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“We have a woman in the room!”

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How our client Neşe Gök went from becoming Turkey's first female timber trader to running the family conglomerate

Potrait image of Neşe Gök

Neşe Gök

President, Inci Holdings

Turkey

“One day my grandfather came to me and said, ‘I bought a timber company.’ We were suddenly producing wooden pallets for our other manufacturing companies,” says Neşe Gök, president of the family-owned Turkish conglomerate Inci Holdings.

That is how the then 24-year-old Neşe, fresh from university, became probably the first and only female timber trader in conservative Turkey, for two-years in the 1990s regularly attending auctions and bidding against burly male competitors in an industry known for its high testosterone levels.

Neşe recalls that when she first showed up at the auctions, mostly held in provincial wedding halls across the region, every head in the room turned in her direction, and some men visibly couldn’t bear being beaten to a wood lot by a young woman. But most of the men were respectful, she says, always making sure she got the best seat in the house, until eventually the novelty of her presence wore off and she was treated like everyone else.

That’s still how things unfold, she says. “When I go to a very important meeting, if there are few women in the room, which is usually the case, then they want me to sit in the best seat, to be in front, to be seen and heard. I think that was the same back then, you know. They were like – ‘We have a woman in the room! Wow!’ – and were on their best behavior.” 

The jobs weren’t separated by ‘this is a man’s or a woman’s job

We had to ask: Did her grandfather give her any advice before throwing her in at the deep end? “No. It was considered a normal thing. In our family, the jobs weren’t separated by ‘this is a man’s job, this is a woman’s job.’”

In the global battle to include more women in the workplace and close the gender pay gap, both priorities of the UN’s 17 Sustainability Goals, a flourishing industry has sprung up advising companies on how to make women feel more comfortable participating in male-dominated workplaces and then speaking up for themselves. But it’s usually wiser and cheaper to learn best practices directly from some of the world’s best-run family businesses, and when it comes to gender issues, the Inci family in Izmir, Turkey, is a source of world-class inspiration.

For nearly 20 years, women have been driving this family-owned auto-parts supplier to one new sales and profit record after another. Neşe is in fact the third generation of the family to preside over the Inci Holding board, after her mother and four aunts served successively before her. In other words, this is a family business where competence trumps blood ties and classic “gender roles.” When Neşe successfully completes her eight years at the helm later this year, she will pass the top job over to her male cousin.

There is a reason for all this. Inci Holdings’ predecessor company was founded on the Aegean Coast in 1952 by Neşe’s grandfather, Cevdet Inci. He was an entrepreneurial farmer who started trading oranges, then tires and spare car-parts, which led him, in 1968, to start manufacturing car-wheel rims and hubs. In the 1980s, the closed Turkish economy suddenly opened up, the government began encouraging exports through Free Trade Zones, and the nation’s industrial base took off. That included Inci Holdings, which, in 1984, added a car-battery plant. Typical of Turkish family conglomerates of the time, Cevdet’s holding company owned everything from real estate to a hotel minibar manufacturer.

But Cevdet had five daughters, no sons, so when Neşe’s mother Emel graduated from university, he turned to his oldest daughter to help run the sprawling firm. In time, all of his five daughters joined the company and on a rotating basis oversaw the company’s explosive growth. “I grew up listening to my aunts’ stories of the blood, sweat and tears that went into the making of İnci Holding, and watching them work tirelessly,” Neşe once wrote to her stakeholders. “I also watched them grow from holding grandfather’s hand to shouldering his burden. They always stood right at the front, right by his side in triumph and defeat.”

The company is now among the world’s leading auto-parts suppliers. Neşe says the second generation taught her and her cousins, not by words but by their actions, “how to be humble. In the press, as a family, we never liked to be in front too much, to be known for how big we were. We preferred to be known for what we did for the community.” Proof of point: In 1986, the family created an educational foundation which is now well known in Izmir and the region for its communal support.

26 years ago, the family wrote up their moral code and professional guidelines

But here’s the key: Neşe credits the firm’s continuous business success to the moral code and professional guidelines the entire family wrote up 26 years ago, in what the family now calls “the constitution.” Some of their house rules: Family members must work a minimum of two years elsewhere before applying for a job at one of the family businesses; the company’s human resources and professional managers decide whether that family member should be hired, and if hired, they can only report to a professional manager, not another family member, and it’s that manager who reviews their performance and decides whether they should be kept on. Lastly, the family reviews their salaries every year, to make sure “an injustice” hasn’t been created by paying them more than nonfamily members in similar positions.

The family still religiously follows such self-imposed disciplines. While there are 17 family shareholders collecting Inci Holding dividends today, there are only five family members actively working at the company, and then mostly at the holding company level, specifically looking after the family’s interests. Inci Holding’s eleven operational businesses, from car batteries to logistics, are all professionally managed.

Which gets us back to gender equality: Neşe argues that focusing on good governance is more important than focusing narrowly on, say, gender issues, because by taking care of the former, such as demanding professional competence, you naturally set the right company tone and open a pathway for addressing the latter.

“When I say ESG, I am really talking about the G part. I think we have always been good at governance, it’s our strong suit, because we thought about family governance from very early on. When we recently started reporting internally on ESG matters, to improve ourselves, we saw that 80% of the issues that came up were really about good governance.”

Building a company-wide culture based on fundamental values

Inci Holding is for this reason more focused on building a company-wide culture based on fundamental values than it is on ticking boxes that meet some gender or ESG quotas arbitrarily set by Human Resources, and this big issue focus is far more muscular than periodically trotting out platitudes at “all hands” meetings. Last year, for example, the company celebrated its 70th anniversary by honoring a different aspect of “respect” as each new quarter came along. They celebrated “respect” for the “masters” – experts with unique knowledge – by making video profiles and honoring the gifted workers at company celebrations; they showed “respect” for education, by giving generously through the family’s education foundation; for nature, by reaching a 100,000 tree-planting goal and cleaning up beaches; and they showed “respect for the Arts” by supporting a children’s orchestra and by commissioning numerous artists.

But, of course, Neşe is not naïve, and she recognizes that in the wider world, the common decency of treating women fairly and with respect in the workplace is “not yet where it should be. So, we also invest in women.” An important vehicle for her to do that is Vinci Venture Capital, strategically funded by Inci Holding and the family. Neşe and Vinci’s investment committee usually asks some 50 questions – from exploring the founder’s worldview to prodding the company on its Sustainability commitments – before deciding to invest in a start-up. But a high number of those leading questions specifically relate to where women rank within the target company. “We ask, ‘Is there a female founder?’ ‘Are women in the management team?’ ‘What percentage of their workforce are female?’”

That, of course, doesn’t mean Inci Holding itself gets a pass on the grilling. “We have worked a lot at our company on women empowerment; to have more women both in the management team but also among the workers.” The automotive supply industry is of course again famously male dominated. “In the production, it is very rare to see a woman and we are doing our best to include more women at all levels of the company.”

What would her grandfather say about how well they’ve done living up to the family’s ideal? “He probably wouldn’t say it to our face, but I think he would say to his friends that he is proud of us.”


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