Turkey’s big businessmen are getting the best press they have had for decades. Their profiles are a regular feature in a number of publications. Nokta, the country’s most popular weekly, runs a yearly feature on Turkey’s 100 richest families. Businessmen exude a new self-confidence in public and are granting journalists easy access. High-powered public relations firms have helped give this new publicity increasing sophistication. Resources abound to pay for all this favorable attention, for Turkey’s wealthiest families are very rich indeed. The Koç and Sabancı families are worth more than $1 billion each and many other families have wealth in the hundreds of millions.


The Turkish bourgeoisie can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, but its real growth dates from the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Distrustful of the wealthy Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire, the reformist Young Turks fostered a Turkish “national” bourgeoisie. The Kemalists of the post-1923 era continued these policies. Eventually, the empire’s Christians were largely eliminated through deportation and emigration. Emergent Turks acquired businesses and distribution and licensing rights that foreign companies had previously granted to minorities.

During the late 1920s and the 1930s, Turkish capitalists took part in the country’s drive to industrialize, particularly in the textile and food processing industries. The 1927 Law for the Encouragement of Industry was a major stepping stone for Turkey’s nascent class of industrialists. Contractors received their first big government orders during this period. As the economic clout of private capital increased, so did its political clout. Turkish capitalists helped bring an end to the single-party rule of the Republican People’s Party (RPP) in the 1950 elections. [1]

The Growth of Industry

During the 1950s, industry grew rapidly as the country moved to an import-substitution economy. This change set off a conflict between urban industrial interests on the one hand and commercial interests with strong links to the country’s agricultural sector on the other. The ruling Democrat Party supported the agricultural sector, where the majority of voters were concentrated, so the new industrialists increasingly defected to support the RPP. The armed forces eventually intervened as arbiters of the country’s political future in the coup of May 27, 1960.

The military turned the government over to a civilian regime a short while later, but the coup cemented relations between the military and the industrialists. The Turkish military itself made a number of direct investments in industry, using the assets of its pension and social security funds. Through such ventures as OYAK, a holding company which manufactures Renault cars and other products, the military became one of the most important economic forces in the country.

Throughout the 1960s, and until the 1977 crisis, the country’s industrial sector grew at an average yearly rate of 9 to 11 percent while the economy as a whole registered growth rates of 6 to 7 percent. By 1985, despite years of stagnation following the 1977 crisis, the industrial sector accounted for 33 percent of the GNP, while the agricultural sector, which had accounted for a 45 percent share in 1959, had dipped to 19 percent. [2] This change also reflected the growth of tourism and construction.

The state generally confined its investments to basic industries such as steel and energy, leaving consumer durables and light industries to private capital. During this period, corporations such as Fiat, Chrysler, Ford, Renault, Phillips, AEG and numerous others extended licenses to Turkish companies for assembly and manufacture of new consumer products. By the 1970s, the consumer market in Turkey had equaled Holland’s in terms of purchasing power. [3]

Throughout the 1960s, smaller companies merged into large corporations such as Koç, Sabancı and Çukurova. Groups such as the Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSIAD), the Turkish Union of Chambers (TOB), the Turkish Confederation of Employers’ Unions (TISK), and local chapters of Chambers of Industry and Commerce gained political sophistication and clout.

Economic Differences, Political Divisions

In the late 1960s, increasingly powerful interests of the urban-based industrial sector clashed again with commercial and agricultural interests, as well as with owners of small businesses whose economic survival was threatened by the power of the corporate giants. Rifts also appeared between those manufacturers dependent on a high-wage internal market for their durable goods and those in textiles and food processing who favored lower wages to spur exports. The main bone of contention was the distribution of foreign credits and import quotas. A foreign exchange crisis made matters worse and exposed the problems of the import-substitution economy. The military again briefly intervened in 1971 to repress a growing labor movement and to consolidate the industrial bourgeoisie’s position.

A number of new political parties emerged in the 1970s, a period of sharp polarization. The Democratic Party, with strong support from landowners, broke away from the Justice Party. The National Salvation Party, an Islamist group, gathered support from smaller business interests in the country’s hinterland. The Nationalist Movement Party, post-war Europe’s largest fascist movement, capitalized on the discontent of the smallest businesses and socially and economically frustrated small-town youths. Political instability was fueled by the most serious economic crisis since the founding of the Republic. As international pressures mounted, civilian governments were unable to implement the harsh measures necessary to “stabilize” the situation. In September 1980, the military intervened for the third time.

