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Koç, (Ahmet) Vehbi

Koç, (Ahmet) Vehbi

Koç, (Ahmet) Vehbi

Koç, (Ahmet) Vehbi (b. July? 20, 1901, Ankara – d. February 25, 1996, Antalya), businessman and philanthropist. The first big private entrepreneur of the Republican era and the founder of Turkey’s first holding company, Koç Holding. He was an industrial pioneer, founded the Vehbi Koç Foundation (VKV), and played a leading role in the establishment of several civil society organizations including the Turkish Education Foundation (TEV), the Turkish Family Health and Planning Foundation (TPAV) and TEMA.


Vehbi Koç was born in a summer house in the neighborhood of Çoraklık in Keçiören, Ankara, in 1901 as the only male child of Koçzade Hacı Mustafa (1874-1928), who was from the line of Hacı Bayram Veli, and Kütükçüzade Fatma (d. October 28, 1963). His sisters Zehra (Kütükçüoğlu) and Hüsniye (Aktar) came after his birth.

At the time the grapes become mottled…

I don’t know which day I was born. In the old days, they didn’t think of birthdays as important. Some families wrote their children’s birthdays in the back of a Quran. I couldn’t find out my own birthday, so I asked my mother. She said, “You were born at the time when the grapes become mottled.” When my business developed I began travelling to Europe. At the hotels I went to they would ask, “What’s your date of birth?” I would give whatever day came to mind. One day I went to Zurich. I had stayed in the Carlton Elite hotel in Zurich a few times before. In those big hotels, they keep cards on their regular customers, so they don’t bother them with the same questions every time...

The hotel reception clerk asked me, “I looked at your card, and every time you come you have said a different date of birth, which one is correct?” and I laughed.

When I returned to Turkey I explained the situation at home, and I added what my mother had said. I and the children thought about it. We calculated that the month the grapes became mottled in Ankara was July, and we decided my birthday was July 20. Since that day, I have said that my birthday is July 20, and that was how it was sorted out. The children began to celebrate my birthday on July 20.
Vehbi Koç, Hayat Hikâyem (My Life Story), 4th Edition, Vehbi Koç Vakfı Yayınları, Istanbul, 1983, p. 7

Aged five, Vehbi Koç began studying at the neighborhood school known as Topal Hoca’s school near the family’s winter house on the street, Karaoğlan Caddesi (Today’s Anafartalar Caddesi). Between 1908 and 1913, he attended another elementary school in the locality. In 1914, he was enrolled at the Ankara High School (today’s Ankara Atatürk High School), which was located in Hacettepe and known as the Stone School. However, he wanted to start his career as soon as possible, and with this in mind, in 1916 while in the last year of middle school, his grandfather Kütükçüzade Hacı Rıfat lodged a request for his withdrawal from school on the grounds of “income difficulties”.

Entry to the business world

When Vehbi Koç was still in school, he regularly visited a wheat trading shop his father opened with three friends in Atpazarı. His uncle Aktarzade Sadullah was a partner in a drapery in Çengelhan and one summer holiday, he worked there for five months. In 1917, he began working in a corner shop he opened together with his father under their houses in Karaoğlan Caddesi. A while later, his father sent him to Istanbul to buy goods. There he met a few businessmen and established relations that would help him later in life. Although his father opposed the idea, Vehbi Koç expanded the shop to sell ironmongery, leather goods and construction materials in addition to groceries, herbs and spices.

When 1920 came, Vehbi Koç came of military service age. He started working as an assistant proofreader at the Grand National Assembly printing press, which had opened that year, and this work was counted as his military service. Later he did military service of around a year at the Guardsmen Troop Command in Ankara.

After military service he again began to work at his father’s shop. During the Sakarya War, his family went to Çankırı. When the war ended, his father returned to run the shop, but Vehbi Koç stayed for three more months with other family members in Çankırı and sent various goods he collected there to Ankara. After he returned to Ankara he continued to go to Istanbul from time to time to purchase goods. In this period, he met “Istanbul’s grand traders”. In his own words, “their minds were only on working, making money, having their names known by others doing the same work, and finding new areas of business.”

