As a student in Ankara in the 1980s, Ilhami Koç was planning a career as a diplomat. A female friend wanted to apply for a job in Isbank’s auditing department, so he accompanied her to the bank’s headquarters to pick up an application form.
“They said: ‘I’m sorry but we don’t hire women as auditors,’” he says. “She got angry and the situation was getting tense, so to calm things down I said I’d take a form.”
As it turned out, the Isbank graduate exams were similar to those for the foreign ministry, so Koç decided to sit them for practice. One was in accountancy, a subject of which he knew nothing, so he did not expect to pass.
To his astonishment, he made it through to the next round. “Apparently the accountancy exam that year was so hard that only one person passed, so they cancelled it!” he says.
He was offered a job at Isbank that summer and signed up, still planning to join the diplomatic service as soon as possible. By the time he took (and passed) the foreign ministry exams later that year, however, he had already discovered the advantages of banking.
“It was basically the money,” he says. “Isbank paid much better than the government.”
Koç spent eight years working as an auditor before moving to investment banking in 1994. At the time, the sector was going through radical transformation. Two years earlier, long-standing restrictions on capital markets investment in Turkey by foreigners and by Turks abroad had finally been lifted.
“It completely changed the structure of the market,” says Koç. “It was our Big Bang.”
Foreign investment began to pour into Turkey. Suddenly, Turkish investment banks were making money and could afford to invest in much-needed technology and staff.
It was basically the money – Isbank paid a lot better than the government’- Ilhami Koç
“When Turkish capital markets was a purely local affair, the standard of people working in the industry was very low,” says Koç.
In 1996 further legislation required Turkey’s commercial banks to split out their investment banking arms and Is Investment was created. Also that year, the Turkish government signed a customs agreement with the European Union. Koç and his colleagues thought they saw an opportunity to boost Turkey’s fledgling M&A market.
“At the time, the big Turkish conglomerates had operations across a huge range of sectors,” he says. “We thought that after the deal with the EU they would have to focus on their core business and sell non-core assets – but when we approached them they said no, because they weren’t familiar with the concept of M&A.”
That all changed after the Turkish economic crisis of 2001.
“That was a wake-up call for Turkish industry,” says Koç. “After that, these companies came back to us looking to sell their non-core businesses.”
He spent the first year after the crisis as chief executive of a private equity fund set up by Isbank to capitalize on the chaos shaking the Turkish economy.
“We were lucky because we had cash and there were a lot of good assets going very cheap,” he says. “We bought some interesting businesses – restaurants, movie theatres, an exhibition company – and we made very good money.”
In 2002, Koç returned to Is Investment as chief executive, a post he would hold for the next 11 years. One of his first actions was to restructure and bulk up the firm’s M&A department, which at the time consisted of two part-time bankers. Koç reorganized the unit into industry groups and started hiring.
“The collapse of Andersen Consulting was a boon for us,” he says. “We took five people from there.”
Meanwhile, on the capital markets side, Turkey’s new-found growth story – economic expansion averaged around 7% until the end of the decade – set the stage for a slew of IPOs by local companies.
“High growth always attracts capital,” says Koç.
As the country’s leading local investment bank, Is Investment was the go-to house for larger listings. As well as the privatizations of Vakifbank, Halkbank and Turkish Airlines, the firm also led landmark deals for the likes of Coca-Cola Içecek and Tekfen Holding.
Indeed, Is Investment gained such a stranglehold on the market during this period that the Turkish Capital Markets Association – which Koç chaired for four years until 2018 – sometimes left the firm out of its reports in order not to distort the statistics.
In recent years, external shocks and internal upheavals have put a severe dampener on both growth and investment banking activity in Turkey. Koç, however, remains optimistic.
“For me, the base case scenario is that macroeconomic conditions improve, foreign interest revives and we see a return to the conditions of the late 2000s,” he says. “Best case is that Istanbul becomes a financial centre for the Middle East, central Asia and the Black Sea region.
“This is something the government is working on – and it’s a realistic project. It makes sense, given our geographical location and Turkey’s history.”