Güler Sabanci: Nr. 1 of modern Turkey
In: ALGEMEEN DAGBLAD, 08.02.2007
She is a personage of royal format, has enormous private fortune, and is according to the American magazine Forbes the most powerful woman in Turkey. Our correspondent interviewed Güler Sabanci at her headquarters in Istanbul. In the same Executive Board room where her uncle had been assassinated eleven years ago.
There is no single week that passes without the Turkish businesswoman Güler Sabanci (51) being mentioned in news, and her photographs appearing in magazines and papers. We see her in cocktail party dress going to a concert of Andrea Bocelli. With a beret at the opening of her Toyota plant. In black among the ministers, ambassadors, and priests at the funeral procession for the assassinated Turkish Armenian journalist Hrank Dink. As a discussion leader at the World Economic Forum where she advises with Prime Minister Erdogan with a smile in her face. During an address to the students of her Sabanci University. As a spectator at the Formula-1 races in Istanbul. Enjoying her holiday in her favorite Italian region: Umbria. With Queen Beatrix at the opening of the Exhibition Istanbul — the City and the Sultan in De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam with 300 masterpieces, including those from the Sabanci Museum.
As the topmost manager of the family holding Sabanci, the “first lady” of the Turkish business life belongs to the international jetset. Still, the success of her business empire has not made her arrogant. The show-off and flaunting with expensive jewels, cars or clothing, like many Turkish entrepreneurs do, are not things that can be seen on her. With regard to clothing and behaviour she does rather befit the Dutch Calvinistic tradition: work hard, live sober.
Just like on the most of the other days she will be dressed today in a dark trousers suit with an inconspicuous broche on her link collar. She wears pretenceless golden earrings, hardly uses make-up, and her practical sleek fawn hair is cut in a comfortable business style. A woman at this top position is an extraordinarily particular phenomenon in a patriarchal society like Turkey. Yet her uncles had still enthroned her. She had deserved her career as a manager, and a reputation acquired as a thorough businesswoman who takes no unnecessary risks, and thinks strategically.
‘In the Netherlands and France, politicians exploit the hesitations and fear of the public from Turkey for short-term political gains.’
Here, on 25th floor of the “twin towers” of the Sabanci headquarters, she directs her business empire. The same floor where a carnage had taken place on 9 January 1996, when two members of the communistic Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Front (DHKP-C) invaded the Executive Board room, the same room where Sabanci uses today. Özdemir Sabanci (an uncle of Güler Sabanci), his secretary, and his business partner Haluk Görgün had been riddled with bullets. The Kurdish freedom functionary Fehriye Erdal (19), also a member of DHKP-C, had let in her comrades. She was arrested in Belgium in 1999, and sentenced to four years in a cell in 2006, but managed to escape.
The political assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink on 19 January reminded Sabanci the cool-headedly committed execution of its uncle, as she admits.
Nevertheless, she does not want to look back. “What is important for me is that such hundred thousands of Turkish citizens reacted in an impressive and civilised manner to the assassination of Hrant Dink. I am proud thereof. It gives me a reason to have confidence in the future. It was for the first time that Armenians from foreign countries were officially invited by Turkey. Turks and Armenians started to a frank dialogue,” she says with her dark, smoky voice.
Although this political assassination is an extreme example of the resistance in the nationalist circles against the European Union, Sabanci is not pessimistic. “Turkey is on way to the EU, and is very busy adapting its laws and regulations to the EU criteria. In the last four years the Parliament has adopted approximately a hundred new laws. The accession process is a lengthy one. Delays will occur, but the point is that Turkey remains in the course, and continues to make the necessary reformations. The travel is maybe more important than the destination. And travelling is the best time to know your friends.”
Countries such as the Netherlands and France are not among the friends of Turkey at this moment. Majority in both countries voted against the European constitution in 2005, rather as a result of their opposition against a possible future accession of Turkey.
Sabanci finds the arguments of the Dutch contradictory – Moslems have other standards and values than ours, and we cannot have in our union such a large, poor country, – which arguments show in her opinion their lack of knowledge of the facts.
“Shutting out Turkey cannot keep the Moslems outside. There are already 15 millions Muslims living and working in Europe. Moreover, Turkey is already integrated with Europe economically. The Netherlands and the other EU countries already profit of the enormous trade with Turkey. Where Turkey strives to reach is a social and political integration with the EU. It will still take many years for Turkey to satisfy all the EU criteria. But I certainly know that when that moment arrives the Europeans will be much more prepared to welcome Turkey. In the Netherlands and France, politicians exploit the hesitations and fear of the public from Turkey for short-term political gains. Our old continent,” – Sabanci refers to Europe including Turkey – “has made many mistakes in its history, but almost always appeared to be able to know where its real interests lie in the long term.”
Turkey is not there yet since long, she recognises. Hence, she sees eye to eye with her cousin, Omer Sabanci, leader of the employers’ organisation TUSIAD, on the fact that Turkey needs more democracy. To this end, the constitution of 1982, which was dictated by the soldiers after the coup d’état of 1980, must be replaced according to TUSIAD. Besides, the notorious Section 301 on “insulting the Turkish identity” should be removed from the Penal Code to guarantee the freedom of expression.
It is a proof of her virtue that The Financial Times has ranked her as the ninth most powerful women in Europe. “Such a recognition is motivating. Yet I would prefer to be called the most successful woman. I believe in success and in the power of success. I am a person who is strongly result-oriented.” During all those twenty years she was vested with managerial functions. She could closely observe how men and women were given administrative powers. “Research has been conducted at universities worldwide regarding the effects of gender differences in business life. I avoid generalisation in this respect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that female managers and entrepreneurs have higher EQ. Therefore we are better at teamwork. We have more organisational skills, more empathy, and we are better in getting along with people. My own style is characterised with a great deal of participation and teamwork.”
Güler Sabanci is considered to be an exception to the rule that many Turkish women still have insufficient education and opportunities in the labour market. I will not remain an exception for long. There are innumerable organisations of female volunteers who have a wide range of projects to improve the status of women. I myself have, together with the United Nations, set up a foundation to make six cities in Turkey woman-friendly, such as Kars, Sanliurfa, Nevsehir and Izmir. There is a lot of enthusiasm. Everybody is working hard to play catch-up. I assure you that a significant difference will be seen just within five years.”
Although her days are filled with meetings, strategy sessions, and conferences, Sabanci has still enough time for her hobbies. “I am fond of art. I preside the Sakip Sabanci Museum, which hosted an extensive Picasso-exhibition last year. I make private collections of the Seljuk Art and the contemporary Turkish Art. I like to go to concerts. And if you want, you can do everything. The point is that you use your time economically.’’
Winemaking had started thousands of years ago in the South of Caucasus, and in Eastern Turkey. Yet sunny Turkey has never been successful in the production of world-class wines.
“That has nothing to do with the fact that we are Moslems,” says Sabanci, sharply, “but everything is due the Turkish state monopoly on wine production. Eleven years ago I have started to produce wine in Thrace under the brand name Gülor. The state enterprise Tekel is now privatised, and in the future we shall be able to produce wines that will be able to compete with the best of the world. We have a sunny climate, and a good soil, then why not?’