There are, perhaps, two things that are most revered in Turkey. Coffee and the name Sabanci. And Guler Sabanci, Chairperson, Sabanci Holdings, has been ensuring that the family name continues to be venerated. The recent recipient of Austria’s highest order of merit for her contribution towards improving Austria-Turkey relations, Sabanci has been an extraordinary influence that has shaped the fabric of her country’s political, financial and social framework.
The story of the Sabanci dynasty begins early in the 20th century, when Guler’s grandfather Haci Omer Sabanci set up a small cotton trade in Istanbul with money he had saved from working in the cotton plantations. Over the years, the Sabanci business has slowly stacked the building blocks of its empire, adding various businesses including banking, textiles, automotives, hotels and telecom among others, to become an integral part of the lives of Turkish citizens.
Strictly speaking, Guler Sabanci had been part of the family business since the age of three. Her grandfather would take her to the fabric factory and would place her on his knee while having business discussions. When she finally joined the company in 1978 as a business administration graduate, it was like she always belonged there. She started off as a trainee at the Sabanci’s Lassa Tire factory but began to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder at a blistering pace, aided by her brilliance in strategic planning.
I wear two hats. The one is business and increasing my shareholders’ value; the other is social responsibility. I believe in the goodness of people, of trying to be a good person.
— Guler Sabanci, The Guardian, 2006
Sabanci was instrumental in pushing the group to expand operations overseas and she began forging joint ventures, targeting global business heavyweights. To enter the Turkish markets, international firms had to enter into a partnership with local companies and Sabanci took complete advantage of this legal clause. In an ingenious branding effort and show of the company’s control, each joint venture bore the first two letters of the Sabanci name. Thus Bridgestone became Brisa, Dupont became Dusa and Carrefour became Carrefoursa.
After the death of her uncle Sakip Sabanci, Sabanci became the chairperson of the company in 2004, but worries abounded that the group had lost focus, wrapping its arms around too many enterprises. Promptly, Sabanci surrounded herself with young managers and fresh talent and in the next two years achieved a more balanced business portfolio. By the end of 2006, the Sabanci group’s turnover had multiplied 23% to over $10 billion, and in the same year Guler Sabanci was selected one of the 50 most powerful women in business by Forbes.
Turkey did not escape the recessionary storm that lashed at the world, but with Sabanci’s prudent cost management and foresight, the group managed to cushion itself from a deep impact, registering revenues of $12.2 billion in 2009, which was about $4 billion less than the year before.
Indeed, the path to Guler Sabanci’s achievements has not been all smooth sailing. After all, Turkey is an androcentric society. And initially, Sabanci’s authority was met with skepticism. Sabanci explained to CNN “…it was a man’s world. I should not say it was difficult, but it was different and I adapted and they adapted to me.”
Juggling her time as a busy chief executive, Sabanci also finds time to indulge in activities aimed at a creating a socially well-rounded Turkey. Perhaps motivated by her early difficulties, it is with particular fondness that Sabanci has embraced the Sabanci Foundation’s initiative to transform Istanbul into a “Woman Friendly City” in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Interior Ministry of Turkey. Apart from the Sabanci Foundation, Guler Sabanci lends support through the Sabanci University and the Sakip Sabanci Museum, all efforts to maintain the tradition of social responsibility fostered by her family.
Known for her vociferous support for Turkey’s entry into the EU, Sabanci is politically aware and active as well. “Turkey must reinforce her democracy, human rights and social systems. But Turkey belongs to Europe for sure,” she insists to the Financial Times Deutschland.
Though she moves around in elevated circles that include Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Queen Beatrix of Netherlands, Sabanci remains exceptionally grounded. Also disarmingly frank. “I feel what makes me more successful is not only the business interests I have, but my interests and my love of life,” she shares with CNN. And for Sabanci, it is clearly evident that life revolves around her mother country, Turkey.
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