On a sunny, cold January day in Istanbul, Güler Sabancı steps from the elevator onto the 28th floor and introduces herself with a smile and handshake made for the middle of a busy workday – warm, straightforward, and ready to get on with things. Rather than sit on the upholstered armchairs and sofas looking out over the city, she suggests the boardroom across the floor.
Pulling a chair up to the table she shows off the abstract art hanging on the wall. The artist, Ms Sabancı says, is a young graduate of the university that bears her family name. Work, especially that of others, is something Güler Sabancı is happy to promote.
"There is nothing in this company that I have done on my own," she says. "There's nothing that I alone can do or that I alone can change." On the contrary, everything, she says, requires teamwork.
It has been ten years since Güler Sabancı succeeded to the executive chair of the family business, Sabancı Holding, Turkey's largest conglomerate. She took over following the death of her uncle, Sakıp Sabancı, who had run the company for almost four decades. Then, Ms Sabancı modestly managed expectations for her upcoming tenure, saying she would work to "maintain" what her uncle and his team had achieved.
"Leadership is not something where you can arrive and the next day changes everything," she says.
But during Ms Sabancı's watch, the conglomerate has grown from powerhouse to the largest Turkish enterprise by revenue (over USD14bn in 2012). At its core, Ms Sabancı says, her job is to manage a diversified portfolio, and when she came on the job in 2004 she wanted to focus the portfolio.
"Then we had eight business segments. Now we have only five. The change is immense. And one of this five – energy – is completely new…we were able to attract expertise from the industry and create a great leadership team for the energy group. [And] in 2013 we became the largest private energy producer in Turkey."
Sabancı also owns the grid that distributes electricity to the Asian side of Istanbul and the grid that lights up Adana in south Turkey, the place Güler Sabancı was born in 1955 and where her grandfather, Hacı Ömer Sabancı, first ventured into business; a young man in the 1920s, trading and ginning cotton.
And now energy is set to be a core Sabancı business for the 21st century. "This makes it a seriously different portfolio than it was ten years ago," Ms Sabancı says.
Turkey itself is a seriously different place than it was ten years ago. Inflation has been tamed. A single party governs the country – a relief from the shaky coalitions of the past. Banks, stringently regulated since Turkey's 2001 financial crisis, weathered the global fallout following Lehman Brothers' 2008 collapse well. And the country's growth projections suggest Turkey needs to double the capacity of its current energy infrastructure to meet the demand expected in 2020.
Everything, of course, is relative and very complex. Even a cursory look at a year's worth of Turkish headlines show how wild a ride Turkey can be. Since the late 1970s, when Ms Sabancı started working her way up through management appointments in various Sabancı companies, Turkey has lurched from coups d'état to other crises of the first order, but the relative stability of the last decade has only been part of the story.
"We are in an emerging country. Now and then we forget this, but it's good that we have the markets to remind us. Whether socially, politically or economically – things are moving. But if you are well-informed, capable, and have the tools, systems, and the people to make it work, you can find many opportunities. Of course, this comes with risk. [But] that's what makes emerging markets more exciting."
To mitigate risk, Ms Sabancı prescribes classic precautions: conservative decisions, more equity, less debt. But she also says the non-business activities of the Sabancı group – the university, a museum, and a billion-dollar foundation that funds dozens of charity programs – are themselves elements of a risk management strategy. Beyond their intrinsic social value, these activities provide Sabancı decision-makers with windows onto what's happening in Turkey, helping them follow trends and sentiments of the country, Ms Sabancı says.
Güler Sabancı has dedicated much philanthropy and non-profit work to improving a lot of women and girls in society. She has won international accolades for her work with the United Nations and the Clinton Global Initiative advocating gender equality and gender inclusion, especially in the workplace. "I myself have had the opportunities and I have been supported throughout my career. But I was aware enough to see that not every woman has had the same opportunities." The first task, largely accomplished, was to raise awareness. "And now we are in an era that this issue has been widely accepted [as an issue] all around the world." There's still work to do, however. "Even if everyone agrees, it doesn't mean you've solved the problem."
With their dynamism and growth, emerging markets can be where the most progress is made in terms of gender inclusion, Ms Sabancı says. And this, in turn, will strengthen the business. "The ways we handle knowledge, innovate, create, change, and implement things are the most important element of business success. Women bring different ways of looking at these things. I see faster, more effective and more creative results when teams have women in them…[so]not only is it good to have women working, it is also a good leadership decision to have women on your team."
Sabancı makes sure people know when women are promoted to management positions within the company. "Transparency is very important, not only in reporting to the public, but also reporting inside the company. It has to be clear that within the pipeline there's room for women to advance."
Recruiting qualified staff of any gender remains a challenge. "Universities are everywhere now, in every city across Turkey. That doesn't necessarily mean that what you call a university can deliver what one would expect from a university," says Ms Sabancı. And quality technical and vocational education is scarce – Sabancı companies are having to provide staff on-the-job technical training of the kind that should be widely available in schools.
"With our per capita income, with our labour costs, it's obvious Turkey is not going to be another China. But in our position we need added-value, we need technological industries. This must be reflected in our education system," says Ms Sabancı.
But for executives interested and willing to work in an emerging country like Turkey, the challenge will reward with a very enriching educational experience, Ms Sabancı says with a laugh and a smile.
Sabancı Holding is the parent company of the Sabancı Group, Turkey's leading industrial and financial conglomerate. Sabancı Group companies are market leaders in their respective sectors that include financial services, energy, cement, retail and industrials.
Listed on the Istanbul Stock Exchange (ISE), Sabancı Holding has a controlling interest in ten companies that are also listed on the ISE.
Sabancı Group companies currently operate in 18 countries across the world. In 2012, the consolidated revenue of Sabancı Holding was TL 26.1 billion (US$ 14.6 billion) with EBITDA of TL 5.1 billion (US$ 2.8 billion).
Photos by Nuray Uysal
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