After the Coup

The 1980 military takeover was an important milestone in the development of the Turkish economy, opening up a new era of export promotion. Like earlier military interventions, this coup had been preceded by a “stabilization” program drawn up by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions. The basic goal was to tear down protectionist barriers which had allowed Turkey to industrialize through import substitution.

The military, by now an integral part of Turkey’s economic structure through their financial and industrial institutions, chose Turgut Özal, a former World Bank official and executive for several large Turkish corporations, to guide the new economic policies. Holding the finance portfolio in the military government, Özal worked to deflate the internal market and to spur exports while the military imposed its harsh rule. [4]

Helped by major aid infusions, Özal has achieved some success in realigning the Turkish economy. Exports have shot up from $2.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $8 billion in 1985. Inflation has dropped from triple-digit figures in 1980 to approximately 40 percent in 1985. Those involved in export markets have been prospering, but those most closely tied to the depressed internal economy have suffered. Real wages have fallen to less than half of their 1977 level. [5] While most corporate giants have been able to weather the transition, smaller companies have not fared so well. In the early 1980s, hundreds went bankrupt.

The economy has been sharply redirected to the Middle East, where Turkish contractors and industrialists found major markets for their skills and products. Aided by market opportunities created by the Iran-Iraq war, Turkish entrepreneurs have made both countries Turkey’s major trading partners. In 1985, Turkish contractors gathered orders worth $736 million, of which $387 million was in Saudi Arabia. Turkish firms have accumulated contracts worth $17 billion throughout the Middle East, up from less than $2 billion in 1980. [6]

Confidence at the Top

For the moment, the top ranks of the bourgeoisie in Turkey appear to be politically and economically more secure and at ease than they have been for decades. Bosses have successfully enhanced their public image by pouring funds into existing foundations or establishing new ones to do work in charity, education and the arts. Only two families among the 100 richest in Turkey are directly involved in politics, but TUSIAD and other business organizations have acquired great clout, and the post-1980 political structure makes it difficult for most other groups to organize at all. [7] Business publications are also more influential in an environment in which alternative views from the universities and the labor movement have been silenced.

Koç and Sabancı have major education foundations. Koç heads the Turkish Family Health and Planning Foundation which brings together the heads of major corporations to initiate in-plant family planning programs and has a pilot project involving 13 plants and 20,000 workers. [8] The Karamehmet’s Uluslararası Bankası, celebrating its hundredth anniversary, recently announced a fund to encourage research into the Turkish economy and foster greater dialogue between academia and the private sector. ENKA, one of Turkey’s largest contractors, has established a foundation to award prizes in the arts and to spur research and creativity. [9]

Women are beginning to play important roles in the major Turkish corporations. The Has group, one of Turkey’s largest, is run by Bilge Has, wife of founder Kemal Has. A younger generation of women are waiting in the wings. One is Leyla Balaton, daughter of Izhak Balaton, one of the founders of Alarko, a corporation estimated to be worth $250 million. [10]

Profiles of Turkey’s wealthiest families are inevitably incomplete. Corporations such as Çukurova, Eczacibaşi, and especially the powerhouses of Koç and Sabancı are very difficult to pin down because of the tremendous range of their activities. It would be easier to list the sectors they are not involved in than those where they are.

This list below largely follows Nokta’s new series on Turkey’s 100 richest families. [11] Of those families, the bottom 50 are estimated to have assets in the range of $15 million up to $150 million. The next 25 have assets of $150-300 million. The top 25 families each control fortunes of over $300 million. Among these, the top ten are estimated to be immeasurably richer than the rest. And even among the top ten, a vast gulf separates the top three families — Koç, Sabancı and Karamehmet — from the others.