As 1925 ended, his mother and father thought that the time had come and revealed their decision for him to marry Aunt Nadire’s daughter Sadberk (Aktar). The couple’s engagement and wedding ceremony took place in the first week of 1926. Semahat (Koç) Arsel, the first child of Vehbi and Sadberk Koç, was born in 1928 at the orchard house in Keçiören, where VEKAM is now based. Following this, their children Rahmi M. Koç (1930), Sevgi (Koç) Gönül (1938) and Suna (Koç) Kıraç (1941) were born.

After their marriage, his father’s business, “Hacı Mustafa Rahmi”, was transferred to him and he registered it on May 31, 1926 at the Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATO) under the name “Koçzade Ahmet Vehbi”. This laid the foundations for the Koç Group. Later Vehbi Koç would enter the board of directors of ATO, and in 1928 he was selected as chair, a role he would continue to fulfil until 1951, except 1937.

In 1928, Vehbi Koç opened the Ankara agencies for Ford and Standard Oil (today’s ExxonMobil). These were his first steps into the automobile and gas-benzine business. In the same year, his father Hacı Mustafa Efendi died.

In 1931, he set off on a tour of Europe with three friends, traveling to Budapest, Vienna and Paris. Influenced by what he had seen, when he returned he built the Koç Han on Çankırı Avenue in Ulus and moved his businesses there.

His years as a building contractor

Vehbi Koç, who entered the building contracting business through his buying and selling of construction materials, undertook the construction of Ankara Numune Hospital as his first big contracting venture. The construction began in 1932 and was completed in 1933 for the 10th anniversary of the Republic. Later he would build the Cebeci Pediatric and Maternity Hospital, the Ankara Hospital, and the State Railroads Hospital, as well as partnering with the Haymil company to build the Elazığ-Palu railroad. However, he liquidated his construction business due to the low rate of profit from contracting work.

In 1934, the iron pipe factory, Koç Demir Boru, was established in partnership with the Hovagimyan Brothers on Istanbul’s Golden Horn, but was liquidated when it failed to compete with imported alternatives. This was Vehbi Koç’s first attempt to enter the manufacturing business.

In 1935, he went on another journey through Europe with two friends. Suffering from work-related exhaustion and ill-health, he sought treatment from Prof. Hans Eppinger in Vienna. It was on the doctor’s recommendation that he decided to get more exercise and, after returning to Turkey, he tried several different activities before taking up riding as a member of the Ankara Equestrian Sports Club. He continued this sport until 1967, when he broke his shoulder and arm in a riding accident.

A London adventure...

When Vehbi Koç fell from his horse, breaking his shoulder, his daughters Semahat and Suna immediately took him to London. He needed to stay in London for three weeks. His daughters were worried that this accident would turn Vehbi Koç off horse riding. They gave their father a suggestion: that they would all go together and get Vehbi Koç some jodhpurs.

“He was willing. We took him to a famous British shop called Horse and Ride. We sat my father in the changing rooms. As his arm was wrapped in a cast, we took off his trousers ready to put him into the jodhpurs. Suna and I were on the floor, with one leg of the jodhpurs in her hand and one in mine, trying to put them on our father. But jodhpurs are much tighter and narrower. While we were struggling, the trousers got completely stuck—we couldn’t pull them up or down any further. My father began to shout, “Who asked you for jodhpurs? Why did you bring me here to make me look a fool? I don’t want them, my arm hurts!” The shop assistant didn’t know what was happening behind the curtain, but came running in fear at the sound of Turkish shouts. “What are you doing? Why are you shouting?” he asked. And I and Suna were laughing so much we couldn’t get the trousers off. At this point, my father was complaining about us in Turkish to the shop assistant: “They forced me to come here, to make me buy jodhpurs, and I don’t want them!”

