April 16, 2008
Guler Sabanci

Ipek Cem recently spoke with Guler Sabanci, Chairman of Sabanci Holdings, a prominent figure in business and social works in Turkey and internationally. The conversation topics ranged from the state of the global economy, to Sabanci's contributions to education and the arts.

Ipek Cem: In this edition of Global Leaders, we are with Miss Güler Sabanci. Welcome to our show.


Guler Sabanci: Thank you.


Ipek Cem: Tomorrow will be the 4th anniversary of the death of Mr. Sakip Sabanci. As we all know he was a prominent figure and he meant a lot for Turkey. You were very close to him and he was the leader of your institution. After he passed away you took over the flag. Are you planning on organizing any events for the anniversary?


Guler Sabanci: Yes, this year it will be the 4th one. Mr. Sakip used to love classical Turkish music. Turkish Musical Society, conducted by Mr. Nevzat Atlig will give a concert and they will be performing some of Mr. Sakip Sabanci’s favourite songs. This is one of the events. Apart from that, we will go to Adana. There will be a special service in Adana Mosque in accordance with his wishes. These are some of the events we are planning. Nevertheless, we commemorate Mr. Sakip Sabanci all throughout the year. Every year, in Brookings Institution in Washington, an international speaker lectures on Mr. Sabanci. We go live to Istanbul. Apart from this, we have "Sakip Sabanci International Research Award", organized jointly with the Brookings Instutition. This year will be the third and the award will be presented in Istanbul in June. So, we have activities all throughout the year. He left some requests on the university as well as the trust which we are trying to fulfil.


Ipek Cem: In early 2008 you held a meeting regarding Sabanci Holding. You made some predictions on the year ahead as well as investments and so forth. In the light of the global sub prime crisis and Turkey’s current political picture, did you have to revise some your views on investment plans and economy?


Guler Sabanci: As I mentioned in October meeting and which I repeated in my new year message, I said "Both global economy and Turkey are on a knife-edge". I deliberately used the word "knife-edge" because it means either good or bad. We are expecting a global uncertainty. Recent political developments in Turkey are adding to this uncertainty. Nevertheless, I had already advised my colleagues to be reserved on their budget planning. We acted cautiously when we made our budget plans. I believe that we managed to predict, may be not all but some of the current situation.


Ipek Cem: Some are expecting a certain amount of improvement in U.S economy by May. With the presidential candidates becoming clearer, economists and the business people may draw a clearer picture. What are your predictions about the U.S?


Guler Sabanci: What we are seeing in the U.S is the march results, the "write-offs" in the banking sector and in the financial institutions. We have to wait until the end of June. I am still optimistic about the second half of the year. With some reservation, I am hopeful, because measures are being taken to prevent this crisis. We see some bail out operations in the U.S.  There are talks of unified action of 5, 6, 7 central banks in Europe or in world. I believe that such measures will make an impact. However, I don’t think it is wise to make long term predictions during such uncertain times. Nevertheless, I believe that level of uncertainty will decrease in the second half. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be better off but I believe that the uncertainty will erode.


Ipek Cem: We hope that we will have a clearer picture ahead.


Guler Sabanci: That’s right.


Ipek Cem: I have to ask you this, there is a case being held in the Turkish supreme court. You often travel abroad, be it a business trip or related to Sakip Sabanci Museum. I am sure you get this question a lot. What kind of  challenges do you think Turkey will face? How do you see the next 6, 9 or 12 months, be it in the political means or the way it may affect you.


Guler Sabanci: First of all, I believe that this crisis, sparked by "sub-prime mortgage" problem and which made a serious impact on financial markets will directly affect growth. Developing countries like Turkey desperately need economic growth. And this slow down which started in the U.S and in the world will also affect Turkey. There is no other way. However, Turkey overcame the impact of the 2001 economic crisis and managed to lay a certain amount of infrastructure as well as taking regulatory decisions. So, this is the positive aspect of it. We are more crisis-immune. This is one aspect of the situation. Nevertheless we are facing a global crisis which we don’t know much about its size. And given the political uncertainty, we have to be even more careful. We are in a situation that we can no longer put back what needs to be done. 


Ipek Cem: Structural reforms... 

Guler Sabanci: Yes, I mean structural reforms. And I also believe that some became more aware of the situation within the last few days. This gives me some hope, regarding the future. Yes, it is true that our political picture is only adding to the current uncertainty. And this creates risks. Of course one would only hope that we would never be in this situation. Now, we can only try to find ways to minimize the damage. And this, as I said, is only possible if we all pull in the same direction. Reforms can not be put back any longer. They have to be done and done immediately. We need economic policies which spur production and growth. The real sector needs to be supported. However, we are witnessing a gradual effort in the right direction.


