Ümit BAYRAKTAR / firstname.lastname@example.org
Alper ÇALIK / email@example.com
Today, Samsun Yurt Savunma (SYS) has an annual production capacity reaching 400,000 handguns which are 75 percent of Turkey’s total handgun exports. The company was established in 1998 as an investment by Aral family which is known for their industrial efforts since the 1950s. H. Zafer Aral, the current Chairman of the Board, began his industrial career in 1967 and boasts a successful track record in the management of various factories owned by the Aral Group of Companies. His industrial expertise, as well as his contributions to the establishment and development of SYS into what it is today, ensure Aral’s recognition as an eyewitness of a true success story. Aral took the time to provide us with his insights into the past, present, and successes of SYS.
MSI TDR: As we all know; industrial entrepreneurism runs deep in your family. Could you tell us about your industrial career?
H. Zafer ARAL: My late father, Cahit Aral, was one of the very first engineers in the modern Turkish Republic, holding the registration number 1200 in the Chamber of Mechanical Engineers (CME). He graduated from the Istanbul University Faculty of Mechanics in 1952, along with some famous names in Turkey who graduated from the same university in the 1950–1952 period, including İdris Yamantürk, Necmettin Erbakan, Süleyman Demirel, Üzeyir Garih and Turgut Özal, all of whom have played leading roles in the Turkish nation at some time or another.
My father started working for the General Directorate of Highways (GDH) in 1953 but left in 1955 to establish Aral Motors in Kayseri province, taking his first step along the road to becoming an industrialist. Aral Motors developed the very first patented Turkish diesel engine. In the 1960s he founded meySu, which is a fruit juice producer, and meyBuz in 1972. His career led him to manage many factories, and in a way, he can be said to have founded the theory of industrialism in Turkey. Thereafter, he founded rice processing factories, feed mills, and various food factories all over Turkey, and served as the Minister of Industry and Commerce for a period.
First Ventures into Defence
MSI TDR: So how did the idea of SYS emerge? Can you explain the process?
H. Zafer ARAL: Actually, the roots of the defence sector can be traced back to the first terrorist attack in 1984 by the PKK, in the district of Eruh. After this despicable act, a delegation of ministers, including my father, visited the region where they first attend a briefing and were then shown the weapons used by the soldiers and those used by PKK terrorists. Seeing all of these convinced my father that our soldiers deserved better weapons, and the idea of investing in the defence sector took root in the family. There were no established policies aimed at the development and strengthening of the Turkish defence sector at that time, and it would remain that way until the establishment of the Defence Industry Development and Support Administration Office in 1985, which later became the Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB). As the 2000s neared, we realised that Turkey needed to embrace change and direct its efforts towards tech-intensive industries if progress was to be achieved. This necessitated a move into the high-tech sectors rather than those dealing with textiles, furniture, and food, as while low-tech sectors can create employment and added value, they cannot increase the wealth or bring about the industrial transformation of a country. In the 1980s, per capita income reached $40,000 in some countries but was only around $2,000–2,500 in Turkey. Similarly, Turkey’s total export volume was around $3.5 billion, while imports stood at $5 billion. We were well aware that something had to be done on this front, and while the defence and aerospace sector was not so popular, it offered significant potential.
In 1993, the East Black Sea Weapon Project was launched during the coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan and Tansu Çiller in which companies were to be established under the supervision and responsibility of the Mechanical and Chemical Industry Company (MKEK) with a view to privatising domestic weapon production. The project also aimed at bringing an end to the illegal handgun production activities in the Black Sea region, which had grown into a significant problem. Weapons manufacturers were few and far between in Turkey at the time, with no exports, no trademarks, and not even a company – it was a field completely devoid of activity. The idea got many people motivated, and partnerships and joint-stock companies were established, leading to investments in the sector.
