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Expat tobacco exec impressed with Turkish business culture

After having worked in Russia for the past 10 years, Jonathan Varnell has moved to Turkey a year ago. The very first thing that made Varnell happy about his decision to move seems to be the weather. “It is the first time in ten years I have not seen snow,” he says. He is also seems happy to have find a business environment similar to that in the United States, especially after his experience in Russia.

The director of Japanese Tobacco International’s new global training center near İzmir was born into the industry; his ancestors first came to the United States in the 15th century on a ship carrying tobacco.

Jonathan Varnell moved to Turkey a year ago after working in Russia for 10 years. The very first thing that made him happy about his decision to move was the weather.

“It is the first time in 10 years I haven’t seen snow,” he said.

Varnell also seems happy to have found a business environment similar to that in the United States, where he was born to a tobacco-producing family in Petersburg, Virginia, especially after his experiences in Russia.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina and serving in the military, Varnell started working in the tobacco industry. He transferred from JTI’s first global training center, in St. Petersburg, to its second one, established recently at the company’s tobacco factory in Torbalı, near the Aegean city of İzmir.

In 1999, the newly married Varnell could not turn down the offer to build a new cigarette factory in Russia, his first experience working and living outside of the United States. “This was a new experience for me because I was always involved in selling the tobacco leaf and never dealt with how to make cigarettes,” he said.

When he moved to Russia, it was right after the financial crash, which had led to a desperate economic situation. “I was hiring people with Ph.D. degrees as cleaners. People who had higher levels of education than me were working as my subordinates. Thank God it changed later on,” he said.

“We Americans are naïve. We take everyone at face value. You tell me, I take it as it is,” he said, explaining the difference between working cultures in the United States and Russia.

In Russia, Varnell said, a person can easily be taken advantage of. “My acumen increased greatly. When dealing with a local supplier, I checked everything twice. I checked their financial background,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done this in the United States.”

When it comes to comparing Russia with Turkey, though, the first thing that comes to Varnell’s mind is not about the culture of doing business; it is about the weather. “The first time I came to İzmir, some of my friends would call me and I would say, ‘There are blue skies and no clouds.’ Everyday it’s like that: blue skies, no clouds and sunny,” he said. “Whereas there is little sunshine in wintertime in Russia, which can be depressing.”

Varnell’s wife is Korean and he says her Turkish is better than his, as the roots of the Turkish and Korean languages have some similarities. He added that when Turks find out about the nationality of his wife, they recall how Turkey fought for Korea during the Cold War. Varnell is also taking Turkish courses. “As a foreigner, you need to take up the local culture and you can do that by picking up the local language,” he said.

Coming to Turkey was a refreshing change for Varnell, not only for weather reasons but also for professional ones, as he is enjoying being back in a business culture more similar to the one in the United States. “Time is money; there is no waste of time,” he said, noting that he is impressed by the professionalism in Turkey.

“I go on business trips. Everyone is on time. People are highly skilled and highly motivated. They want to make progress in their careers,” he said. “You don’t always find this combination.”

The construction of the global functioning training center started in October and was finished by January. “This was done in a very short time, whereas people here found it very normal. That shows the talent and education level,” he said. He also said he did not stumble on bureaucratic obstacles.

Varnell employs a significant numbers of Turkish experts in his training center, which he said shows the talent capacity of the company’s factory in İzmir.

According to Varnell, 50 Turkish nationals work for JTI in several countries, including 20 at the company’s headquarters in Geneva.


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