With a name that translates from his language as a “brave-fair ruler,” Erhan Balaban is every bit the embodiment of a valiant leader for the lean but fierce team of Turkish Airlines in the Philippines.
This spirited son of Turkey is currently the general manager (GM) of his motherland’s flag carrier, overseeing its operations more than 5,000 miles away from home and family.
But being the main man of the award-winning Turkish Airlines (whose recognitions include six successive Best Airline in Europe since 2011; Best Airline in Southern Europe; Best Business Class Airline Catering; and Best Business Class Lounge Dining by Skytrax 2016), according to Balaban is no easy task, most especially when one has to build its presence from scratch.
In a sit-down interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, the young executive recalled the challenges of arriving in the Philippines with nothing but his luggage, some information about the country from global headlines of a raging typhoon, and a whole load of courage.
“I was appointed as GM of [operations in the]Philippines in October 2014. When I arrived I only [came]with my luggage here—nothing was ready. We had to register the company, get the necessary permits, everything,” he recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine.
“It was a busy period but valuable nonetheless as I built on my work experience, handling for first time accounting, operations, finance, marketing, sales, advertisement, and PR—almost every side of the business. But thinking about that journey again almost two years later—it provided positive lessons for my career,” Balaban continued.
Thankfully, the team of Filipinos he has been working with exhibited the trademark hospitality and warmth of this race, making the expatriate feel at ease from the outset.
Asked why the airline decided to expand into the Philippines, the young GM said the company believes what they have to offer will please the Filipino market.
“Turkey, which connects both Asia and Europe, is home to the second most number of places mentioned in the Bible. It is also next to the Holy Land of all of the divine religions. [We know] most Filipinos are in the market for pilgrimage tours, and we see this strong potential. Istanbul can be considered as a new pilgrimage destination too, and are ready to bring Filipino devotees there,” Balaban explained.
“The Philippines—where over 85 percent of the population of about 100 million profess to be Catholic—presents a potentially lucrative market for Istanbul. In addition; we have attractive tourist spots existing in Turkey, which I firmly believe can be an alternative to Seoul, Korea and Japanese destinations,” he added.
Balaban further highlighted the country’s geographical advantage, which Filipinos can now access with ease, thanks to frequent flights to and from Istanbul—the only city in the world that bridges two continents of Asia and Europe.
“Turkish Airlines has a great advantage of travel time because of its geographical position with great cost advantage. Istanbul—which has the best transfer point on Europe-Middle East, Europe-Far East and Asia, Europe-Africa, and America-Middle East lines—decreases flight time. By reason of its geographical location, Istanbul offers closer connections when compared with other possible transfer points. Istanbul links both East and West, which makes it possible for the airline to use a narrow body fleet, again offering great cost advantage. Manila is the 264th destination of Turkish Airlines’ flight network, and we offer one of the best flight ticket rates for all its destinations,” the GM thoroughly related.
Finally, Balaban proudly shared that their much-praised services complement the aforementioned advantages of Turkish Airlines, making their company an irresistible choice for Filipino jetsetters over other air transportation companies servicing the Philippines.
“Superior service is the distinguishing mark of Turkish Airlines. For one, we have a new catering service that enriches dining experience with ‘samovar’ and ‘candle light.’ We also continue to utilize our ‘Flying Chiefs’ on long flights to offer high quality on catering onboard. And for pop culture fans, we offer stellar cabin entertainment system with over 300 films and 1,000 CD albums, as well as radio and news channels,” Balaban enumerated.
Added to this list of exclusive in flight features is Turkish Airlines’ “Invest On Board” digital platform, which enables guests in-flight to encounter fascinating and enterprising ideas from important business figures; live TV; CIP Lounges, which bring a unique level of comfort and ease to passengers before and after their flights; WiFi service in the business class cabin; and most importantly, the “Turkish hospitality,” which Balaban proudly says runs in their blood.
As a result of the harmonious teamwork between two races, Balaban and his crew have been able to usher impressive growth for the airline in the Philippine market in a very short time.
“We started with three frequencies per week and now we offer daily flights between Istanbul and Manila. Not only that, at the moment, we have a new route and seven brand new aircrafts in use,” the GM enumerated.
With all the success Turkish Airlines has achieved in the Philippines over two years, Balaban enthused, “I share the slogan of your Department of Tourism: It is indeed more fun in the Philippines.”
Sweet and swift flight
Adjusting to a new environment as an expatriate is not the only thing that Balaban had accomplished sweetly and swiftly since Turkish Airlines’ debut in the Philippines. It is more impressive to know that the towering Turk became a top honcho of the airline at the young age of 30.
Far from arrogant, the young achiever related that his appointment did not come as a surprise to him based on three specific points.
“When I first started to work at Turkish Airlines, I discovered that it is rightly focused on making people happy. So I quickly learned that making people happy opens so many doors of opportunity. I also learned to have good relationships with everyone because every individual has value. In this industry, that is very important.
You see, if you start touching the hearts of your colleagues, you will learn how to touch the hearts of your passengers as well. I paid attention to those things and it worked,” the executive categorically explained.
He then credited his immediate superior at Turkish Airlines in Tokyo in preparing him for a higher position, and endorsing him for more responsibilities.
“Secondly, I have to give credit to my executive in Tokyo who has supported me a lot. I used to work at the sales and marketing division of Turkish Airlines in our head office for two years until I was appointed to Tokyo, Japan where global corporate accounts became my responsibility. I spent seven months there. I worked closely with my superior and I learned a lot from him in that period. When he was promoted Vice President of the company, he backed me up to ascend the corporate ladder,” the GM recalled.
Thirdly, he attributes his early success to education.
“My opportunity to study in the United Kingdom also helped me a lot in my career. I spent three years to complete my Masters in Business Administration at Cardiff University [formerly University of Wales Institute, Cardiff or UWIC], and took all my learning there to Turkish Airlines,” Balaban shared.
Altogether, living abroad as a student effectively prepared him to handle the challenges of working in a foreign country.
When asked for pointers on how to survive living in a foreign country—whether to study or for work—Balaban had this to say: “You need to smile all the time. It makes a whole lot of difference. And of course you have to be dedicated and hardworking. These two are necessary because you’re in a very complicated field, and you need to adjust to everything—and everything changes rapidly.”
As Turkish Airlines continues its steady growth in the Philippine market, Balaban happily told The Sunday Times Magazine that he has come to enjoy what his home for the moment has to offer.
“I have colleagues and countrymen here,” he enthused. “We gather for coffee on the weekends, and even lunch, or dinner on weekdays just to have some fun. Our favorite quick destination, I must say, is Tagaytay,” Balaban shared.
The GM said he has fallen in love the most with the Philippines for its natural beauty.
“I like Boracay, it’s one of my favorite places here. I’m interested in diving as well, and this country has a lot to offer to adrenaline junkies like me for sure. I’m more than willing to discover more adventures,” he gamely said.
Balaban also cited his appreciation for the Filipino hospitality and culture.
“Day by day I am learning more and more of the culture, and my Filipino team—I just need to mention—has extravagantly shown me such wonderful hospitality. They are very supportive and they’ve shown how generous Filipinos are in the truest sense of the word. Every day, they bring me presents, which motivate me to in leading them. It’s the best part of working here isn’t it?” he jested.
“But kidding aside—and to be honest with you—my story and Turkish Airlines’ story in the Philippines wouldn’t be a successful one if not for the kind support from my team,” the executive finally noted. “And for that, I’ll always be very grateful.”