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Turkey's first lady of finance

  • Story Highlights
  • Guler Sabanci chairs the conglomerate her grandfather founded in the 1940s
  • Sabanci Holding comprises 70 companies, more than 50,000 employees
  • Sabanci tells MME: "I started working there and it was a man's world"
  • Family has also founded generous charitable fund, a university, museum
  • Next Article in World Business »
By Jennifer Ecclestone
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(CNN) -- Throughout Turkey, Sabanci Holding is a byword for success. And its boss, Guler Sabanci, is the embodiment of the professional dynamism that has helped make Turkey one of the most feted new markets in the world.


Guler Sabanci's uncle chose her to run the business, overlooking his brothers and their sons

She's the first woman to head a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, the first woman to sit on the board of Turkey's influential Businessman's Association, the first lady of Turkish finance.

At just 53 years old, Sabanci is already an icon and when she speaks Turks listen.

So it was no surprise that just days after the conservative, Islamic influenced, AK Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan crushed liberal opponents in parliamentary elections, the staunchly progressive entrepreneur wanted to explain that Turkey remains committed to its cherished liberties.

"Ok, the AKP had the roots of Islam yes, they have put Islamic life standards more in the front of their identity, but in the end Turkey is a secular, democratic state and it has been so. And it's secularism I feel, it is in the DNA of the Turkish public," she said.

If secular principles are in Turks then it could be said that accomplishment is inherent to the Sabanci family.

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Her grandfather Haci, a rags-to-riches cotton sharecropper from the southern province of Adana, built the Sabanci conglomerate in the 1940s. The business was passed down to his son Sakip in the 1960s. Before his death in 2004, Sakip handed the reins of this venerable empire to Guler, his single niece, who was head of the company's tire division -- overlooking his brothers and their numerous male offspring.

In Turkey's patriarchal commerce sector, the decision was nothing short of earth-shattering.

"I started working there and it was a man's world. It was a... I should not say it was difficult, but it was different and I adapted and they adapted to me."

As head of the tire division, a post she held for 14 years and one that earned her the nickname "Rubber Queen", she initiated partnerships with global heavy hitters such as DuPont and expanded the groups operations into Latin America and Europe. It was this business acumen, she insists, which led her uncle to break with tradition and name her chairperson.

"I felt myself qualified, I felt myself good at what I was doing and I didn't expect any other behavior from others. I didn't ask anything different and I worked and I completed and I was successful at what I was doing."

From her sleek headquarters in Istanbul, Sabanci presides over a collection of 70 companies, more than 50 thousand employees in more than 10 countries with interests in areas as diverse as banking, food and retail, to name a few.

Under her watch, the company's earnings have soared, with a consolidated net income topping $350 million in 2006. Such a pedigree earned her a place in Fortune Magazine's 50 most powerful Women in Business.

She is a government advisor, a frequent commentator on news channels and a passionate advocate for Turkey's membership to the European Union.

As arguably the most famous woman in Turkey, her name is a must on any party of note. In fact, she says her calendar is booked a year in advance.

Despite her popularity, she prefers to spend her limited free time fostering what she calls a climate of creativity.

"I feel what makes me more successful is not only the business interests I have, but my interests and my love of life. And that can only be fulfilled properly if I feel myself that I am sharing, giving and learning and receiving. So it is a whole thing that makes a person, completes the circle."

Most of those energies are focused on her twin passions: Education and the Arts. Since the early 70s, Sabanci Holding has poured over one billion dollars into its charitable foundation -- one of the most generous in the world.

The funds help, in part, with new acquisitions for the Sabanci Museum at Guler's family's former summer residence on the lush banks of the Bosphorus.

It hosted Turkey's first ever Picasso exhibition and is the permanent home for a rare collection of Ottoman calligraphy.

A large tranche of charitable dollars has been infused into the campus of Sabanci University which she helped found in 1999.

"It was one of the most satisfying projects I have ever worked on," she says.

Satisfying, and in true Sabanci style, successful.

This year's graduating class sent students to some of the world's top business schools and each student received at least two job offers.

It's regarded as one of the best Universities in Turkey, and it's also one of the most generous. Nearly 40 percent of students are on full scholarships.

Sabanci, whose grandfather started out life in destitution, wanted to create a level academic playing field for as many young Turks as possible; to create an environment where students may openly debate the merits of the free flow of capital and a free market for ideas.

Cenk Alperdem, a student at the university, says, "She encourages students to be different and I think this is how I will remember her for the rest of my life."


Alperdem is off to MIT this year. He says he wants to work for Sabanci someday or, perhaps, start his own company.

Imitation, they say, is the best form of flattery. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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