I believe it was a very good call, although the methodology was a little problematic, as the defence sector, unlike other sectors, requires deep know-how, and at that time, nobody was willing to sell their knowledge. As such, most of the newly established companies failed due to a lack of R&D or their inability to come up with a product.
One of the companies that emerged at the time was Samsun Silah Sanayi (Samsun Armament Industries), which was operating out of a rather small workshop of around 500 sq. meters in Samsun but was unable to come up with a product, just like others. The company owners visited Ali Rıza Çarmıklı, the founder of Çarmıklı Holding, and asked for his support, although he tried, all efforts failed, as Çarmıklı was in Istanbul and the company was in Samsun. Later, the owners approached us and offered to sell us their company. While it had no product, it did have some assets, such as workbenches, production permits, and licenses. The benches were regular machining equipment, including turning, milling, drilling, and grinding machines, but they were no more than 10 in number. We decided to found a new company rather than taking over this existing one, and in 1998 we founded SYS, and purchased the equipment, licenses, and permits of that company. This was our very first venture into the defence and aerospace sector.
R&D is the Key
MSI TDR: What was the path following SYS’ establishment?
H. Zafer ARAL: One of the greatest challenges we faced in 1998 when we established SYS was the fact that we had not a single marketable product. When we first started, all we had were a couple of licenses and a tiny workshop. While efforts of sorts had been made up until that time, there was simply no product to show for it. We immediately launched R&D works from scratch, on the assumption that no previous work had been done, creating a wholly science-based team, and then invested in new machines, thus starting out on our long journey.
At that point, unlike many companies created within the scope of the Eastern Black Sea Weapons Project, we were fully aware that success in defence industry is a marathon and not a sprint, and that we had to endure and not quit. It must be understood that R&D in this field is a long and challenging process, and one may have to wait many years before being able to put a real product on the market. We had an advantage, however, in that we had many other factories working in different sectors. After its foundation, SYS worked solely on R&D for around 10 years, during which time we financed SYS exclusively from the revenues generated by our other factories.
Coming to 2005, we were able to launch our very first indigenous products onto the market, and reached a monthly production capacity of around 50–100 handguns. Considering that now we produce 1,500 handguns a day, these numbers are very, very modest. Domestic sales of the handguns began to pick up, although Turkish consumers had little to no expectations, whatsoever, about the gun they were buying as regards to performance, and so the success in domestic sales could very provide a false sense of security. With this in mind, we opted to expand our business into the most challenging market in the world – the United States.
The first member of Polymer Frame TP9 handgun family was launched in 2009, and we immediately tried our chances in the US market, yielding great success. In the United States, everyone, including the general public, is a user, and the positive or negative aspects of a product are spread by word of mouth very quickly. In this environment, substandard products do not survive. In an attempt to build upon our success in such a large and challenging market, we decided to invest further in 2010, and established the CANİK USA joint venture in the United States.
With a focus on quality rather than quantity, we started to invest in new machines to further enhance our production quality, and they started to arrive in 2012.
Also in 2012, we were awarded a contract by the Turkish National Police (TNP) following a tender, and the CANİK TP9 duly became the very first Polymer Frame handgun to be developed domestically in Turkey for an end-user. This project was also our first venture into large-scale serial production, and we were subsequently awarded many more contracts, satisfying the needs of the state in this area.
We didn’t stop there, as we went on to win many domestic tenders, including the Indigenous Local Handgun Development (ÖYTG) Project launched by the SSB. Now we are in the enviable position of being responsible for 75 percent of all handgun exports from Turkey. To date, we have produced approximately 2.5 million handguns, 2 million of which have been exported to the United States.
One of the greatest challenges we faced in 1998 when we established SYS was the fact that we had not a single marketable product. When we first started, all we had were a couple of licenses and a tiny workshop. While efforts of sorts had been made up until that time, there was simply no product to show for it. We immediately launched R&D works from scratch, on the assumption that no previous work had been done.
If You Do Business, Be in the Top 3
MSI TDR: During this process, did you face any other challenges besides R&D?