Semahat Arsel remembers the day with laughter even now. Under the surprised looks of the shop staff, the father and two daughters got themselves together and left the shop.
*Suna Kıraç, Ömrümden Uzun İdeallerim Var (My Ideals, Longer Than My Lifetime), Suna ve İnan Kıraç Foundation, Istanbul, 2006, pp. 152-53

Opening the first store in Istanbul

Vehbi Koç, who in Ankara had “left behind shopkeeping and joined the merchant class”, opened a shop in Galata in order to expand his business in Istanbul. The main function of the shop, run by İsrail Anastasyan, was to procure goods necessary for the firm in Ankara and send them there. In 1937, the Koçzade Ahmet Vehbi firm established its Istanbul Branch at Fermeneciler, Galata in the name of Vehbi Koç ve Ortakları Kollektif Şirketi (Vehbi Koç and Partners Collective Company). The other partners in the company were İsrail Anastasyan and Emin Güraç. Later İsak Altabev (Altabef) would join, bringing the company’s partners up to four. This outfit in Istanbul would be remembered by Vehbi Koç as “Our Galata Group”. In order to continue as an agent for Standard Oil, a concession first obtained in 1928, he also established the Vehbi Koç ve Ortağı Petrol İşleri Kollektif Şirketi (Vehbi Koç and Partners Petroleum Business Collective Company) in 1937.

Due to the diversification and development of the Koçzade Ahmet Vehbi firm’s business, Vehbi Koç decided to form a corporation. Koç Ticaret AŞ (Koç Trade Inc.) was established on June 29, 1938 with 300,000 lira of capital. In doing so, he chose corporatization to avoid the problems of sole proprietorship companies. The company had two stores, one dealing with construction and the other with automobiles, and Fazıl Öziş was made general director.

A private partnership named Koç ve Ortağı Kalorifer Havagazı İşleri (Koç and Partners Heating Gas Business) which was to deal with coal gas plants was established in 1940 in Ankara. In 1942, the Koç Ticaret Galata Branch opened in Istanbul and the affairs of the Vehbi Koç ve Ortakları Kollektif Şirketi were transferred to this branch. The Beyoğlu Branch opened in 1944. The same year, Bernar Nahum, who would work for Koç Group companies for around 40 years, began to work as the manager of the automobile branch of Koç Ticaret AŞ. In 1950, Hulki Alisbah, who would take on various roles at Koç Group until he passed away in 1975, was made general director of Koç Ticaret AŞ.

From trading to industry

Vehbi Koç continued various business relationships with a variety of German, British and American companies throughout World War II. On April 25, 1945, he established his first company abroad, the Ram Commercial Corporation in New York. Its aim was to sell goods and provide consulting services to official delegations who came to America to buy goods, but the company was closed down in 1954 when it failed to meet expectations. However, through this company, franchises were obtained from several companies, including General Electric, USA Rubber (today Uniroyal, Inc.), Oliver, Burroughs, York, and Sheaffer.

Vehbi Koç’s 52-day visit to the USA in 1946 marked the beginning of his move towards industry. Although he was able to persuade General Electric to establish a joint enterprise in Turkey, similar talks with US Rubber ended unsuccessfully. In 1947, as his first industrial enterprise, he established the Ankara Oksijen Fabrikası (Ankara Oxygen Factory), which continued operating until 1955. The General Electric TAO, which he established in 1948 together with General Electric to produce lightbulbs, was the first joint investment made in Turkey with a foreign company.

Vehbi Koç entered the council of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 1946 at the request of İsmet İnönü. The council was known as the Parliament of Forty. This duty, which he carried out for around two years, led him to become known as a CHP supporter, and in 1951 he fell out with the Democratic Party government and left his role as chair of Ankara Chamber of Commerce. In the same year, Vehbi Koç and his family moved to Istanbul. Arçelik AŞ, which he established in 1955 in order to produce steel office equipment, later entered into the production of durable consumer goods and white goods, particularly fridges and washing machines. He also established companies such as Türk Demir Döküm, Aygaz, Bozkurt Mensucat, and Türkay in this period. The group’s first investment in tourism, the Divan Hotel, opened in 1955.

At the start of 1956, Vehbi Koç went to the USA with Bernar Nahum and Kenan İnal to meet with Ford Company president Henry Ford II. However, when plans to establish a joint truck assembly factory in Turkey failed to get off the ground, Vehbi Koç established Otosan Otomobil Sanayii AŞ (Otosan Automobile Industry Inc.) in 1959. On November 20, 1963, with the establishment of Turkey’s first holding company, Koç Holding AŞ, the Koç Group reached a crucial point in its process of corporatization.