Practically all major Turkish corporations are now engaged in talks with foreign concerns to develop joint ventures in Turkey’s burgeoning military industries. [12] They are hoping to get a piece of the new $650 million-a-year Turkish “defense fund” and to develop exports to the arms-hungry Middle East as well. [13] Turkey’s corporate giants will also be branching out to newer product lines. Vestel Elektronik, a subsidiary of Britain's Polly Peck International, started Turkey’s first large-scale computer produc: tion plant. Four other local concerns plan to start assembling computers in the fall of 1986. Finally, the government plans to privatize Turkey’s large State Economic Enterprises. Already the giant state-owned Tekel concern is being sold off; Turkish Airlines, the national flag carrier, and various other firms will follow.


Vehbi Koç symbolizes the history of big business in modern Turkey. Born in 1901, he left middle school in 1916 and entered the business world with a grocery store in Ankara’s Karaoğlan market. His first big contracts were for the government, later expanded to include construction and road building. He also acquired distribution rights for the Ford Motor Company and Mobil Oil. Today, the Koç empire directly employs over 30,000 people and includes 110 different companies with assets estimated at approximately $2.5 billion. [14] His companies are involved in automobiles, electrical appliances, electronics, agribusiness, cigarettes, tourism, and banking. Koç Burroughs, a joint venture with the US Burroughs corporation represents the corporation’s entry into the computer market. Koç’s RAM Diş Ticaret is one of the country’s major exporting houses. The Koç family also controls Garanti Bankası, one of the country’s major banking institutions, and now has a joint banking venture with American Express, which is helping to structure the country’s capital market. [15] Vehbi Koç transferred his responsibilities to his son, Rahmi Koç, in 1984. Koç Holding’s 1985 figures for sales/turnover were $3.1 billion. [16] The Koç family’s holdings include Arcelik, the country’s major appliance maker, Otosan and Tofaş automobiles and light trucks, and interests in practically every important sector of the economy.

Haci Ömer Sabancı started as a porter in Adana. His Sabancı group may have recently surpassed Koç as the country’s largest corporation. This powerful corporation is currently headed by Haci Ömer’s eldest son, Şakip. Starting in 1919 with Haci Ömer’s cotton-based trading and commercial activities, the Sabancı group branched out to textiles, light industries and banking. Their first textile factory, BOSSA, started production in 1952. Since then, dozens of factories and companies carrying the distinctive SA suffix have joined them. Among the better known are LASSA, which manufactures auto tires and other rubber products, MARSA in cooking oils and margarines, and KORDSA, which produces specialized textiles for both industrial and ready-wear uses. [17] Today the company is involved in the automotive sector, textiles, construction materials, iron and steel, tourism, banking, insurance and numerous other areas of the economy such as agribusiness and food processing. The Sabancı group recently bought the Swiss wool garment manufacturer, Hefti, in one of the first overseas takeovers by a Turkish corporation. [18] As owners of Akbank, Turkey’s most successful private bank with assets worth $5.3 billion, the Sabancıs are listed among the world’s richest bankers by Institutional Investor. The Sabancı group had a sales/turnover figure of approximately $2.7 billion in 1985. Şakip Sabancı, among the most visible members of Turkey’s big business community, was recently elected to head TUSIAD, the powerful business association. He often plays host to numerous politicians, including Ömer Inönü of the main opposition party, the social democratic Populist Party (SHP).

Mehmet Emin Karamehmet comes from a family of large Adana region landowners who expanded into commerce during the Ottoman era. Their first venture into industry came soon after the war of independence, with the purchase of a textile factory from the departing Greek owner. With the Eliyeşil family (Eliyeşil had started as a porter with Haci Ömer Sabancı, working for the then-rich Ramazanoğlu family), Karamehmet became the Turkish distributor for Caterpillar and John Deere agricultural machinery. In the 1960s, they established a factory to assemble and produce machinery under license from both John Deere and Caterpillar and expanded into the construction materials sector. The family is also well represented in the textile and agribusiness sectors. In 1985, the concern’s Baytur contracting firm was working on Mideast contracts totaling $771 million. [19] The main strength of the Çukurova group these days lies in their extensive banking interests. The Karamehmets own a controlling share of the Yapi ve Kredi Bank, Turkey’s oldest and second largest private bank. Yapi ve Kredi has itself extensive industrial holdings. The family also owns outright Pamukbank, considered one of the most innovative of Turkey’s retail banks and Interbank (Uluslarası Bankası), a highly profitable wholesale bank specializing in trade finance. [20] Mehmet Emin Karamehmet fled the country in the early 1980s to avoid being tried for alleged customs violations. He continued to run his manifold economic enterprises from Geneva. It appears that his troubles with the law are now over. The group’s assets were estimated at approximately $560 million in 1983. [21] Given the expansion of Turkey's banking sector and Çukurova’s dynamic role, it is a safe bet that these assets have increased over the last three years. The family’s fortune remains difficult to gauge. Nokta places the Karamehmets in third place, after Sabancı and Koç.

