Bank President Shuns Bonus to Turn Turkish Winemaker

Akin Ongor
Akin Ongor signs copies of his book, whose title means "Keep Going When I'm Gone" in English. Ongor was president of Turkiye Garanti Bankasi for nine years. Source: Pelin Ongor via Bloomberg

Akin Ongor, former chief executive of Turkiye Garanti Bankasi AS, might walk with a spring in his step if he weren’t as modest and dignified as he is successful.

The former national basketball player, 66, headed Istanbul-based Garanti for nine years, transforming it into Turkey’s largest bank by market value. His sport-team style management went onto the case-study curriculum at Harvard Business School, according to the Turkish-U.S. Business Council.

Then -- like other top bankers -- he stepped away from the bonuses and stress. He retired in 2000 to pursue another passion: To create a family-owned winery capable of producing some of Turkey’s finest bottles. His company, Selendi AS, currently sells in the home market and plans to export as much as 50 percent of its output within three or four years.

“It started as a hobby,” he said in an interview in Quince restaurant, London, seated beside his daughter, Pelin. “I didn’t go into the business to make money. Wine is for the next generation, so my daughter, my son will harvest the fruits but it’s a risky business because we are dealing with nature.”

He began by buying land in the Akhisar region in the west of the country, using organic farming methods and enlisting help from the Italian winemaker Andrea Paoletti. Selendi produces one red wine and one rose each year. Ongor is building a new winery and estimated his investment at 5 million euros ($7.9 million.)

Bottle Growth

“It started in small numbers, from a few thousand bottles, but with existing vineyards and the new winery, we will reach around 125,000, 150,000 bottles: high-quality, boutique wines, hand-picked, hand-selected,” he said. “We are selling at about 25-30 euros a bottle, and we have new wine coming up at around 50 euros a bottle, so when we multiply this by 125,000 it will become a small business, but a very high quality business.”

Is he looking at any particular export market?

“Britain is key,” he said. “The Far East is interesting for us: Hong Kong, China, Taiwan those areas, India. New areas.

“There’s a Wines of Turkey platform, together with some other producers. In three or four years’ time, we will be exporting 40-50 percent of our production.”

How does Ongor compare banking and wine-making?

“We produce our own grapes so it’s an agricultural activity and it requires close, personal care,” he said. “It’s a kind of art. Banking is very much calculated. It’s scientific. Some bankers really did badly in the Western world but not in Turkey, so when I say a banker in my country, it’s a high-prestige business that you are talking about.

Banking Pressure

“I was in a very high-stress environment in banking. I used to work about 12-13 hours every day, very fast-moving, lots of pressures from the government, from international markets, domestic markets and trying to achieve better results.

“In the wine business, the target is to make the best wine, better than the previous one, so it’s not the same rhythm. Still, dealing with nature is difficult. We know the climate in general but we can’t control the climate.”

That sounds like the economy to me. Still, Ongor said he has no regrets about retiring. He was the bank’s president as well as chief executive.

“I wanted to allocate more time to my hobbies, to my family, to my passion,” he said. “We have to realize that we have limited time in life.”

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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