In 1964, at the initiative of the Koç Group, Uniroyal tires began production in Turkey. Türk Siemens, a partnership with the German firm Siemens, opened a Turkish cable factory in 1966. Also in 1966, Otosan began the production of Turkey’s first local automobile, the “Anadol”, made with fiberglass bodies using Ford technology. A longstanding canned goods and fruit juice production project came to fruition with the establishment of Tat Konserve Sanayii (Tat Canned Foods Industry) in 1967.

The Koç Group continued to grow throughout the 1970s. In 1970, Ram Foreign Trade Inc. was established as the first central exporting organization in Turkey. In 1971, the Tofaş factory, established after an agreement reached with the Italian Fiat company in 1968, was opened for production. It produced the automobile “Murat 124”, with sheet-metal bodies, which entered the Turkish market. In 1962, Aygaz went public, beginning with 10% of its shares being offered for purchase by company employees, and in 1973, 56% of the shares in Koç Yatırım ve Sanayi Mamulleri Pazarlama AŞ (Koç Investment and Industrial Goods Marketing Inc.) were sold to the public. In 1974, the holding company, which included numerous companies active in different areas, bought the control stock of Turkey’s first supermarket chain, Migros-Turk Ticaret AŞ (Migros-Turk Trade Inc.). The group’s third enterprise in the tourism sector after the Divan Hotel and the travel agency Setur (established in 1964) was the Divan Talya Hotel in Antalya, which opened in 1975.

In 1984, Vehbi Koç passed over his role as chair of the Koç Holding Board of Directors to his son Rahmi M. Koç, but continued working as the holding’s honorary president. He subsequently spent a large proportion of his time involved in the foundation and philanthropic work. On February 25, 1996, he died of a heart attack suffered at the Divan Talya Hotel in Antalya.

Social contributions and charitable work

Vehbi Koç began his social contributions and charitable work in culture, education and health with the construction of the Ankara University Vehbi Koç Student Dormitory, which opened in 1951. This type of work gained pace in the 1960s, and among his other philanthropic activities in this era were: Ankara University School of Medicine Vehbi Koç Eye Bank (1963, today the Ankara University School of Medicine Vehbi Koç Eye Hospital[*]), Istanbul University School of Medicine Cardiology Institute (1964), Admiral Bristol Hospital Vehbi Koç Cancer Pavilion (1967), the Eskişehir Academy of Economic and Commercial Sciences Vehbi Koç Library and Research Building (1968) and the Middle East Technical University Vehbi Koç Student Dormitory (1968).

The VKV, which was established in 1969, marked a significant step in the direction of corporatizing this social contribution and charitable work. The Turkish Education Foundation was established in 1967 by 205 philanthropists under Vehbi Koç’s leadership and made a major contribution to education through sponsoring schools and giving scholarships. The Atatürk Library was constructed in Taksim, Istanbul, for the 50th anniversary of the Republic; it was completed in 1976 and donated to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.
 This philanthropic work also continued after 1980. The Sadberk Hanım Museum in Istanbul was established to fulfil the last wishes of Vehbi Koç’s wife Sadberk and when it opened in 1980 it was Turkey’s first private museum. The Haydarpaşa Numune Hospital Vehbi Koç Foundation Traffic Accidents and Primary Care Treatment Facility (today the Haydarpaşa Numune Education and Research Hospital Vehbi Koç Emergency Medical Center[*]) was a VKV initiative which opened in 1985. TUGEV (1984; the Tourism Development and Education Foundation) and the Turkish Family Health and Planning Foundation (1985) were established under Vehbi Koç’s leadership in the same era.

One important development in the educational field was the establishment of the Koç Private High School (see Koç School) in 1988. This was followed in 1993 with the establishment of the Koç University. In the cultural arena, in 1994 the Vehbi Koç Ankara Studies Research Center (see VEKAM) was founded in the orchard house belonging to the family in Keçiören, Ankara.

Awards and medals
The most important accolade received by Vehbi Koç throughout his lifetime came when he was chosen as “Businessperson of the Year” by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in 1987. He received the award from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a large ceremony held in New Delhi, India.

Vehbi Koç received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the US Population Institute in 2001 in recognition for his work in the Turkish Family Health and Planning Foundation (TAPV): he led the way for its foundation and served as president until 1996. In 1994, the United Nations granted their World Population Award, given for initiatives to prevent world population growth, to Vehbi Koç in recognition of the TAPV.