Selcuk Yaşar runs Turkey’s third largest corporation, Yaşar Holding. The company was established by Durmuş Yaşar, an immigrant from Rhodes who came to Turkey in 1927. Starting with a small store in Izmir, Yaşar established himself as the main supplier of paint to the Aegean region in the late 1930s and 1940s. His import/export firm expanded into other areas during the 1950s, and in 1954 he established the country’s first modern paint factory. In 1968, Yaşar’s numerous companies were consolidated under Yaşar Holding, emerging as the largest corporation in the rich Aegean region. The Yaşar empire also dominates Turkey’s food processing industry and has interests in textiles, the packaging industry, agribusiness and tourism. [22] The corporation also controls Tütün Bank, in which the US Chemical Bank has a 40 percent stake.

Nejat Eczacibaşi was recently chosen by a panel of journalists as Turkey’s best industrialist. The head of Turkey’s fourth largest industrial and financial group has been a prominent benefactor of culture and sports projects. The family business was started by his father, Eczacibaşi (“master pharmacist”) Süleyman Ferit Bey, a graduate of the Medical Faculty in Istanbul. Starting with the manufacture of simple medications in his laboratories in Izmir, Süleyman Ferit’s products were already well known before the war of independence. His Golden Drop cologne was sought after throughout the country. Nejat Eczacibaşi studied chemistry in Germany and the US. Upon his return to Turkey in the 1940s, Nejat branched out to produce vitamin pills and baby foods. The family established its first modern pharmaceutical plant in 1952. The Eczacibaşi concern grew throughout the 1950s and the 1960s; in 1969 Eczacibaşi Holding was formed. By then it dominated the pharmaceutical sector, and its plants were producing everything from ceramics to construction materials to pulp and paper goods. The Eczacibaşi empire has since added new factories in chemicals, plastics, and electronics. Turk Pirelli produces auto tires. The family’s wealth is difficult to estimate, but is well above $300 million. [23] Nejat Eczacibaşi has an extensive collection of paintings and Turkish art objects. His brother, Şakir Eczacibaşi, is a photographer of some repute. The annual Istanbul festival is funded by an Eczacibaşi family foundation. The corporation also funds sports, and the Eczacibaşi basketball and volleyball teams are among the best in the country.

Ali Dinçkök and his brother Omer Dinçkök have a reputation for enjoying a fast-lane lifestyle. The Dinçkök family was the first to invest heavily in modern textile plants. Their efforts led to an upsurge in this sector of the Turkish economy. The Dinçkök fortune, made in the 1950s, followed a typical pattern of branching out to different industrial sectors. Today the Dinçkök family is involved in all aspects of the textile industry, and also in Turkey’s export sector and in agribusiness.

The Haznedaroğlu and Kocak families control Kutlataş Holding. With contracts from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere, Kutlutaş will undoubtedly suffer from the contraction of the Middle East market. Both families’ fortunes were established in the 1950s during the construction boom then under way. In addition to building for the private sector, Kutlutaş also won government contracts for the construction of highways and dams. In the 1970s, Kutlutaş, moved into the Middle East market and established itself as one of Turkey’s foremost contractors. It is currently working on the second Iran-Turkey oil pipeline. [24] The company also has interests in the construction materials sector and is currently bidding with a number of Western companies for contracts in Turkey’s energy and transportation sectors. It has a joint venture with the US Westinghouse Corporation to manufacture radar equipment for F-16 fighters which are to be assembled locally by the state-owned Turkish Aircraft Industries Corporation. [25]

Tevfik Ercan owns the country’s eighth largest corporation, which acquired the MAN truck and bus concession in Turkey during the 1950s. From this base and their earlier commercial activities, the Ercan family has expanded into various other fields including establishment of a plant to assemble trucks, buses and vans under license. In November 1984 the concern opened a diesel engine factory. The company is also active in the import/export area and has interests in agribusiness, machinery, tourism and other sectors. [26]