Ipek Cem: You quite often mention social security reform as well as reforming the Turkish trade laws.


Guler Sabanci: Yes.


Ipek Cem: Do you have a time schedule in mind? Of course these are all different and individual reforms.


Guler Sabanci: I’d say as soon as possible. All reforms are overdue. We have to accept the fact. It should have been done last year. Rather than talking about a schedule, we have to say "yesterday". All should have been done yesterday. They are well overdue and have to be done immediately.


Ipek Cem: What do you think the reason for the delay? Budgetary reasons, or because they are difficult... May be the list of priorities?


Guler Sabanci: Of course it is a fact that these are mostly the social reforms or reforms that may have social impacts. Therefore it was expected that they would be put back. However, they were put back a bit too long. They are not easy reforms. They would have social impacts. They were delayed but I believe they will be realized as soon as possible.


Ipek Cem: You have an ever increasing global popularity, be it individually or business wise. As well as being a business person, your group also gives a huge support to art. Your latest exhibition on Ottoman Calligraphy which was held in Madrid and Real Alcazar in Seville was extremely popular. Foreign press also showed a big interest. What do you feel when you represent Turkey abroad? Do you feel you need to do more?


Guler Sabanci: Sakip Sabanci collection started touring the world when Mr.Sakip was still alive. It has been to Metropolitan. I remember that your father also visited the exhibition. We took it to New York, Louvre in France and many other places. It was a good exhibition and received a good reception. Ottoman Calligraphy is form of art that pleases the eye. It was our first trip abroad since the opening of our museum. It was in Madrid last year and after staying there for 3 months it moved down to Seville.  Seville’s Real Alcazar is a palace in Andalusia which the style has a great Muslim and Arab influence. The pieces in exhibition were very suited to the environment, right from the entrance to the place. The exhibition found a huge coverage in Spanish media and this really pleases me. Sabanci Collection’s foreign trips are sponsored by Sabanci Group. I believe that foreign exhibitions are important for both promoting Turkey and Sabanci image. It is also well seated with our corporate identity. This view is also shared by my colleagues. Of course we still have a lot of more work in promoting Turkey. Nevertheless art and cultural events are the closest to heart. Real Alcazar Palace entertains 7-8 thousand visitors per day. This means around 300 thousand visitors in a month. To display samples from Ottoman Calligraphy in such place is very important. We have opportunity showcase it to, not just people from Seville or Spain, but to people from all around the world who happen to visit Seville thus we could not do this any other way. And also, people never forget art. Art lives longer.


Ipek Cem: As well as building an art and communication bridge between Turkey and rest of the world, you are also the president of Sakip Sabanci Musem executive committee. You already held exhibitions on Picasso and Roden. Now it is Dali. You helped world famous art work visit Turkey. I think some 300 thousand people visited Picasso exhibition.


Guler Sabanci: Yes, that’s right.


Ipek Cem: You also displayed some calligraphy work alongside with Picasso.   I often visit your museum. What are your future plans for the museum?


Guler Sabanci: Our museum reached to an international size and established itself.  As you mentioned, to exhibit the likes of Picasso and Dali you have to be in world standard in every aspect. I believe Sakip Sabanci Museum complies with such standard. We believe that, as well as showcasing Ottoman Calligraphy all around the world and promoting Turkey and Turkish culture, it is also our mission to introduce the work of prominent international artists to Turkish art lovers. This is how we defined our mission in the first place. We just fulfil our mission. Upcoming Dali exhibition is a very important one. It will start on September the 18th. Dali is the master of surrealism. The exhibition will help Turkish art lovers to get to learn more about surrealism. Since our museum is a university museum, there are educational activities and seminars on surrealism for students at the university. We are working very hard. We will round off the year with Dali. However, we have some exciting projects coming up for next year too. But I will not reveal them just yet. We have to wait and see.


Ipek Cem: Initiatives for private museums in Istanbul are on the up.


Guler Sabanci: That’s right.


Ipek Cem: And it is, I mean Istanbul is already...


Guler Sabanci: Very pleasing, very pleasing.


Ipek Cem: Yes, very pleasing. What do you think is needed for the improvement of private museum entrepreneurships in Istanbul or in Turkey?


Guler Sabanci: Now, the fact is, education and training on museology is very limited in Turkey. We signed a deal with Louvre. And as you know Louvre is not just a museum, it is also a huge institute, an education centre. We signed 5 a year deal with Louvre which includes a student Exchange programme. With the help of Louvre we are setting up post graduation programmes on museology. This way, we hope to contribute to the private museum sector which is something relatively new in Turkey. Yes, it is true that this is a new era. It is something different but as I always say; Turkey needs everything, every example. We may have to learn from our mistakes. But this is what everybody else did. But we have good examples too. Some very good ones. Yesterday I had lunch with few art correspondents. Comparing to 10 years ago there are many more art events in Istanbul. The city is like New York and London when we were students. So much to do, so much to see. Istanbul is going through a nice period.