Some of the other awards and medals given to Vehbi Koç include the Federal German Republic Medal of Merit (1974), The Italian Grande Ufficiale Medal of Merit (1975), the Gold Mercury International Award (1983), an honorary doctorate from Anadolu University (1984) and an honorary doctorate from Middle East Technical University (1991).

Books written by and about him
Vehbi Koç wrote two books: Hayat Hikâyem (1973; My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Turkish Businessman, 1977) and Hatıralarım Görüşlerim Öğütlerim (1987; Recollections, Observations, Counsel, 1973-1987; 1991). An anthology based on these books, titled Vehbi Koç Anlatıyor - Bir Derleme (Vehbi Koç Tells - A Compilation), was published in 2018. The most significant books written about him are: Bernar Nahum’s Koç’ta 44 Yılım: Bir Otomotiv Sanayii Kuruluyor (My 44 Years at Koç: Establishment of an Automotive Industry; 1988), Can Kıraç’s Anılarımla Patronum Vehbi Koç (Memories of My Boss, Vehbi Koç; 1995), Salih Sayar’s Bir Bayilik Öyküsü: Vehbi Koç ile 40 Yıl (A Story of a Dealership: 40 Years with Vehbi Koç; 1999), Fazlı Ayverdi’s Vehbi Koç ile 30 Yıl (30 Years with Vehbi Koç; 2001), Can Dündar’s Özel Arşivinden Belgeler ve Anılarıyla Vehbi Koç (Vehbi Koç through Documents and Memories from his Private Archive; 2006) and Özel Arşivinden Belgeler ve Anılarıyla Vehbi Koç, 1961-76 (Vehbi Koç through Documents and Memories from his Private Archive, 1961-76; 2008). The catalog of an exhibition held in 2012 by VEKAM to commemorate the 16th anniversary of Vehbi Koç’s death was also published with the title A Son and the Pioneer of the Republic... Vehbi Koç (1901-1996).

Semahat Arsel: “He remained committed to his life and work until the day he died.”

One of the most important personality traits of Vehbi Koç was that he adapted very quickly to change. Other than that, he had an ability for analysis that surprised everyone. As soon as he saw a person, he would be able to make an extremely accurate evaluation of them.

On the other hand, he placed a lot of importance on his relationships with people, and used to say that he had always learnt a lot from the people he valued.

If Vehbi Koç ever had a question stuck in his head, he would go over it and do whatever it took to find the answer to it. He made it a principle throughout his life to examine everything he was going to do in detail before doing it.

I don’t think it would be wrong to divide up my father’s life into before and after my mother’s death. When my mother was alive we avoided arguing with him. On her death, my father’s emotional side came out. He became softer, more tolerant, and had a more compassionate side. Now we could more comfortably tell him what we thought. After my mother’s death, I began joining him on his overseas travels. I believe we both enjoyed this travel companionship a great deal. My father would pay a lot of attention to the people, the way of life, and the workplaces in the countries we went to, taking lessons for our own companies and our own country.

My father worked throughout his life for the values he cared about without abandoning them for a moment. He remained committed to his life and work until the day he died.”
Koç Holding, Bizden Haberler (News from Us), February 2015, No. 422, p. 6
Rahmi M. Koç: “His life was an example.”

Vehbi Koç gave much importance to family unity. He put a democratic form of governance into place for us children as well, never making a distinction between us. Indeed, even our births took place in the same room of our orchard house in Keçiören, Ankara with the same midwife. We got the same education.

In all his actions, our father was selfless in order to be an example to us. He lived a very orderly life. On every issue he was incredibly well-disciplined, from his smoking to his bedtimes; from his walking to his savings... He had no tolerance for unnecessary costs. The reason was that he had seen many rich families reduced to nothing. He stayed well within his means.

If we are to summarize his life’s philosophy, he used to emphasize this: “I could have lived the most luxurious life, I could have lived in the most luxurious places, I could have driven the most luxurious cars. I did none of these things. I didn’t want to be a bad example to my children and colleagues. I have never regretted my actions. If I re-live my life, I would repeat and continue what I have already done.”

His business philosophy, too, was, “I may not get all that I am owed, but I must pay my debts down to the last kuruş.”

