Sabanci, GüLer (1955–)

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Sabanci, GüLer

Güler Sabanci is the chairperson of Sabanci Holding, the second largest Turkish industrial and financial conglomerate, with more than sixty companies. In 2006, she was on Forbes magazine's list of the world's "100 Most Powerful Women" and ninth on the Financial Times' yearly list of the "Top 25 Business Women" of Europe.


Sabanci was born in 1955 in Adana, in southeast Turkey, where her grandfather Haci Ömer Sabanci had established the family's first business, in the textile industry. She was the oldest child of İhsan Sabanci, oldest of Haci Ömer's six sons. Although her very wealthy family was conservative, she was raised in the same way as her brother and male cousins. This was her grandfather's preference. Sabanci told Zeynep Guven at Hurriyet that her grandfather said, "My girl will grow up, go to school, learn how to drive, wear pants and go to the factory."

Sabanci attended the TED Ankara High School, where she exhibited an independent and playful character and was a leader of her class. She graduated in 1978 from Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University in Istanbul with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Eager to go into business, she interned during her free time in factories owned by her family. She has said that she regrets that she did not appreciate her college years enough, because she was always thinking about business.

Immediately after graduation, Sabanci started her career in the Sabanci group's tire manufacturing company, LasSA, as a management trainee. She worked in different functions within the company and was its general manager for fourteen years. During this period, she managed a series of joint ventures with foreign companies such as Bekaert and Bridgestone, and was later responsible for restructuring separate divisions into a single strategic unit, Tire and Reinforcement Materials, which she oversaw as a member of Sabanci Holding's board. Her work earned her the nickname "the rubber queen." In May 2004, she was elected chairperson of Sabanci Holding, following the death of her uncle Sakip Sabanci, who with his brothers had founded and run the conglomerate for 38 years.

Sabanci also oversees the operations of the Sabanci Foundation (VakSa), Sabanci University, and the Sakip Sabanci Museum. In her spare time, she likes to paint and spend time in the private vineyard she runs with an uncle, where they produce a wide variety of wines.


From early childhood, Sabanci was influenced by her grandfather, Haci Ömer Sabanci, and uncle, Sakip Sabanci, who created and greatly expanded the family business empire. To the surprise of some, her grandfather, a traditional and conservative businessman, took her to his factory even when she was small, and supported her on every front.

Sabanci has been instrumental, both before and after becoming chairperson, in partnering Sabanci Holding with its international counterparts by means of various joint ventures, including those mentioned above. Joint ventures provide financing, access to new markets, and the leverage of the brand names of the partnering companies; they also require robust management to align the business cultures and practices. These ventures have generated productive synergies for Sabanci Holding, giving it access to know-how and technology and allowing it to exploit new industries.

On becoming chairperson, Sabanci initiated a reorganization of Sabanci Holding to reduce and consolidate business units, and to allow them to operate more autonomously. She sought to redefine the company's vision and mission, identify potential new businesses, and develop a new management approach based on delegation and teamwork, an untraditional idea in the conservative Turkish business world. "'Our vision is to triple our revenues to $30bn,'" she has said, "partly through differentiation—'the future of business'—and through investing in the energy sector." She is also a leading advocate of Turkey's entry into the European Union. "In ten years' time Turkey will be a very attractive market … by then its population will be around ninety million, and it'll be a very young population that will bring a great dynamism to Europe" (Smith).

She bought out Dupont's 50 percent share of the joint venture DUSA, making Sabanci Holding the European market leader in polyester manufacturing. By playing in various industries such as polyester, tire and reinforcement materials, cement, textile, energy, and retail, Sabanci Holding provides means for the Turkish economy to grow by exports, foreign investment, and new job opportunities. Akbank, Sabanci Holding's financial institution, received the highest credit ranking in the Turkish banking sector from Moody's, an international credit risk evaluator. Citibank recently purchased 20 percent of Akbank's shares, creating a brand-new partnership. Sabanci Holding achieves risk diversification and business synergies by variety in its business.

In recent years, Sabanci Holding has expanded into Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Iran, and the United States, the first Turkish company to expand so far outside its borders. The group's net revenue increased from US$8.6 billion in 2004 to $10.6 billion in 2005; the number of employees increased from 34,000 to 45,000, while Akbank (a Sabanci subsidiary) and Sabanci Holding, at second and fourth place respectively, have become two of the most highly valued companies on the Istanbul Stock Exchange.


Name: Güler Sabanci

Birth: 1955, Adana, Turkey

Family: Unmarried

Nationality: Turkish

Education: B.A., management, Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University, Istanbul, 1978


  • 1978: Starts as management trainee in Sabanci Holding's tire manufacturing company, LasSA
  • 1985–1999: Manager of KordSA, the group's tire cord manufacturing company
  • 1999–2004: Head of Sabanci Holding's Tire and Reinforcement Materials unit
  • 2004–Present: Chair of Sabanci Holding, head of Sabanci Foundation

Giving Back

Sabanci spends considerable time and effort "giving back" to society. "This country made me rich, so it's my duty to give back. I wear two hats. The one is business and increasing my shareholders' value; the other is social responsibility. I believe in the goodness of peo-ple, of trying to be a good person" (Smith). She is president of the Board of Trustees of Sabanci University, near Istanbul, which she helped her uncle Sakip Sabanci establish in 1996 and which she has worked hard to bring to the highest international standards. "Establishing a university is way different from establishing a factory since there is no room for error," she has said (Capital). The university is built around the idea of "Creating and Developing Together." During her own university years, she was impatient to go into business and did not spend much time enjoying her life. She therefore supported a system at Sabanci University that allows students to be involved in industry more than they are at other universities so that they know more about business life before they graduate. They can thus get the most out of their academic and campus life while practicing what they learn as early as possible. Sabanci University is also unique in Turkey in the way students determine their major field of study. As in most American universities, they take two years of classes before having to decide on their major. By then, they are more comfortable in their choice, which is reflected in their performance.