Ipek Cem: Talking about Sakip Sabanci Museum, the museum itself is part of the university and Sakip Sabanci University covered a lot of ground since its establishment in 1994 in which you played a key role. According to the press, it is almost like your baby, a very valuable art piece. What has been done so far and what are your dreams for the future?


Guler Sabanci: I was assigned to this task back in 94. All my uncles were still alive then. My family asked me to fulfil this mission. Well, I put my hand up anyway. Chairman of the trust was late Haci Sabanci. He supported me a lot. And I worked with Mr. Sakip for along time. In 95 we set up a research conference. Sabanci University is a unique sample as the means of the number of participants as well as standing up for its mission and vision. Design period took 2.5 to 3 years, with the participation of 80 people. We took our home work and the infrastructure planning very serious. From the intellectual discussions to so called hardware aspects of it, like the campus design, it took us 4 or 4.5 years to enrol our first student. First student enrolled in 99. We are in 2008. Next year will be 10 years. Sabanci University is very young. However, our research which is based on things like academic freedom and public perception shows that we are amongst top 3 universities in Turkey when it comes to students’ list of choice. And of course this pleases me and my colleagues very much. I was in the leading role but you need a team to be a leader. Many people put in a lot of effort. Specially the board of trustees. Mr. Tosun, our rector, our founding deans helped us to get where we are today. However we are aware that this is only the beginning. We are looking to improve every single day. I will go to States next month. In Boston there is a group of Sabanci University graduates. They now study in some of States’ best universities such as Harward and MIT. I will meet them. There are also some graduates who set up their own businesses here in Turkey. I sometimes see them too. Success of our graduates pleases us very much although we are only at the beginning.


Ipek Cem: One of the students on describing you said "she wants us to make difference." You seem to be getting on very well with the students and there are many in the Sabanci University who are on scholarship. This is an expensive initiative and as far as I know, costs never go down. Can you tell us about the funding and financing of the university?


Guler Sabanci: Here is our structure, Sabanci University is created by Sabanci Trust. The trust itself has a considerable amount of resources and revenues. We see the university as part of our social responsibility and every year we transfer certain amount of resource from the trust. The trust has the strength to handle this. But what you said is true, you need different resources in order to create an university which makes difference. Making difference is very important for me. Our vision in Sabanci Holding is "growth by making difference." We must not forget that we live in Turkey. Therefore we have to make efficient use of the resources. We should not be afraid to be different as long as we know it is for the better. We have to show courage. We have to create the "new", create what is not there. And this is what the 21st century requires.


Ipek Cem: Sabanci Group is a huge group. You have 52 thousand employees and you expect this number to be increased in 2008. I love delving into company visions and missions. Their ethical values are important for me. With Sabanci Group, I noticed 3 values, respect to humanity, being close to public and humility... I also believe that your group reflects these values. Of course these values are gained during the course of time which are also identified with the individuals and corporate leaders. Do you struggle to maintain your traditional values and what do you do to keep them alive?


Guler Sabanci: These values are set following a research conference which was participated by around 600 people. They were all my friends. Our employees said" these are our values". And after that we had them in writing. They had to be identified with. Being close to public humility and respect to knowledge... We have these values in our genes. These were very important for my grandfather Haci Ömer and also Mr.Sakip. Sabanci brothers have always been like this. So we have the examples. We don’t want just to be big. I always say this. Just to be big or carrying the ego of being big is not right. We want to be a company which creates value. Respecting humanity, respecting work and being modest... This is how my colleagues defined it. The only way to create and maintain such values is to have them identified with others. 


Ipek Cem: You have been in the business world for almost 30 years. Being the first grand child you spent a lot of time in the factories with your grandfather Haci Ömer Sabanci. Perhaps today’s foundation has been laid in those days. When you look back at your journey, would you say that you are content? What else would you like to achieve? Because you have plenty of time ahead.


Guler Sabanci: If a psychologist analyzed the way I was brought up he would say "this is how this child is programmed". May be it is true. I believe my grandfather Haci Ömer knew what he was doing when he took me around. He also knew what he was doing with his own children. The way they talk, their education... In this respect, it is true. When I look at my life, I think I am a very lucky person. First of all, I am healthy. Secondly, I grew up in a loving family. And thirdly, I had many possibilities and a lot of support. I always enjoyed my work. I believe, doing something you love for living is one of life’s greatest gifts. In that respect, I am happy. We have a lot more work to do. So we will keep on working.


Ipek Cem: On this note, I would like to thank you for this pleasant conversation.


Guler Sabanci: I thank you.


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.