OBITUARY: Vehbi Koc
Tuesday 27 February 1996
Born in 1901 in Ankara - nobody knows in which month, but his mother said it was "when the grapes started to ripen" - Koc was one of the last generation to finish his schooldays still shouting "Long Live the Padishah!" But it was his luck to be a young man in the early republican Ankara of the 1920s that put him on the road to business success. He was involved from the start, being hired for a year as a proof-reader by the first nationalist parliament set up in 1920 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
When the republic was declared in 1923 and Ankara was chosen as the new capital, Koc went into building supplies. His father already had a grain- dealing business and had helped his son set up a first grocery shop in 1917; now his commercial instincts and contacts were in great demand. The capital's official buildings and boulevards had to be built almost from scratch, and soon Koc was winning government contracts for the construction of roads and hospitals.
Koc was also one of the first Turkish businessmen to realise the benefits of foreign partnerships. In the late 1930s he became a sales agent for companies like Mobil oil and Ford cars. In 1948 he built his first factory, making light-bulbs with General Electric.
The flagship of his empire, Arcelik, was launched in the 1950s. Almost every house in Turkey now has one of its fridges, ovens or vacuum cleaners. The car business followed in the late 1960s.
A business based mainly on import substitution made Koc Holding reluctant to enter the 1 January 1996 free market customs union with the Europe Union. But Koc came round in the end, possibly remembering the short shelf-life of his clunky first "all-Turkish" car, the 1966 fibre-glass Anadol. A profitable partnership with Fiat continues: Koc Holding is now sole constructor of some Fiat models for sale to the rest of Europe.
Koc Holding, whose shares are mainly held by the family, controls more than 85 companies in almost every sector of the Turkish economy, employing more than 40,000 people. Turnover is about $10bn, and the family's wealth was estimated by Forbes Magazine as the biggest in Turkey at $3.2bn.
Koc's last day was typical, spent on holiday at one of the family's five- star hotels on the Mediterranean coast. In the morning he took tea in a state-managed orange grove, and in the afternoon visited one of Koc Holding's Migros chain of super-markets. A heart attack struck on his return to the hotel.
A short man with small, twinkling eyes, Vehbi Koc liked to share the ideas he believed had given him success and long life. To all and sundry he would recommend an afternoon siesta, an evening bowl of chicken broth and moderation in all things. He drank one glass of whisky a day, smoked five cigarettes - but never on Thursdays - and wore the same suits for years.
Even after he handed over day-to-day running of the group's affairs to his son Rahmi in 1984, he kept a close eye on the till. All strategic decisions - down to the way employees bought their airline tickets - were checked by him. His lasting obsession was to avoid the wasteful spending of money.
"He would not take the lift when leaving the han [courtyard] where we used to work," said the leading Turkish businessman Sahin Atalay. "He would walk down, and personally switch off the light in every office he found empty."
Koc also tried to lead Turkey's rich businessmen into philanthropy. He founded several charities, a high school and a university, and was a leading light in a foundation that has given more than 60,000 scholarships to poor Turkish students. He set up one of Turkey's best private museums, the Sadberk Hanim Museum, on the Bosphorus, in honour of his wife Sadberk Hanim, who died in 1973, and in recent years was awarded American and United Nations prizes in honour of his work for family planning.
But his main concern was to create a professionally managed business empire that would survive generations after his death. Judging by Koc Holding's success so far, this is something his four children and several grandchildren are likely to see - if they can follow the careful example set by their founding father.
Vehbi Koc, businessman: born Ankara 1901; married Sadberk Hanim (died 1973; one son, three daughters); died Antalya 25 February 1996.
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