H. Zafer ARAL: My father used to say: “If you do business, be in the top 3.” The defence sector is even more challenging. If you cannot offer a product that can compete to world standards, you will not even penetrate the defence sector, let alone survive. Recognising this, right from the start we aimed to be the best and set the bar very high. Our greatest struggle was overcoming that, and in time we’ve demonstrated our capabilities, surpassing some of the largest brands in the world.
Another challenge was the preference for foreign products among domestic end-users, and to overcome this, we started out by addressing a much greater challenge by succeeding in making a name for ourselves in the export market. CANİK, as the flagship model of SYS, ranks fourth on the list of the most imported handguns in the United States. As we gained recognition in the United States, more and more people started to acknowledge us in Turkey. I often say: The English pronunciation of our brand CANİK is something like “kh-eey-nick”, and so I tell people we became CANİK in Turkey only after we became “Kheynick” in the United States.
MSI TDR: You said the “Defence industry very challenging”. Could you elaborate on this?
H. Zafer ARAL: If you want to be a major player in the defence sector, you need to produce nothing short of the very best, as there is no place for runners-up. Let me give you an example: Suppose you are travelling from Ankara to Istanbul. You could travel in an old car, a 1950s Fiat 124, for example, or in a high-end luxurious Mercedes car. One is more comfortable and faster, and the other, let’s just say not so much – but eventually, both will get you to Istanbul. This, however, does not apply to defence industries. When a need for a weapon system emerges, that system should meet all of your needs and cover all mission objectives. If a weapon system achieves anything less than 100 percent, it shouldn’t exist in the first place.
This is why military or security organisations cannot say “we need cheaper ones; quality is not a factor”. CANİK handguns are supplied to many different official agencies, in which the only factors that matter for decision-makers are the best interests of the State, not their own. The military and security personnel who are the end-users of such products trust our handguns with their lives, and this is not only in Turkey, as the same applies in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Everyone wants the best weapon. This is no place for a runner-up. That’s why we did not rush the R&D process and did not stop until we had achieved the very best in the world. Nuri Killigil was the greatest inspiration in our R&D works.
We went on to win many domestic tenders, including the Indigenous Local Handgun Development (ÖYTG) Project launched by the SSB. Now we are in the enviable position of being responsible for 75 percent of all handgun exports from Turkey. To date, we have produced approximately 2.5 million handguns, 2 million of which have been exported to the United States.
First Striker-fired Handgun in the World
MSI TDR: Can you elaborate on how Nuri Killigil influenced you?
H. Zafer ARAL: Nuri Killigil was one of Turkey’s greatest engineers. There is a global understanding that the first striker-fired handgun without a hammer was invented by the Walther or Glock companies, although in truth, the first such firearms were created by Nuri Killigil in the 1940s. The design subsequently gained popularity around the 1980s and became widespread around the world. Nuri Killigil is so important for us in this regard, and our R&D efforts are guided by his principles. Thanks to all these efforts, CANİK was the very first brand to develop an original and modern striker-fired handgun, and we named the R&D centre we established in 2018 in our factory in Samsun after Nuri Killigil.
SYS – a Leading Actor in the Sector
MSI TDR: Unlike most handgun manufacturers in Turkey, SYS also is a defence and aerospace company. How did this dual identity emerge?
H. Zafer ARAL: Once the first handguns developed by our company reached a certain level of maturity, in 2005, we started to produce different handgun components for MKEK so as to further increase our production capabilities. In 2008 we took the first step in the field of aerospace and missile systems by starting to manufacture different components for Roketsan and Turkish Aerospace, although in 2015 we decided to quit the aerospace sector. Similarly, when the time came when we needed to focus more on the serial production of our handguns due to increasing production numbers, we stopped bidding for Mechanical and Chemical Industry Company (MKEK) contracts.
