Contractor presides over $2.5 billion food to finance empire
Ertugrul Kurdoglu and his partners built the $4 billion Ataturk Dam, the world’s fifth largest dam and the centerpiece of the ambitious Southeast Anatolia Project in record time. Today, he heads Ata Holding, a conglomerate with more than 20 companies in 1
By Metin Demirsar
Istanbul (Dunya) – In 1983, a little-known contractor from the eastern Black Sea coast formed a joint venture, linking his small company Seri Insaat with the construction firms Palet and Enerji Su to compete in the tender to build the Turkey’s biggest hydroelectric dam.
Ertugrul Kurdoglu, the businessman, and his partners, faced some of Turkey’s biggest corporations and leading foreign contractors in the auction.
Their joint venture, Ata Insaat, eventually won the contract and built the $4 billion, 2,400 MW hydroelectric Ataturk Dam, on the Euphrates River in southeast Turkey, in a record time of 8.5 years, employing 400 engineers and 10,000 workers.
The dam today remains the world’s fifth largest volume dam and the centerpiece of the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), the country’s biggest economic development undertaking.
Water from the lake reservoir of the Ataturk Dam is pumped by tunnels to irrigate parched lands in Sanliurfa province, north of Syria, and has helped turn the region into an agricultural breadbasket.
GAP is an immense project, embracing one-tenth of Turkey, an area bigger than the Republic of Ireland, or the combined Benelux countries, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. The project covers 75,358 square kilometers and nine provinces. An estimated 8 million people live in the region.
About $20 billion has already been spent on GAP and several key components have been completed, including the 179-meter high Ataturk Dam. Named after Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, the rockfill dam is the world's fifth biggest embankment barrage in terms of volume. Most of the dams of GAP on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have been completed, but the irrigation projects are far behind schedule and facing financial difficulties
“I still believe it was some divine power that drew us to the project and handed us the job of building the Ataturk Dam,” Mr. Kurdoglu, now 80 and chairman of Ata Holding, a food to finance conglomerate, reminisced in his Istanbul office, overlooking the Bosphorus Bridge.
“I remember the head of the state dams’ projects came to visit me. He said it would be okay if the dam were constructed in 15 years, instead of 10 years as stipulated in the contract, or even longer,” Mr. Kurdoglu, a grandfatherly figure, said. “I said it would be finished on time. We started working on the job site months before the project officially kicked off. ”
With annual turnover of $2.5 billion, his Ata Holding is today one of Turkey’s biggest corporations. He and his family own all or a majority stake in more than the 20 companies in the conglomerate that has interests in food, finance, technology, contracting, logistics, services, tourism, textiles and trade. The group has interests in seven countries on four continents.
Ata Insaat is no longer operating, though other group companies are involved in contracting, real estate development and in building materials. Mr. Kurdoglu’s two sons, Erhan Kurdoglu, 50, and Korhan Kurdoglu, 47, both U.S.- educated civil engineers who worked at the Ataturk Dam construction site, preferred to work in the fields of fast food and finance. The sons of other shareholders of Ata Insaat also went their own ways.
Erhan Kurdoglu obtained the local franchise of Burger King. He has turned the group into Turkey’s biggest fast food operator with its 400 Burger King outlets. With its foreign partners, Ata Holding also operates the Burger King Franchise in China, the world’s fastest growing fast food market. It also owns the franchises for the fast food Sbarro, Popeyes, and Arby’s Restaurants in Turkey.
“I told my son that the food he offers should be the lowest cost, most hygienic and the most tasty in the country. Turks and can’t afford costly meals. Money would be made from the high volume of sales,” Mr. Kurdoglu said.
The group also operates the Ata-Sancak Animal Husbandry and Dairy Farm in Denizli in partnership with the Sancak Group and owns a bread factory that produces hamburger buns and sandwich bread served at the fast food restaurants. It also plans to produce fried potatoes at a plant in Afyon, in western Turkey, to serve at its restaurants.”
“I like integrated projects. I am ready to produce everything that will go into our food products,” he remarked.
His son Korhan Kurdoglu, 47, established Ata Invest, one of Turkey’s leading brokerage houses, and Ata Online, the nation’s first on-line securities trader, and an asset management company, and other financial companies.
Mr. Kurdoglu’s daughter, Tuna Kurdoğlu, 48, who studied apparel design and fashion merchandizing abroad, operates the Escada fashion stores in Turkey.
The group also has a share in the Hilton Hotel in Izmir and has a tourism company that is run by one of Mr. Kurdoglu’s daughters-in-law.
Black Sea roots
Mr. Kurdoğlu was born in 1932 in the Black Sea town of Savsat of Laz parents in the northeastern Turkish province of Artvin. The Laz are people who inhabit the northeast corner of Turkey and speak Lazish, a language akin to Georgian. He had six brothers and one sister, all of whom he has survived.
His family moved to Istanbul from the town of Arhavi, where his mother was from, in 1936.
He graduated from Istanbul Technical University.
From 1958 to 1966, he worked as an engineer and job site manager with the State Highways Department. From 1966 to 1968, he was a job site manager for the State Railways.
In 1969, he formed formed his own company, Seri Insaat, and built the infrastructure of many dam and thermal energy projects, including bridges and 400 km of roads in many parts of Turkey.
In November 2012, he published his memoirs “Ben Buraya Hayalerimle Geldim” (I Came Here With My Dreams). The revenues from the book, distributed at D&R Stores, are being donated to the Istanbul Technical University Foundation.