Bulent Eczacibasi heads the industrial group with a focus on pharmaceuticals that bears his family name – and he’s been creative to maintain success. In London for the Design Biennial, he tells us why patronage is key to the art of good business.
Bulent Eczacibasi has the easy manner of someone who’s seen it all. “The first speech I ever made to a foreign audience was titled Turkey at the Crossroads,” says the 67-year-old chairman of one of the country’s most powerful industrial dynasties. “Just last week I made another speech: Turkey at the Crossroads. So there has always been this sense that it’s a crucial time for Turkey, that it stands at a critical juncture.”
When Bulent took his seat in the family business in the mid-1970s, starting as a junior analyst, Turkey was just a few years from its worst energy crisis. Keeping offices lit and warm was a daily challenge. He rose through the business as tanks rolled through the streets of Istanbul in the 1980 coup and helped steer the family’s fortunes through the subsequent economic boom when this once-protectionist nation opened its doors to the free market. He now feels able to deal with whatever Turkey throws at the firm. “To be prepared for crisis, a business needs deep pockets,” he says.
The Eczacibasi Group comprises 49 companies dealing in everything from ceramic sinks to shopping centres, with a turnover of try8.4bn (€2.5bn) in 2015. Some 13,000 people are employed by the group and private patronage of the arts has been one way to let those working across its myriad brands know that they’re part of a bigger family.
We meet Bulent in a stately anteroom at London’s Somerset House, the venue for the city’s first Design Biennale. These old salons tell a tale of private largesse, when King George iii was patron to the early Royal Academy and artists were given a wing of the house to work in. In Turkey, the Eczacibasi name is synonymous with private patronage and the group’s ample cash reserves have founded institutions such as Istanbul Modern – the closest thing Turkey has to a Tate on the Bosphorus – and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (iksv), which has run the city’s own art biennial since 1987.
iksv also powered Turkey’s participation in the London Design Biennale: an elaborate, tubular pneumatic messaging system care of Turkish design firm Autoban. The piece invites the public to submit written wishes to the whimsical machine, which shoots their encapsulated message through tubes rigged up around Somerset House – the final destination is unknown. “I really hope these don’t all end up on my desk,” says Bulent with a wink, as another wish hurtles down the corridor.
Bulent’s grandfather ran a pharmacy in Izmir (eczacibasi means “chief pharmacist”, an honorific bestowed upon him) and you can’t overestimate the importance of these neighbourhood shops in Turkey. Often the learned pharmacist is de facto physician and minor politician, the first port of call when someone needs assistance or advice. This spirit was passed to Bulent’s father Nejat, who founded the holding company in 1942. “I don’t think my father ever heard the term ‘social responsibility’. For his generation it was all part of being a business leader; Vehbi Koc and Sakip Sabanci were friends of my father and thought they were responsible for everything, really.”
The young Bulent listened when these leading industrialists of the early republic hashed out ideas for how it could be propelled forward. Turkey’s problems today, which he ascribes to a combination of “social fault lines” and geographical ones, are beyond the power of business to solve. Culture and the arts can rally society around an idea, he says, but there’s also a broader purpose to being a patron. “On the one hand you’re reading about upheaval, then you walk into Somerset House and there’s a list of 30 countries and one of them is Turkey, with an entry drawn from the world of design and ideas. That is significant.”
Bulent is a genial character, ready to deflect questions about Istanbul Modern (which will be rebuilt from scratch next year) to his wife Oya, the museum’s chair. It’s an attitude that may come from his father’s insistence that there was no easy route to the top, even as the boss’s son. From the start he had lunch with his colleagues and always stood when the boss entered the room. Today he believes that the company head must admit mistakes to make sure workplace discussions are frank, and keeps an eye on how his companies spend. “Working capital can get out of hand when times are comfortable. One should never allow that.”
Turkish business is in a formidable predicament, with perennially low interest rates and credit downgrades. The lessons of Bulent’s father remain pertinent given the possibility of seismic change that’s a reality for any business in Turkey. “It was not unusual for businessmen to align themselves with certain prominent politicians and suddenly find they were on the losing side,” he says. “My father never made that mistake.”
For Bulent, one of the pressing questions in the next 10 years is how to take his brands, including bathware firms Vitra and Artema, into more international markets. Few Turkish manufacturers become truly global brands, which he puts down to a domestic market that has so far not been big enough. He must also decide whether to approach the group’s brands as investments in a portfolio or continue to regard them as parts of the family business.
Then there’s the matter of whether to take more manufacturing overseas. “If that happens we will say to our government, ‘Why did we go to India? We built some of the world’s largest factories in Turkey – why can’t we create the conditions to do more of that?’” They are questions that owners up and down the country are asking as the business climate becomes increasingly unpredictable. It may take another seismic shift to put the country back on track.
- What time do you like to be at your desk?
I start in the gym at 07.00 and after that I listen to music, do some reading and answer emails. I am at the office by 10.30.
- What’s the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or on the job?
I regret that I didn’t get an MBA as it’s wonderful preparation – but no substitute for practical experience.
- What’s your management style?
Sound decisions are reached by a frank exchange of ideas. The key is being prepared to admit mistakes – if I don’t, nobody does.
- Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
- Do you want to be liked or respected?
To be liked is nice; to be respected is essential.
- What does your support team look like?
Firstly it’s the family – my wife and our two grown-up children – plus close advisers and a personal assistant.
- What technology do you carry on a trip?
Laptop, tablet and my iPhone. I also take camera equipment for my own enjoyment.
- Do you read management books?
Good ones are rare but I must have read all of Peter Drucker’s books.
- Do you run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I do run and I joke that if I don’t drink at lunch I can’t sleep in afternoon meetings. Some colleagues are my best friends.
- What would your key management advice be?
Keep in mind that however much you think you’re an excellent judge of character, people can and will disappoint you.