Şarik Tara’s ENKA is one of the major success stories of the 1980s, with projects in Turkey’s energy and transportation fields as well the industrial sector. Tara first made his money during the construction boom of the 1950s with government contracts for roads, highways and various other projects. ENKA expanded into the booming Middle East market in the 1970s. In the post-1980 era, ENKA became a household term, as the government and the press made heroes out of those taking advantage of the regime’s export-oriented economic policies. ENKA’s main strength still comes from its engineering and contracting divisions, but it is branching out into construction materials and computer software, and has a joint banking operation with Chemical Bank (US) and Mitsuri Bank (Japan). ENKA Pazarlama, the concern’s export house, has been an important factor in the country’s export boom. ENKA is also holding joint venture talks with the British-American Tobacco Company. [27] The corporation’s most recent success in the Middle East was a $551 million deal with Libya for housing construction. [28] Known as the Turkish Bechtel, ENKA bid with Bechtel and a Yugoslav firm on the $1 billion Bekme dam project in Iraq, the UAE-Oman crude line (jointly with Bechtel) and the Soviet gas pipeline through Bulgaria. [29] ENKA manages three cement factories in Iraq and was recently awarded a $17 million contract to expand Iraq’s cement industry. [30] ENKA, in partnership with Bechtel, is also in the final stages of negotiating a $480 million contract with the Turkish government for the construction of a major portion of the Ankara-Istanbul superhighway and the system of feeder roads for the Ankara metropolitan region. [31] These new ventures should allow the firm to ride out the present contraction of Middle Eastern markets.

Sezai Turkeş and Feyzi Akkaya are the grand old men of Turkish contracting. Born in 1908 and 1907 respectively, they were classmates in the Istanbul Engineering Faculty, graduated in 1932 and made their fortunes in the 1950s. STFA became a major Middle East contractor in the 1980s, and is currently engaged in several large projects in Libya. [32] In late 1985, a subsidiary of STFA won a consultancy commission to design an eight kilometer expressway and a 700 meter bridge in Niger. [33] STFA has also moved to establish ties with South Korean and Western contractors to lessen the impact of decreasing Middle East work. It is currently involved in joint projects with the York Manufacturing Company (US). [34] STFA has Turkey’s largest private shipyard, Sedef, which is building for the European market as well as STFA’s own line. In 1985 an STFA-led consortium was awarded a $550 million project for the second Bosphorus Bridge and a $30.9 million contract for a bridge over the Golden Horn. [35] STFA net assets for 1985 were estimated in the $250 million range. [36] Both families have interests in other sectors of the economy. The company has set up a foundation to provide financial assistance to vocational and industrial high school students. Akkaya is particularly active in this endeavor, which currently provides financial assistance to 1,300 students.


