When Unlu & Co started life as an M&A boutique in 1996, international appetite for Turkish assets was almost non-existent. Several decades of extreme economic volatility had deterred all but the hardiest investors; foreign direct flows amounted to barely $500 million a year.
“We believed that if we could explain the opportunities presented by the Turkish market, we could get investors interested,” says founder and chairman Mahmut Unlu.
At the time, investment banking was also an alien concept to most local Turkish companies, so in the early years the new firm – then known as Dundas Unlu – worked mainly with foreign investors.
The business was growing nicely when, in 2001, Turkey was hit by twin currency and banking crises.
“For two years after that, the economy was in purgatory,” says Unlu. “Inward investment ground to a halt.”
By 2003, however, with the economy on the way to recovery and a reformist government in power promising extensive privatizations, foreign capital began to pour into Turkey. That in turn attracted international investment banks, who rushed to Istanbul to grab a share of the growing market.
That presented a challenge for independent players like Dundas Unlu.
“They were using their balance sheet to win capital markets mandates, which put us at a competitive disadvantage when it came to pricing,” says Unlu.
His firm decided to look for a partner that could provide balance sheet support and in 2007 sold a majority stake to Standard Bank.
“Everyone wanted to partner with us because we were the only established M&A platform in Turkey, plus by then we also had a brokerage arm,” says Unlu.
Standard Bank sold out again in 2012 as part of a broader exit from non-core assets. Its stake was bought by Unlu, who now owns 80% of the company.
The change of ownership has not put a noticeable dampener on the firm’s business. Today, Unlu & Co is Turkey’s leading independent investment bank, with a portfolio of ancillary businesses including asset management, private banking, non-performing loan management and private equity.
This diversification has helped the firm to weather the repeated bouts of volatility that have hit the Turkish market over the past five years.
“Investment banking fees have been under pressure due to the economic cycle, but our other businesses have produced much more reliable returns,” says Unlu.