Our collaboration with Roketsan, on the other hand, is continuing, and we are engaged in very special production activities for them, having invested in machinery specifically for Roketsan production. From time to time, our collaboration with Roketsan goes beyond manufacturing and has reached a point at which we contribute the products with our design expertise.
400,000 Handguns per Year
MSI TDR: How did SYS’ production capabilities evolve?
H. Zafer ARAL: Our production capabilities have increased tremendously over the years. SYS is built on 50 years of industrial experience and is today a defence giant, manufacturing 3,000 12.7 mm heavy machine guns in addition to 400,000 handguns per year. We currently have three production facilities in Turkey with a total indoor production area of 45,000 sq. meters, every centimetre of which is equipped with high-end technology. We also own a 5,000 sq. meter production facility in the United States. SYS itself employs 750 people, however, its ecosystem, including our affiliates and subcontractors, represents a dynamic squad of 1,500 people. To put all these figures into perspective, SYS, on the strength of its well-known brand CANİK, is currently the seventh-largest small firearms manufacturer in the world.
Thanks to our well-established processes and matured serial production capabilities, which are optimised with the best available techniques, we can rapidly enter a concept into serial production in the most effective way. In all critical processes that have an impact on the quality of the final product, we utilise robotic technologies to eliminate human error. For the production of firearms, we use the same high-tech infrastructure that we utilise in our production of rocket and missile subsystems.
Our facilities boast a CMM (Coordinated Measuring Machine) that can measure in 3D up to an accuracy of 1/10,000, and we are one of only a handful of companies in Turkey with such a machine. We also have machines and cutting tools that can operate at the same level of precision and accuracy. These machines have all been imported, although there were times when companies did not want to sell to us due to covert embargoes. Overcoming these hurdles, we somehow managed to purchase them. We are one of the top five manufacturers in Turkey in terms of our precision production capabilities in all sectors.
Our investments in Samsun have reached $120 million to date. Soon, we are planning to bring all of the production capabilities of three factories together in one larger facility. To this end, we have started making investments into a new factory to be established in Samsun on a total surface area of 245,000 sq. meters.
MSI TDR: In addition to handguns, SYS also develops heavy machine guns. Can you give us reasons for your choice in this market segment?
H. Zafer ARAL: Most light arms manufactures are also involved in other types of firearms, and we felt it was time for us to follow suit. Our government offered assault rifle serial production to us, as they did with other manufacturers at the time, but there were too many manufacturers in this market segment in Turkey, which leads inevitably to some conflicts of interest. We wanted to use our resources more effectively, which led us to gravitate towards heavy machine guns rather than assault rifles, as a market segment in which we believed there to be a more critical need.
Our efforts bore fruit, and we have subsequently been granted production permits for heavy machine guns by the government. We are poised to start serial production and have already received purchase orders from abroad.
Being a Global Brand Has Been the Objective Since the Start
MSI TDR: What was the main objective you wanted to achieve when creating SYS? How close are you to meeting that objective?
H. Zafer ARAL: Initially, the Turkish Standards Institute (TSE) had the authority to issue ISO 9001 certificates, so we made all the necessary preparations required to be granted this document and underwent all the necessary audits, and just one last meeting was all that was needed. As you may know, if you apply for an ISO 9001 certificate, you need to have a vision and mission statement in place, and we had already prepared all of these. In our final meeting with the TSE committee, the committee head said: “It says here that your target is to become a global brand. I think you need to have more realistic targets!” Well today, that target is now a reality, as we have become a global brand.
They Said “Turks Can’t Handle This”
MSI TDR: Can you give us some concrete examples of what allows you to define yourself a world brand?
H. Zafer ARAL: It’s not our claim, but rather an assessment of our competitors who themselves are global brands. Let me tell you a true story. We were having dinner with the executives of the world’s leading firearms companies at one of the SHOT Shows in the United States. The boss of Glock said to me: “When I first heard about you, I said ‘Turks cannot handle this line of business, they are not here for the long run’. We all thought that your success was temporary like other Turkish companies, but we were wrong. Today, you are a global brand.”