Sabanci is also chairperson of the Sakip Sabanci Museum, established by Sakip Sabanci in a former family residence in Istanbul. The museum displays Sakip's extensive collection of Ottoman art and calligraphy, and under the leadership of Güler Sabanci, exhibitions of modern art as well. Art is Sabanci's second passion; at the age of twenty-seven, she came to a crossroad, where she felt she had to make a choice in her professional life, either to keep going in business or become a painter. She decided on the first, but has never abandoned her interest in the second. Through the museum, she introduces the public to the work of internationally famous artists through exhibitions, and through education programs and other activities helps young people and students develop a taste for art.

In addition to these responsibilities, Sabanci is the head of the Sabanci Foundation, a charitable institution founded by Sakip Sabanci and financed by Sabanci Holding. It is the largest of its kind in Turkey. The Sabanci family has always been public-spirited and is known for its generosity. The Sabanci Foundation has more than a hundred education, health, and cultural centers across Turkey and has spent more than $1.1 billion on such projects.

Promoting Women in Business

One of Sabanci's biggest contributions is her success as a woman in business, being a role model for her contemporaries and for younger women. She has been successful in a patriarchal, male-dominated business world; she is the first woman ever to be on the board of Turkey's Businessmen's Association, a powerful group that helps shape the Turkish economy. In her interviews with international media, she attempts to correct foreign misperceptions about Turkey, both about the role of women and about other social issues. Her very visibility helps promote the idea of respect for women.

Sabanci believes a society can reach its potential by capitalizing on the abilities of women, by allowing them to participate fully. Her desire is a society in which women are evaluated by their talents and by the tangible results of their efforts. She wants every woman to be given the opportunity to prove her merit and demonstrate what she can accomplish.


Sakip Sabanci (1933–2004), Güler Sabanci's uncle, was a businessman, philanthropist, and art collector who, with his brothers, founded Sabanci Holding and led it for thirty-eight years. Under his leadership, the conglomerate grew extensively by expanding into businesses such as textiles, food, tourism, paper and packing, automotives, chemicals, tobacco, cement, insurance, and banking.

Sabanci was not only a very successful businessman and entrepreneur but he was also one of the most colorful and popular personalities in Turkish society. He was listed as the 147th richest person in the world by Forbes magazine in 2004. Like his niece, he "gave back" to society by establishing the Sabanci Foundation, through which he exercised the generosity he was famous for, and the museum that was named in his honor after his death.

Sabanci died of cancer at the age of seventy-one. His friendly, humorous, generous character—always smiling, instantly connecting with people, whether poor, rich, famous, or obscure—is remembered fondly by millions. He was, very unusually, given a state funeral.


As the British journalist Helena Smith put it in 2006, "If Güler Sabanci didn't exist you wouldn't dare to invent her as a realistic fictional character. It's not just her wealth, which is immense. Or that she is a free spirit in a part of the world that is undeniably patriarchal. Or even that she presides over a family-controlled business while, somehow, also being a vintner and Europe's newest, hottest patron of the arts. It is that Güler Sabanci is all these things in Turkey, a country more bound to tradition than most."

Sabanci, the most powerful woman in Turkey, with her position in business and society as well as diverse interests that would be hard for anyone to manage, shines as a female leader and, as someone who attracts the attention of the international media, helps Western countries understand Turkey and Turkish women better. She constantly mentions the rights Turkish women gained as early as the 1930s, even before most of their European counterparts, and how they are supported in the Turkish business world. She is a living refutation of common beliefs about Turkey as well as about the power of women.


Sabanci will be remembered as one of the most powerful woman in Turkish business life. As the leader of Turkey's second largest conglomerate, Sabanci Holding, she has demonstrated that women can be as competent and successful as men in management, given the opportunity. She has set the example for future female leaders. Under her leadership, the conglomerate has continued to grow its revenue in double digits with new expansions under way such as expansion into the energy sector with potential $3B investment, according to Forbes. She has striven hard not only for the sake of business, shareholders, and employees, but has put her time and energy into good works such as the Sabanci Foundation, Sabanci University, and the Sabanci Museum.


Guven, Zeynep, "I did not appreciate my college years as much."Hurriyet, 13 June 1999. Available from

"Evim. Üniversitem. Yüzüğüm (My House, My University, My Ring)." Capital (Germany) 20 (14-17 September 2006).

Smith, Helena, "First lady of Turkish finance." The Observer (U.K.), 17 September 2006. Available from

"The 100 Most Powerful Women: #65 Güler Sabanci." Forbes, 31 August 2006. Available from

                                        Burcu Mercankaya


The West has the wrong perception about Turkey itself. Since the [foundation of] the [secular] Republic in 1923, professional women have always been highly regarded in this country, whereas I remember going to England in the early Eighties where women were not allowed to lunch in a famous bankers' club in the City.

All over the world there is a gender issue … but in business it is less of a problem because you can be more specific and result-orientated, and measure the results. I was the eldest grandchild of six sons and I must have been three or four when my grandfather took me to the factory.

Sakip [her uncle and the chairperson of Sabanci Holding for thirty-eight years] gave me a lot of moral support. I started off doing standard clerical work, filling out forms in the purchasing department. Then I climbed, step by step. There were times, at some levels, where people may have hesitated, where they may have said "is she going to be able to handle it [managing the company]?" But I did.