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Turkey's Rags-to-Riches Sabanci Family Remembers Humble Cotton Fields Heritage

May 06, 1990|JOHN OWEN-DAVIES | REUTERS

ISTANBUL, Turkey — An old wooden plow adorns the entrance to the Istanbul headquarters of Sakip Sabanci's business empire, a poignant reminder of his family's rags-to-riches story.

"My father began life from zero as a humble cotton worker. He was very careful with money and saved, saved, saved," said Sabanci, 56, an eccentric billionaire whose interests range from electronics, banking and textiles to hotels and bottled water.

Widely regarded as the "people's tycoon" who enjoys mixing with workers as much as with the high and mighty, he is one of Turkey's most popular public figures.

"I relax when I am very successful in the economic or social area. If I am in one of my factories shaking hands with managers and workers, I am happy," he said in an interview.

He rarely carries more than a few thousand lira--just enough to pay for a taxi or bus ride--and dresses in a style that would make devotees of high fashion wince.

The Sabanci family numbers Prime Minister Turgut Ozal among its past employees and another former premier as top executive of its bank, Akbank.

Its rise mirrors Turkey's struggle to enter the ranks of developed countries.

Sabanci's penniless father, Haci Omer Sabanci, is reputed to have walked 200 miles through the barren Anatolian heartland in the depressed 1920s to seek a cotton worker's job.

He later became a shareholder in a cotton ginning plant in the Mediterranean city of Adana.

Now, Sakip Sabanci and his four brothers, who maintain close control of Haci Omer Sabanci Holding AS, are looking abroad to fresh markets in Europe and Asia.

"My father believed that family members should understand each other," said Sabanci, who entered the Forbes magazine list of world billionaires in 1989.

"Today's success of the Sabanci group is due not to the capital, the technology or the equipment. The reason is that members of the family are continuing the same way," he said.

Sabanci said the family would always retain at least a 75% shareholding. It was 100% until 1972, when the group started to sell small stakes to others.

The name "Haci Omer" litters Sabanci's conversation as he sits beneath a painting of his late father, dwarfing smaller signed ones of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

"He was No. 1. When I was aged 13 or 14 he took me to the factories and gave me the power to handle company money and sign and fill blank checks," he said.

Sabanci, head of the governing body of the influential Assn. of Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists, is always ready to speak out on domestic politics and the economy.

"I would vote for any (political) leader who could ensure stable leadership," he said, referring to squabbling in the center-right government triggered mainly by disputes over economic policy and inflation, now at an annual 62.8%.

With annual revenues estimated at $4 billion in 1989, Haci Omer Sabanci Holding is among the first 200 in Fortune Magazine's list of the largest 500 industrial companies outside the United States.

Sabanci's main business thrust over the past decade has been tie-ups and joint ventures with foreign firms, including European banks and electronic companies, U.S and Japanese cord and tire companies and large insurance outfits.

Sabanci and Japan's Toyota Motor Co. have agreed in principle to form a joint venture to produce Toyota cars in a factory in Adapazari, western Turkey, from 1993.

"Our basic future is with Western Europe but I believe, I hope, 50% of the firm will be involved with Japan," he said.

"We must have relations with the Japanese. We need them. They (the Japanese) are doing very well with technology and have discipline and hard workers," he added.

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