As yet another example, a committee of academicians from Samsun Ondokuz Mayıs University went to a conference in the United States. When responding “Turkey” to the question, “so, where are you from?”, the people replied, “Ah! We know CANİK in Turkey”.
In a survey conducted in the United States, when the respondents were asked about any Turkish brands they knew, CANİK was one of the top three most-recognised Turkish brands in the country, along with Turkish Airlines.
Competitors are 300-Year-Old Companies
MSI TDR: What are the greatest challenges you have experienced in the United States, and in the international market in general?
H. Zafer ARAL: Right from the start, we sought to compete with the global titans, not with local companies. When we first sought to sell CANİK handguns in the United States, some of those titans told us: “No one will be interested in a Turkish brand, not when there are so many brands available. Your brand is unknown. Our brand is well recognised and appreciated by 350 million Americans, so why not subcontract our brand?” We refused their offers and decided to push ahead with our brand, but we still needed a distribution network. This led us to enter into an agreement with American Century Arms, but only to benefit from their distribution networks.
You should remember that our competitors are titans like Glock, Heckler & Koch, Sig, Taurus, FN Herstal, and Smith & Wesson, and when you consider Colt and Smith & Wesson have been producing firearms since the 1700s, that Sig and Sauer merged in the 1850s, that Heckler & Koch sold Mauser Rifles to the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s, and that you can see an invoice sent by Beretta to the Vatican 500 years ago at the entrance of their factory, it becomes apparent that we are competing with 250–300-year-old companies in average all over the world. Naturally, they have tremendous experience, know-how, and market share in the global markets, and so our greatest challenge in international markets was to find a place among them.
We were having dinner with the executives of the world’s leading firearms companies at one of the SHOT Shows in the United States. The boss of Glock said to me: “When I first heard about you, I said ‘Turks cannot handle this line of business, they are not here for the long run’. We all thought that your success was temporary like other Turkish companies, but we were wrong. Today, you are a global brand.”
MSI TDR: Why do you lean so much on exports?
H. Zafer ARAL: Exports are at the very heart of commercial sustainability. If you invest only to satisfy Turkey’s domestic needs, your business will not go beyond its first 10 years. That’s not sustainable. Let me give you an example from a different area of the defence sector. Say your country needs 5,000 tanks. If you produce 500 tanks per year, then you’ll fulfil the entire need in 10 years. Then what will you do? These are not exactly consumable products, right? That’s why you always need to aim for exports. Product, export, and brand are the musts in this business.
MSI TDR: So how important is the quality of your products in your endeavours to penetrate the export markets?
H. Zafer ARAL: To survive in such a huge market where your competitors are so well-established, and all users can test your products at any given time, you must be different, and the difference must be recognisable by everyone, not just experts in the field. Handgun production is a traditional craft in the Black Sea region; everyone does it, but there is no company other than CANİK that has had such an impact in the export markets and that can surpass the global titans in the field.
To create such a difference, we focus on the three factors that people deem to be most important while developing the TP9 family:
- Precision trigger,
- Ergonomics and
- Rapid acquisition of sight picture.
CANİK has the most precise trigger among its peers around the world, and this is a fact that is acknowledged by all manufacturers. On the ergonomics front, we carried out an intensive 2-year R&D study with the support of the Special Operations Department of the Turkish National Police, thus coming up with a handgun that best suits the structure and form of the human hand and wrist. With the guns of other manufacturers, you may need to tilt your wrist slightly upward or downward while pointing the gun at the target, and their guns never perfectly fit your grasp. CANİK guns, on the other hand, are like a natural extension of the human body, allowing you to use our handguns with ease and comfort. In short, we have developed a family of handguns that point naturally at the target as soon as they are unsheathed.
