Güler Sabancı: Turkey’s Most Powerful Businesswoman

Güler Sabanci has run Turkish conglomerate Sabanci Holding since 2004—through good times and bad.
Courtesy of Sabanci Holding

Turkey’s aborted coup is the latest challenge for Güler Sabancı.

In her annual letter to shareholders earlier this year, Güler Sabancı, chairman of Sabancı Holding, one of Turkey’s largest conglomerates, offered a couple of reasons for optimism in 2016: “the favorable turn in Turkey’s relations with the EU” and “the immense opportunities in store” for her country in the coming year.

Just six months later, it’s a radically different picture. Turkey is currently under a state of emergency, as it has been since a failed coup attempt in July. The resulting purge, which has removed more than 80,000 people from public duty—including thousands of academics and the chief financial officer of Turkish Airlines­—has drawn international condemnation. Meanwhile, the country continues to grapple with the region’s refugee crisis and the wave of deadly terrorist attacks that have hit its major cities and southern border region, as well as the Turkish lira’s 21% decline in value since January 2015. With the broader global volatility out there, it’s hard to imagine a more challenging environment in which to lead the Istanbul-based Sabancı—a $17.6 billion portfolio of businesses that spans the financial, industrial, retail, and energy sectors.

So far Sabancı, which operates in 16 countries, is holding its own. In the first half of 2016 the group’s sales rose 22% in local currency, and profits were up 11%. The family business’s third-generation leader and a fixture on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women international list (No. 7 in 2016), Sabancı is confident the country will rebound as well. “Turkey has an incredible stamina to come back,” she told Fortune in mid-August.

A cordial but hard-charging 61-year-old with owlish glasses and a booming voice, Sabancı is no stranger to turmoil. She joined the family company, which was run by her five uncles (her father died when she was young), straight out of college 38 years ago. Though the group was known for textiles, Sabancı shrewdly opted for a job in its fledgling tire company, Lassa. “I had wanted to grow with a business,” she explains. “I loved the smell of rubber!”

More: See this year’s list of the International Most Powerful Women in Business

A 1980 coup nearly derailed her plans. The putsch, which ushered in a period of fluctuating exchange rates and import restrictions, drastically disrupted operating conditions and brought Lassa to the brink of bankruptcy. Sabancı’s job importing raw materials from abroad was especially tough. It took three years to recover, but she now considers the experience one of her most valuable. “I learned crisis management firsthand. And being part of that team has helped me all my life.”

Sabancı continued to gravitate toward challenges, forging the company’s first-ever joint venture in 1987, to build a steel-cord factory in Turkey. The effort altered the family business. “We were used to having control,” she says. “My uncle asked me, ‘Who will be boss then?’ I said the project itself will be the boss.” As Turkey emerged on the world stage in the 1990s, she played a pivotal role in globalizing the company.

For more on this year’s Most Powerful Women International list, watch this video:

Then, in 2004, she became Sabancı’s chairman, elected by the majority of family members—and over many male relatives—following the death of her uncle Sakip. It was a startling development at the time, an unprecedented position for a woman in Turkey. That’s not her only “first:” A leading Turkish philanthropist who founded a university in 1994, she has also proved savvy at navigating her nation’s complicated politics—steering clear of sensitive sectors while acting as a strong economic ambassador for Turkey. Fadi Hakura, who runs the Turkey Project at think tank Chatham House, notes that this fits the Sabancı tradition: “They’ve been able to manage the gyrations of the last five decades. They know how to manage the volatility governing Turkish politics.”

At this particularly fraught moment, that means doubling down on the home country. “We are still investing,” Sabancı says. “We strongly believe in the future prospects of our country, and we put our money where our mouth is.” The previous weekend she had joined the Turkish Prime Minister to open a Composite Technologies Center of Excellence—an academic-industry collaboration intended to develop a more innovative R&D ecosystem in the country.

Sabancı also sees a silver lining in the national unity that has come out of the summer’s failed coup, calling it an important opportunity to implement reforms. But she is guarded when it comes to criticism of her country’s current direction. She wouldn’t comment on Turkey’s post-coup purge, other than to accuse the Western media of bias. Of the attempted takeover itself, though, she is unequivocally opposed. “It is a very bad memory for Turkey, and hopefully it will always stay a bad memory only.” Now she must use her crisis-management skills—once again.

To see the full 2016 Most Powerful Women International list, visit fortune.com/most-powerful-women-international.

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Leading in Times of Chaos.”

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