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How Turkey's business superwoman steers empire in man's world

From Becky Anderson, CNN
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Guler Sabanci is in charge of Turkey's largest financial and industrial conglomerate
  • She is the third generation of her family to run the business, founded by her grandfather
  • She also controls a university, museum and foundation bearing her family's name

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- In Turkey, you can't go far without coming across the name Sabanci.

Sabanci Holding is the country's largest financial and industrial conglomerate. Also present in 17 other countries and covering financial, energy, cement and retail sectors, the giant accounts for 12% of Istanbul Stock Exchange, and employs 56,000 people.

There is also a Sabanci University, a Sabanci Foundation and a Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul.

Sabanci: Teamwork is everything

And at the head of it all is one woman, Guler Sabanci, who has been chairwoman and managing director of the empire since 2004.

Under Sabanci's stewardship, the company has grown at an average of 12% a year in the past decade, with plans to increase growth in the next 10 years.

In 2011, Sabanci was ranked number two in the Financial Times "Top 50 Women In World Business," and in 2012 was number 93 on Forbes' "World's Most Powerful Women" list.

Sabanci, 58, is the third generation of her family -- and the first woman -- to run the company started by her grandfather Haci Omer as a textile business in Adana, southern Turkey, in the early 20th century.

Guler Sabanci joined the family business -- following her five uncles -- after graduating from university in 1978 in the new tire manufacturing company.

"The tire company was something new it was just coming up, a new venture in the group," said Sabanci. "When I graduated I guess I wanted to have blue-ocean strategy."

We are very fortunate now today. This is the century of women.
Guler Sabanci

She became the first female member of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, an organization founded by her uncle.

"I was the first woman, they made a big ceremony for me becoming a member," she said.

CNN met Sabanci at the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul, once the family's summer home, named after her late uncle who donated his unique collections of Ottoman calligraphy and Turkish paintings.

"He lived here with his family in the last 25 years before it became a museum and he has donated his two collections," said Sabanci. "I am very pleased to say he himself had the joy of seeing it turn into a museum.

"It was one of his (dreams) was ... to have a Picasso exhibition in this museum and I am pleased to say we were able to realize this dream. And it was a hit it was a great blockbuster, it was the first ever Picasso show in Turkey."

Other recent exhibitions have included Monet and Rembrandt.

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Philanthropy is important to Sabanci, who has been president of Sabanci University since she set it up in 1996. The Haci Omer Sabanci Foundation, of which she is president of the board of trustees, has made more than US$1.5 billion in charitable contributions since 1974.

"Being a good person and fair person is very important in life, I think," she said. "And also life is meaningless if only you are only making money."

She extends that approach to women's rights.

"Not every woman has what I have, so if I could do something to help them that should also be my duty," she said.

I don't have time for regrets. I go forward, I'm a doer.
Guler Sabanci

Sabanci insists there were no barriers for her as a woman within her family, but that she faced discrimination from both within and outside the company as she was rising through the ranks in the 1980s.

"We are very fortunate now today. This is the century of us -- this is the century of women," she said.

Sabanci says she regularly has lunch with randomly chosen female employees to ensure they feel they are being treated equally.

In 2011, Sabanci received the "Clinton Global Citizen Award" founded by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, for her work towards ending child marriages in Turkey through the NGO Girls Not Brides.

"I believe that it is girls' human rights to go to school to be educated, minimum until they are 18," she said.

"Afterwards you can call them adults, they can make their own decisions. But until they are 18, it is everybody's responsibility, their families, the authorities, us, everybody is responsible."

Also on Leading Women: 10 ways women can succeed at work in 2013

Sabanci has never married or had children of her own. She said she has too busy to think about settling down and has no regrets.

"Never, never, never. I don't have time for regrets. I go forward, I'm a doer and I always have projects and dreams."

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