Akin Ongor - Controversial Leader and Pioneer
Akin Ongor learned about winning at Banking from winning at basketball. A former star Turkish national team basketball player, Ongor's business management style is based on teamwork in much the same way a sports team is managed. The former CEO of Garanti Bank, his unprecedented leadership-driven management style and transformation of Garanti bank from a small faltering enterprise to the major conglomerate it is today roused the attention of the Harvard Business School. His work is part of the school's case study curriculum and he is showcased among other well-known business leaders and examples from the sports world in Harvard University Professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter's recent book, "Confidence".
Ongor worked for several multinational companies before serving as CEO of Garanti Bank from 1991 to 2000. Istanbul was an unlikely setting for a company eventually named the world's best small bank (by Euromoney) and one of Europe's fifty most respected companies of any kind (by the Financial Times). Ongor's no-nonsense approach was so unusual in Turkey's otherwise unprincipled banking industry that he used to receive death threats at his home during the early 90s.
Only a few years before Ongor arrived, timid employees routed customers to competing banks rather than risk punishment for errors in complicated transactions; bells rang at noon for lunch at 6:00 p.m. to send everyone home, and a former CEO's mail was delivered not to his office but to a local bar he frequented across the street.
Ongor led a significant winning streak. During his tenure, Garanti was the fastest growing of Turkey's four major private banks.
Market capitalization soared from $150 million to $5billion. Annual profits grew from $85 million to $500 million without increasing the number of branches, while income per branch increased tenfold, from $258,000 to $2 million. Productivity sky rocketed from $15,000 to $110,000 per employee. Innovation flourished, including the first debt cards for lower income Turks and extensive Internet banking. Garanti expanded to Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Russia, and beyond.
Ongor attributed the success to good people, good systems, and the harmony to perform under pressure.
The first step was assembling the right team and getting them to play together. With human resources head Saide Kuzeyli, Ongor established mandatory communication seminars for management, "to build an understanding of 'we," he said. "We are all together a team, we share the glory and the pain. There's not 'I' 'they' 'them.' The leader's job is to harmonize the people. People who couldn't play the new game were helped to learn or were replaced. Under Kuzeyli, training days per employee grew eightfold. She was also proud that the number of women employees increased to 50 per cent.
"Relax under pressure" was one of Ongor's basketball lessons. The 1991 Gulf Was crisis had hardly affected Garanti, but drastic devaluation of Turkey's currency in 1994 caused losses at many branches whose customers held foreign exchange loans. Garanti's leaders supported rather than reprimanded managers in losing branches which helped the bank get through the crisis.
Garanti acquired a failing bank, a move widely viewed as having helped to save the national banking industry, which added to Garanti's prestige, and, in another virtuous circle of success, helped Garanti attract more investment and top recruits, which fueled further wins. By the end of 1994, Garanti had continued its streak of annual profit increases.
Ongor held large all employee forums, modeled after General Electric (one of his earlier employers). At a twelve hour session in Ankara in 1999, Ongor heard hundreds of proposals. A manager argued that the bank should provide leadership in creating a healthy smoke free work environment. Although many employees smoked (Turkey was a cigarette capital), 75 per cent of attendees approved the motion. A female trainee proposed allowing women to wear trousers, which was also approved. Such dialogues taught people to believe in their ideas, however small. Energy and initiative increased everywhere, further fueling the winning steak.
Ambitious "quantum leap" projects including forming new teams to win business, armed with computerized tools to track their own performance. By 1997, 286 portfolio teams worked from 143 branches, each responsible for 120 commercial customers, visiting an average of three customers or prospects a day. The number of customers doubled in the first year alone.
Winning made it easier to attract talent. Garanti received more than 10,000 applications a year for about 100 vacancies.
Akin was also the chairman of the Turkish US Business Council for about three years as well as the chairman of the Istanbul Arts and Culture Foundation. Although he is now retired from banking and business organizations, Ongor is far from a typical retiree with a lot of time on his hands. He is currently in the process of trying to establish a non-profit business training school in Bodrum which would employ Harvard professors to educate young upwardly mobile professionals on leadership. The school would be built near Yalikavak's famous windmills where Ongor owns 20,000 square meters of land. "My mission is to help upgrade the intellectual quality of Bodrum," says Ongor. Another philanthropic project Ongor initiated is to build a high school for girls in Aksehir, his ancestors' hometown, which will bear his wife Gulin's name.
A youthful 60 year old, Ongor has also invested much time and money trying to clean up Bodrum. He hired international consultants and proposed a new sanitary waste system to the municipality which was unfortunately turned down. He is also the founder of an environmental protection foundation in Turkey. "As a Bodrum lover I don't like what's been done. But where there is money there is corruption," says Ongor.
Besides spending time in Bodrum and working on various philanthropic projects, Ongor loves to sail. He owns a 14 meter handmade Turkish motor boat and often rents a sailboat in Bodrum and other parts of the world. He crossed the Atlantic last year which took him just 21 days. He's also recently taken up scuba diving. But, his biggest current passion is wine. Ongor started his own private vineyard in Akhisar a few years ago and bottles just 8000 bottles of red wine (using three varieties of French grapes) per year under a private label intended for his friends and associates. The first to be bottled were 2003 and 2004 vintage. Using the same grapes, he has invested in another vineyard which will produce about 20,000 bottles per year to be sold at exclusive restaurants throughout Turkey.
After studying at METU in Ankara Ongor worked in England before returning to Istanbul in 1970, when the private banking sector started. He worked at Pamuk Bank for two years before joining Garanti in 1986, where he spent the following 17 years, nine of them as CEO. He has a son who attends university and a young daughter who is a chef in a Japanese restaurant in New York City.
These days Ongor spends just two months out of the year in Istanbul and most of the rest of the year in Bodrum. He explained that he would always have a romantic relationship with Bodrum because it's where he and his wife spent their honeymoon 30 years ago. He has even helped beautify the town by donating a sculpture of an old-time sponge diver by Yavus Tanyelli, which rests in the park near the Bodrum Marina.