s an abstract subject, and that causes a lot of problems. An abstract concept with a very long term deadline is a recipe for inaction. We have these global goals that are oriented around the years 2030 and 2050, but for many people that seems an age away, and it feels to them like we don’t have to act today. That’s a big mistake. 

We also often treat nature as an infinite resource. Scarcity should drive prices up, but when it comes to nature, we consume as though it won’t ever run out. We don’t place the correct and necessary value on nature. 

So another challenge I have found is convincing my team that even though there is an initial cost to sustainability, we’re actually investing in our future and ultimately this is going to return more than we’re putting in. 

“The bottom line is that it makes good business sense to differentiate yourself from your competitors by doing the right thing.”

I also think that establishing credibility and authenticity are key – and they’re both hard to do. The whole reason I climbed Everest was because it was hard for people to listen to sustainability, but suddenly when I would post updates on my training alongside information on climate change, people were more engaged. 

I think the tangible risk to life of an endeavour like climbing Everest makes people sit up and pay attention, and it automatically provides a level of credibility, commitment and authenticity. 

People would ask, when you’re successful in life, why are you taking that personal risk? And the answer to that was, if I can take this risk and succeed with discipline and the preparation, I will have a bigger audience to discuss issues that really matter. 

Adam: You talk a lot about discipline and taking small steps. Why is that so important? 

Hakan: Because we need hope. It’s mind-boggling that we have such a strong survival instinct, yet when it comes to climate change we’re getting it wrong. 

And I do believe in humankind. 

We know we have data. We know that the climate is changing at a rate that is very threatening to our species. We know that if we don’t do something about it now, it’s going to be much tougher later on. 

So that’s why small, disciplined changes now are so crucial. It’s about changing your consumption habits, your eating habits, the way you travel, how you do business. 

“When future generations ask what has happened, we have no excuses: it is us. There is no one else to point the finger at.”

Adam: Do you think people find it hard to start changing habits because the concept is so big and they lack an understanding of it? 

Hakan: Definitely. 2030 is far away, right? But when you break it down, it’s only 408 weeks away. At Arçelik, we have a clock that is counting down the weeks. It helps us to focus and make changes now rather than procrastinating.

Adam: What’s the importance of environmental literacy and connection to nature?

Hakan: If you don’t see the change, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, if you can’t see nature, then how do you know what you’re losing? How do you know when it’s gone if you haven’t seen it in the first place? 

The disconnect from nature and from what we should be trying to protect is a real problem. I believe the solution starts with reconnecting with the natural world, spending time outdoors and bringing our children up in environments that allow them to understand the value of nature. 

“Small, disciplined changes are crucial. It’s about changing your consumption habits, your eating habits, the way you travel, how you do business.”

Adam: You were at COP26 last year – what were your feelings about it? Were you disappointed or inspired? 

Hakan: Many people were disappointed after COP26, but I’m an optimist. The reason I left on a positive note was not because of government pledges or negotiations, but because of the way business leaders showed up. 

For the first time I saw a huge number of business leaders recognising an opportunity. They saw that if they can transform their business quicker than their competitors, they will get an advantage. And that gave me real hope because when you get businesses attacking something for competitive advantage, change happens fast and governments follow with the necessary regulations. 

Adam: Tell me about why you decided to climb Everest. 

Hakan: A friend said to me, you’re never alone. You take your phone everywhere. You have a driver in the car. You’re always contactable and available. Always, always, always with people. 

It really made me contemplate my lifestyle. I left my phone, got on a boat to some rocks and stayed there alone for a few days. It was really difficult. It forced me to face myself and the truth. I realised that I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do, and that if I was truly going to make a difference in the world, I needed to do something meaningful that would give me credibility as a leader and allow me to leverage the passion I have for sustainability. 

I saw an article in the Financial Times about climbing Everest, and the idea was planted. 

While I was training, I would post updates on social media alongside information about sustainability. I realised that people were getting hooked on the story of Everest, but also learning about climate change. And I realised that I could combine the two. 

Adam: In your book you described going up with a certain kind of gumption and confidence, but feeling very humbled on the other side of the experience. Tell me a little more about that transformation. 

Hakan: By the end of the climb, I very much had my tail between my legs. I was so broken. I went up for all the wrong reasons and with all the wrong belief systems, and I was transformed.

I went about as prepared as you can be for Everest. But I quickly realised that your own preparation makes up about 1% of the experience – the other 99% is the mountain, the conditions, the weather. 