[1] For a concise look at the evolution of Turkish capitalism, see Çağlar Keyder, “The Political Economy of Turkish Democracy,” New Left Review 109 (May-June 1979) and Turgut Taylan, “Capital and The State in Contemporary Turkey,” Khamsin 11 (1984).
[2] Taylan, p. 16 and World Bank, World Development Report 1986 (Washington, DC, 1986), p. 184.
[3] Keyder, p. 41.
[4] Özal’s blueprint, the January 24, 1980 economic program he had helped draft before the coup, had met sharp and often violent opposition from the labor movement. All labor activity was made illegal after the coup and thousands of labor union members were imprisoned. See Altan Yalpat, “Turkey’s Economy Under the Generals,” MERIP Reports 122 (March-April 1984), pp. 16-24.
[5] Şevket Pamuk, “24 Ocak Sonrasinda Siniflar ve Gelir Dağilimi” (Classes and Income Distribution in the Post-January 24 Era), 11 Tez 2 (February 1986), pp. 87-101.
[6] “Turkey’s Contractors in the Middle East,” Middle East Executive Reports (March 1986). Also see Middle East Economic Digest, Turkey Special Report, July 12, 1986, pp. 34-36. The figures for 1985 contracts are from Middle East Economic Digest, March 15, 1986, p. 35.
[7] Helsinki Watch, Freedom and Fear: Human Rights in Turkey (New York, 1986).
[8] Economist, August 23, 1986.
[9] Nokta, August 3, 1986, p. 38.
[10] Ibid., p. 39.
[11] The first appeared in Nokta’s May 5, 1985 issue. This year’s article is in the June 16, 1986 issue. Unless otherwise noted, information in these profiles is from these issues of Nokta (November 1985 and July 1986) and Middle East Economic Digest, Turkey Special Report (July 1985). Our presentation differs from Nokta’s since we have looked at corporations rather than families. A corporation like STFA is controlled by two families, each worth more than $300 million. We skipped the Yazici and Ozilhan families who control Anadolu Endustri Holding, Turkey’s seventh largest, with assets estimated at over $500 million, because detailed information on the Yazicis was difficult to come by. Anadolu Endustri Holding has interests in the automotive, aluminum, machinery, food processing and import/export sectors.
[12] Some 50 Turkish corporations are arranging various joint ventures in this new field. Koç is planning a joint venture with Ford Aerospace for the production of Chaparral ground-to-air missiles. (Nokta, September 14, 1986). Turkey’s arms exports in 1985 were estimated to be in the $300-400 million range. Customers for Turkish arms in the Middle East include Dubai, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and particularly Libya. Much of Turkey's exports appear to be ammunition destined for NATO countries.
[13]< Established from taxes on tobacco, alcohol, gasoline, gambling and a range of other products, this fund is expected to generate revenues worth $1.5 billion annually. See Manfred Sadlowski, “Turkish Armed Forces Receives Major Funding,” Military Technology 10/6 (June 1986), p. 6.
[14] Nokta, August 3, 1986.
[15] For more on capital markets in Turkey and an examination of Turkey’s banking system, see Quek Peck Lim, “Can The Turks Revive Their Capital Markets,” Euromoney (August 1986), pp. 77-83; and “Will New Policies Restore Investor Confidence,” in same issue of Euromoney, p. 87.
[16] Middle East Economic Digest, March 1, 1986.
[17] Institutional Investor (June 1983), p. 128. Also see Şakip Sabancı, Işte Hayatim (Here Is My Life) (Istanbul, 1985).
[18] Middle East Economic Digest, August 16, 1986, p. 43.
[19] Çukurova has also been particularly visible in the Iranian market and aside from garnering major orders for industrial and agricultural goods was active in arranging an oil barter deal between Iran Khodrow and Peugeot-Talbot. See Middle East Economic Digest, December 14, 1985, p. 42 and May 17, 1986, p. 20.
[20] Institutional Investor (June 1983), p. 128.
[21] Ibid., p. 128. For more on Interbank’s activities, see Nokta, August 3, 1986.
[22] Ilnur Çevik, ed., Turkey 1982 Almanac (Ankara, 1982), p. 370.
[23] South (July 1986), p. 90; and Çevik, p. 370.
[24] See Middle East Economic Digest, May 10, 1986, p. 16 and Çevik, p. 289.
[25] Middle East Economic Digest, March 15, 1986, p. 35.
[26] Çevik, p. 370.
[27] Middle East Economic Digest, June 7,1986, p. 28.
[28] Middle East Economic Digest, March 22, 1986., p. 20.
[29] Middle East Executive Reports (March 1986), p. 22. For a more detailed look at the Bekme project, see Middle East Economic Digest, March 1, 1986, p. 30.
[30] Middle East Economic Digest, May 10, 1986, pp. 15-16.
[31] Middle East Economic Digest, August 16, 1986, p. 42.
[32] STFA’s profits in the region shot up from $107,000 in 1974 to $42.5 million in 1982. In 1983 the company registered profits of $25.8 million in the Middle East and in the last few years its profits appear to have stabilized at around this figure.
[33] Middle East Economic Digest, December 21, 1985, p. 101.
[34] Middle East Economic Digest, August 16, 1986, p. 42.
[35] Middle East Economic Digest, February 1, 1986, p. 35.
[36] This figure does not appear to include the holdings of subsidiaries such as Sedef Shipbuilding and other affiliated groups.

How to cite this article:

Ömer Karasapan "Turkey’s Super-Rich," Middle East Report 142 (September/October 1986).

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