His foresight, compliance with the law, prudence and circumspection have led our family and the Koç Group to where we are today and made the Koç name our most valuable asset. Now, when I turn and look back, I see again how correct my father’s advice was.

Bizden Haberler, No. 422, p. 7

Sevgi Gönül: “Vehbi Koç was very principled.’’

In Can Kıraç’s book Anılarımla Patronum Vehbi Koç (1995), Sevgi Gönül explains her father Vehbi Koç in these words: “He was very principled, very organized, very patient, adored Rahmi and worshipped Suna, but despite this he was a very different type of father who never made it clear whom he loved and was afraid of becoming dependent on anyone. For years, we were afraid of our father being in the house. Our mother gave us clear conditions. When father was at home we could not talk loudly, could not make noise, could not talk to our friends on the telephone. One day, by coincidence, I was left alone at home with my father. But that day I learnt that he was no-one to fear. There were never any problems between us. Our father wrote his death before our mother’s in his own life scenario. When mother died first, my father had to change some of the scenes he had written in his head. The Sadberk Hanım Museum is the result of some of these scene changes. My father wanted one room of the museum to be set aside for him.”

Bizden Haberler, No. 422, p. 8

Suna Kıraç: “My shop counter is the best university.”

When I got to the last year of high school I decided to go to America to study business. I was a successful student, I was ambitious, and my family had no financial difficulties. So all the conditions were favorable. But my father played on my heartstrings. The year was 1960, my father was only 59 years old and he said, “I’ve grown old. I don’t want to be without you.” My family wouldn’t allow me to go. I was very sad, and I cried. My father told me, “My shop counter is the best university. I will train you.” And that is what happened. We worked together for 35 years. I am a graduate of “Vehbi Koç University”. I am the first and only student at this unique school. I also signed up for what is now known as Boğaziçi University. I did not want to make do with just “Vehbi Koç University”, I wanted to get an academic education. While I was continuing my studies there, I began an internship at the Koç Group. I was entrusted to Filiz Ofluoğlu. I was not treated any differently as Vehbi Koç’s daughter, and I was expected to do everything that was expected of the other interns. I liked learning. I was disciplined. I made sure to do my best at whatever was asked of me and it never occurred to me to loaf around. I knew that even if you were Vehbi Koç’s daughter, compliments were based on merit. I tried to be worthy of such compliments.

 On October 1, 1960, I began working at the Istanbul branch of Koç Ticaret AŞ and I worked together with my father until he passed away, that was on February 25, 1996. I never managed to complete university.

Bizden Haberler, No. 422, p. 9
Koçzadeler, Aktarzadeler, Kütükçüzadeler, Müderriszadeler...
[Hacı Bayram soyunun] İnayetler kolunun da başı olan Mustafa bin Salih Baba’nın torunu Necibe Kadın, Koçzade Mehmet Efendi ile evlenmiştir. Mehmet Efendi ile Necibe’nin oğlu [Hacı] Mustafa Efendi, Vehbi Koç’un babasıdır. Vehbi Koç’un eşi Aktarzade Sadberk Hanım’ın babası Attarbaşızade Sadullah da, Hacı Bayram soyuna bağlı Müderriszadelerden Sadullah İzzet’in kızı Necide Kadın’la evlenen Attarbaşızade Emin Efendi’nin oğludur.

Aktarzadelerden üç kardeş Sadullah, Hacı Kerim ve Rasim’dir. Sadullah, Kütükçüzadelerden Hacı Rıfat’ın kızı Nadire ile, Hacı Kerim, Çubukçuzadelerden Mustafa Kazım’ın kızı Halime ile evlenmiştir... Aktarzade Sadullah’ın oğlu Emin, Koçzade Mustafa’nın kızı Hüsniye ile, kızı Sadberk de Vehbi (Koç) ile evlenmiştir, yani iki kardeş, iki kardeşle evlenmiştir ve teyze çocuklarıdır. Sadullah’ın karısı Nadire’nin kardeşi Fatma (Koç), Koçzade Hüsniye ile Vehbi’nin annesidir.
Suavi Aydın vö, Küçük Asya’nın Bir Yüzü: Ankara, Dost Kitabevi Yayınları, Ankara, 2005, s. 299
Abadan Unat, Nermin

Political scientist who received the Vehbi Koç Award for education in 2012.