Guler Sabanci, head of Sabanci Holding, says the West has the wrong perception about her country - women have always been highly regarded, unlike in other countries she could mention. Helena Smith talks to Turkey's most famous female entrepreneur
If Guler 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 Guler Sabanci is all these things in Turkey, a country more bound to tradition than most. None of this is lost on the defiantly single, staunchly progressive Sabanci.
As chair of Sabanci Holding, an industrial conglomerate whose consolidated revenues last year amounted to $10.6bn, she is, at 51, Turkey's most feted female entrepreneur - and, by virtue of her impact on finance and culture, probably its most powerful woman to date. But if she embodies the Muslim nation's myriad contradictions - as the living incarnation of its founding secular principles - it appears to leave her unfazed.
'So, is it easy being a woman in business in Turkey?' I ask. We are in her office, on the 25th floor of Istanbul's twin-tower Sabanci centre, a place filled as much with eclectic art - from contemporary to medieval Seljuk - as with the standard accoutrements of the modern corporate world.
As she ponders the question, looking out across the sun-flecked waters of the Bosphorus to Asia, Sabanci can't help but smile. 'No,' she booms, her gravelly voice as husky as Billie Holiday's on a bad day. Is it harder than in other countries? After all, she is also the first woman ever to have sat on the board of Turkey's influential Businessmen's Association. Companies the size of hers - employing 45,000 people - are the backbone of the Turkish economy.
Again, the answer is categorical: 'I don't think so. 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.' Results, unsurprisingly, are what Sabanci likes best.
Established by her grandfather, Haci Omer, in the 1940s, the company started in the cotton mills of Adana in rural Anatolia. By the mid-1960s, Haci Omer had not only relocated to Istanbul, Turkey's historic commercial capital but, aided by state subsidies and tax exemptions, become the embodiment of rags-to-riches success.
Handpicked to lead the dynasty ('I was the eldest grandchild of six sons and I must have been three or four when my grandfather took me to the factory'), Guler succeeded Sakip, her uncle, who as testimony to the family's standing in Turkey, was given a hero's funeral when he died in 2004.
By the time she got to the top, the group had become a collection of 66 companies with interests in areas as diverse as banking, food, retailing, tyres, truck-making, textiles, energy, cement and chemicals.
'Sakip gave me a lot of moral support,' she concedes, even if she also came up the hard way. '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?" But I did.'
Some worried that the business was spreading itself too thinly when Sabanci took over. But, under her watch, earnings have soared, with the company's consolidated net income topping $514m last year. As the empire has expanded - it has operations in 12 countries, including a chemicals plant in the UK - so, too, has its city-sized roll-call of employees, with the group's staff increasing by nearly a third last year.
Around 3,500 personnel currently work abroad, where the conglomerate has an array of joint ventures with foreign companies including French supermarket chain Carrefour, Japanese car maker Toyota, and Germany's HeidelbergCement.
'Our London office is our base for international trade,' she says. 'It's just opposite Madame Tussauds. They're very nice neighbours, very quiet, although I must say they do have a lot of visitors.'
If Sabanci is that rare thing in Turkey - a very public woman who is very publicly witty - she has also gained a deserved reputation for pluck in a field where few women, anywhere, have dared to venture.
As head of Sabanci's tyre division - a post she held for 14 years and one which earned her the nickname 'rubber queen'- she aggressively broadened the division's horizons, forging links with US company DuPont and other global corporate partners.
And as the driving force behind the conglomerate's 50/50 joint venture strategy of the 1990s, it is Sabanci who, more than anyone else, has been credited with expanding the group's operations overseas, into Latin America and Europe.
Despite the fluctuations in the country's economy, no other Turkish company has thrived, or expanded, so far away from the Middle East.
The stabilising effect of Turkey's European Union accession process - of which she is one of the most ardent advocates - has undoubtedly helped. But so, too, has Sabanci's management style. A firm believer in delegation and teamwork - iconoclastic notions in a nation with such a staid corporate culture - one of the first things she did having taken the helm was to call all her executives to a US-style 'search conference' to discuss future trends and strategies.
'It was an event where we looked 10 years ahead,' she said. And what did the company's, and Turkey's, future look like in 2015? 'At Sabanci,' she says matter-of-factly, 'our vision is to triple our revenues to $30bn,' partly through differentiation - 'the future of business' - and through investing in the energy sector, which Turkey's conservative government has pledged to privatise.
'But I cannot have a 10-year vision for Turkey without [thinking about] Europe. In 10 years' time, Turkey will be a very attractive market. Per capita income, which is $5,000 today, will be close to $12,500 - you're talking about a serious economy.' So is she saying that in 10 years' time Turkey will be an asset to the EU? 'Yes, by then its population will be around 90 million, and it'll be a very young population that will bring a great dynamism to Europe.'
And yet, she hastens to add, the journey in many ways will be more important than the destination. 'In 10 years' time we expect Turkey to have the right to decide to be, or not to be, a member of Europe, which of course means doing all the right things along the road. I say that because in 10 years' time, we don't know what Europe will be either.'
To spend a day with Guler Sabanci is to witness not only her role in Turkey's corporate world, but the considerable effect she has on its social and cultural life. On a single day I saw her conduct business, inaugurate an 18th-century fountain - the first of many she has promised to renovate in Istanbul - and launch a new wine festival, made purely 'for the pleasure of drinking'.
Beyond the boardroom, most of Sabanci's energies are focused on education and art. Since 1974, the conglomerate has poured some $1.1bn into a charitable foundation - the largest in Turkey and one of the biggest in the world.
Recently, funds have been injected into Sabanci University, which she founded in 1999. Today, it is widely viewed as Turkey's most liberal higher education institution, teaching taboo subjects such as the Armenian genocide. Last year, to the delight of Turks - including the Islamic-rooted government - she introduced the country to Picasso, arranging an historic exhibition of his works (not least his nudes). More than 250,000 people visited the newly renovated Sakip Sabanci Museum to see the show.
'This country made me rich, so it's my duty to give back,' she tells me. 'I wear two hats. The one is business and increasing my shareholders' value; the other is social responsibility. I believe in the goodness of people, of trying to be a good person.'
Said by most, such words might sound trite. But after a day with Guler Sabanci, it is difficult not to believe that she means every word she says.
Name Guler Sabanci
Born 1955, Adana, Turkey
Education Bosphorus University (business administration); Harvard University advanced management program
Career 1978, joined Sabanci group's tyre manufacturing company, Lassa; 1985, general manager of Kordsa, the group's tyre cord manufacturing and trading company; May 2004, chair of Sabanci Holding and head of the philanthropic Sabanci Foundation
Hobbies Visiting art fairs and collecting art, especially ceramics from the Ottoman Seljuk period; making wine