You can’t retain an ego when you’re begging for your life. And it changed me – I came down with a newfound awareness. I realised it’s not all about growth and making money, but that the more important balance sheet is becoming a purposeful leader and creating a purposeful business. 

“At COP26, for the first time I saw a huge number of business leaders showing up.”

Adam: Because of the conditions, climbing Everest very literally forces people to confront mortality as you see other climbers who didn’t make it. Talk to me about your mental state on the mountain.

Hakan: It was extremely tough. You look left and right and you can see climbers who have potentially been there for years and years – no one can get you down if you don’t make it down yourself. 

But for me, it was the people that were dying that were harder to confront coming down. Because you have one line, you have to unclip yourself and step over them. While they’re begging for oxygen, begging for water, begging for their lives, you have to leave them there. If you stop and help, you’re condemning yourself to death too. 

We had a talk from one of the guides before we went up the mountain. But it wasn’t a pep talk about camaraderie and making it to the top. It was, you do not help another person. I don’t care what happens. You do not help another person because you will die. If you become immobile, if you can’t stand on your two feet and move, we will leave you there. 

So in many ways it’s an incredibly isolating experience. You are very much alone in that climb. 

“I realised it’s not all about growth and making money, but that the more important balance sheet is becoming a purposeful leader and creating a purposeful business.”

Adam: Talk to me about how summitting changed your perspective on the rest of your life. 

Hakan: I’ve always loved the Earthrise picture – the photo taken from the moon looking back at our planet. In whichever direction you look, it’s grey and empty. And then suddenly there is this stream of light and something brilliantly blue. Our Earth. 

I couldn’t help feeling a similar sense of awe at that altitude. You can see the curvature of the Earth, the blueness of space and you feel insignificant. Like a speck of dust. 

The feeling of helplessness really hammered home the fact that we cannot consume or control nature. If we can’t survive in a new climate, nature will persevere and just get rid of us. We need to learn how to survive with nature. 

Adam: Were there any specific moments on the climb that you think will always stay with you? 

Hakan: Yes. I was coming down and had fallen behind other climbers. Going down, you don’t have the tension of the line to pull yourself along, and you’re also doing it in the daylight. You can see 3,000 metres straight down, and there’s nothing to break your fall. If you slip, that’s it. 

I came to a 30 metre cliff and I realised I’d made a mistake. Further up the mountain, I’d given someone my sunglasses because his had broken. I thought it would be OK because I had goggles, but as I got to this cliff, they started steaming up. I couldn’t see anything, and took them off, but then snow blindness set in. I knew I had around 4 minutes until I couldn’t see again. But then my regulator froze too. I couldn’t see properly, I couldn’t breathe, I was slipping, and I felt like it was over. 

But something happened in my belly. I felt this immense warmth, and I started to feel like I could see further and hear things from hundreds of metres away. It was the sort of moment where a mother lifts a car to save her baby. 

Ultimately, I managed to get a grip and I got down the cliff. An Austrian guide saw me and climbed back up to give me sunglasses and change my regulator – saving my life. 

I later read up on this phenomenon, where the body, when confronted with death, triggers a nerve at the front of our brain which heralds all the energy and resources of the body into surviving. It also triggers a period of increased neuroplasticity – something that humans naturally have when we’re young and our neurons are forging new connections in the brain. 

The increased neuroplasticity is why people who have had near death experiences can actually change character quite drastically. I believe that I shifted my character. And part of the reason for that shift was realising that I’m utterly insignificant in the face of nature. 

Adam: How did that change you as a leader?

Hakan: Well, it completely changed my focus on life. I now look at everything in light of how it will impact sustainability. Every action we take, every investment we make, we look at how it stacks up against our decarbonisation goals. 

“I love the photo taken from the moon looking back at our planet. In whichever direction you look, it’s grey and empty. And then suddenly there is this stream of light and something brilliantly blue. Our Earth.”

It’s also changed the way I interact with my team, how I think about my legacy and the company’s legacy: how are we making an example out of this? What is the environment and the impact? What are we doing in terms of our de-carbonization goals? What kind of world do I want to leave behind? 

It’s made me think about what a leader needs to be in the 21st century – and it’s not a hierarchical one. What you need is to be a servant leader. Surround yourself with subject matter experts who know more than you, and then you let them shine. Just give them the space to execute. 

When people start working in that kind of environment, they thrive. They don’t mind failing. They don’t mind sharing the shortcomings. They don’t mind talking about who they really are. All the masks disappear – that’s the leadership that our world needs going forwards.