President and CEO Yildirim Group of Companies Istanbul, Turkey.
Most people believe that it takes a certain amount of luck to succeed in business. Robert Yüksel Yildirim does not agree. He will tell you that the secret to prosperity is a lot of hard work. He uses intuition, lessons learned in childhood, experience gained from numerous business deals, and the engineering education he received from Oregon State.
Today, he is president and CEO of Yildirim Group of Companies, a vertically integrated industrial conglomerate based in Istanbul, Turkey. Business operations range from mining and fertilizer production, to port management and shipbuilding, to real estate and construction, with offices in 50 countries that employ more than 12,000 people.
Yildirim’s journey to becoming one of the most influential people in the global mining and shipping business is rooted in humble beginnings. He was raised in Samsun, Turkey, a seaport city located on the north coast of the Black Sea. His father owned a small business, trading building supplies and construction materials. He and his two brothers grew up working in the shop. “I have never forgotten those days because they helped me understand the value of money and hard work,” Yildirim said.
Yildirim’s parents wanted their sons to get an education so he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Istanbul Technical University. He also wanted to learn English, so he asked his parents if he could travel to the United States to study English and get a master’s degree. His father agreed to let him go, but under the condition that he return and one day help run the family business. Yildirim arrived in the U.S. in 1983 and after spending a year in San Francisco learning English, he followed a friend to Corvallis to begin graduate school at Oregon State.
“Everybody was riding bicycles,” he said. “So, I bought a bicycle, a raincoat, and became an Oregonian.” He immersed himself in his studies and campus life. It was during this time he met his future wife, Yolanda, who was studying accounting and business. Yildirim says he continues to use the methodologies he learned in his engineering classes when making business decisions. After completing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, he took a job with the San Mateo, Californiabased PACECO Corp., a subsidiary of the Japanese firm Mitsui Group that designs cranes for ports and container terminals. This was his first exposure to the global shipping industry.
“After five years working with the Japanese, I learned their management system and I was starting to put the puzzle pieces together and look at the big picture,” he said. He returned home and began to apply his new skills to growing the family business. He first focused on foreign trading operations, including importing coal from Siberia. When the company earned $50,000 in its first month importing nearly 10,000 tons of Russian coal, Yildirim’s imagination soared.
Six years later, the revenue from importing coal was high enough for Yildirim and his brothers to diversify their investments by exploring opportunities in shipbuilding, port management, and bulk commodity trading. They then slowly moved into the mining business and acquired more ports. The shift launched them into a new league. The company has received several notable recognitions.
Yildirim ranks 61 on Lloyd’s List of the 100 most powerful and influential persons in the global shipping industry. He is also ranked the ninth most powerful person in the container terminal business and the third most powerful person in the chromium industry by ICDA and CRU. As much as Yildirim values education, it’s not surprising that the Yildirim Group supports educational projects in Turkey and beyond.
Over the last three decades, the company donated all the labor and materials to build three vocational high schools and seven elementary schools in Turkey. In addition, the Garip and Zeycan Yildirim Foundation, launched in honor of Yildirim’s parents, provides scholarships for low-income students and also funds a range of health, environmental, and cultural causes.
Yildirim is also investing in Oregon State with a two-year, $300,000 research project to develop a special nickeland chrome-based superalloy for power plants that use supercritical carbon dioxide. For now, Yildirim continues to work hard, and always thinks about the big picture — a strategy that transformed a tiny family business into one of Turkey’s most successful global enterprises.
- M.S. Mechanical Engineering, 1989