Of course, the production precision of our handguns is of the highest quality. The common practice is to strap the weapon to a special testing stand for firing tests so as to avoid human error during testing. In the past, the standard was to have 10 shots fired consecutively at a distance of 25 meters hit a circle 15 centimetres in radius. After the success of our handguns, the National Police changed its testing standards from 15 to 12 centimetres, and CANİK handguns achieved a dispersion value of 6.5–7 centimetres in the same tests. All of these test results can be achieved by every single one of the 1,500 handguns that roll off the serial production line every day. Our handguns are the only serially produced weapons to achieve such dispersion values, which are usually expected only from custom-made handguns, not a single serially produced handgun can match our dispersion value.
MSI TDR: What can you tell about the contributions of your late father, Cahit Aral, to your success?
H. Zafer ARAL: Put simply, he was one of Turkey’s greatest industrialists. He founded a large number of factories and had a profound understanding of global competition and success. The greatest support he provided to the conception and launch of SYS was his motivation. His support was unshakable, but unfortunately, he passed away before SYS could achieve so many successes and reach its current position. I only wish he could have seen this success. I know for a fact that he would be brimming with pride.
A Generation That Says: We Can Survive Only if Our State Exist
MSI TDR: How are you preparing the future generation of SYS?
H. Zafer ARAL: First of all, we are making sure they receive the best education there is. Secondly, we have already handed the most important legacy of the family over to them, being the essential principles of honesty, candidness, and transparency. It was originally Vehbi Koç who said this, but my father would often say the same: “We Can Survive Only if Our State Exist!” We are going to hand SYS down to a generation with a profound understanding of what this means. I believe I have been able to carry further what my father handed down to me, and I can see the same light in the eyes of the next generation of SYS managers, like Utku Aral and Didem Aral, and firmly believe that they will carry the success of SYS to next level.
Today, we rank 4th among the global handgun producers exporting to the United States, having been ranked 5th in the previous year. Now only Glock, HS and Taurus are ahead of us, as we have surpassed Beretta, Heckler & Koch, FN Herstal, and CZ.
4th Largest Exporter of Handguns to the United States
MSI TDR: Could you share with us your thoughts about SYS’s contributions to the Turkish defence and aerospace sector?
H. Zafer ARAL: Today, SYS has reached a point at which the largest handgun manufacturers in the world are taking the time to get in their private jets and come to Samsun to meet us. Our exports today correspond to over 75 percent of Turkey’s total handgun exports, and 80 percent of our entire production that was exported rose to 90 percent in 2020. So, who are the other handgun manufacturers seeing success in exports to the United States? Heckler & Koch and Walther from Germany, Glock from Austria, FN Herstal from Belgium, Taurus from Brazil, CZ from the Czech Republic, HS from Croatia, and Beretta from Italy. German Heckler & Koch and Walther, Austrian Glock, Belgian FN Herstal, Brazilian Taurus, Czech CZ, Croatian HS, and the Italian Beretta. A US agency monthly announces the statistics about which countries export what type of weapons to the United States. Today, we rank 4th among the global handgun producers exporting to the United States, having been ranked 5th in the previous year. Now only Glock, HS, and Taurus are ahead of us, as we have surpassed Beretta, Heckler & Koch, FN Herstal, and CZ.
MSI TDR: What is the greatest challenge ahead for SYS?
H. Zafer ARAL: We need to maintain the momentum of our global success. All manufacturers in the handgun sector create their products using a couple of different system architectures that are globally acknowledged. The most notable ones are the famous model 1911 and the Glock system. I am proud to say that we use the architecture developed by Nuri Killigil. Heckler & Koch and Walther were using the same architecture. When we entered the market, our competitors lost a considerable market share, especially in the United States, and our market share kept increasing. Today, we are a firm whose products are copied. We lead the market with our CANİK brand. Accordingly, the greatest challenge ahead involves maintaining this position.
We would like to thank H. Zafer ARAL, Chairman of the Board of SYS, for taking the time to answer our questions and provide information on behalf of our readers.