And they said it couldn’t be done

[The faces inside KOREA’S CONGLOMERATES:Woongjin]
How an encyclopedia salesman became Korea’s greenest CEO

Mar 09,2009
Yoon Seok-keum (64)
Woongjin Group chairman
Bachelor’s degree in economics,Konkuk University
“Faces inside Korea’s conglomerates” is a weekly series about key figures in major conglomerates to help readers understand Korea’s business world.

Genuine entrepreneurship, the inspiration and drive to run with a new idea and succeed, isn’t often given its due in Korea. People believe political connections, alumni networks, family background and other external factors are essential to running a big business, which engenders hostility towards enterprising beginners.

These struggling businesspeople might say that these barriers are holding back the Korean economy, the so-called miracle on the Han River, from reaching its true potential.

But that doesn’t mean a simple encyclopedia salesman with nothing but a dream and an entrepreneurial spirit can’t go on to create one of this country’s biggest conglomerates.

Yoon Seok-keum founded Woongjin Group 29 years ago. The company started off as a publisher with just 70 million won ($44,757) in capital. Now it has 16 affiliates with annual sales totaling 4.8 trillion won as of last year. It ranks as the 36th-largest entirely privately funded local company in terms of assets. The group’s sales target for this year is 5.2 trillion won.

Today Woongjin has companies working in education, water purifiers, home appliances, beverages, construction and financial services, to name a few.

And the visionary behind it, now 64 years old, is still the frontline commander of this startup success story.

Woongjin Group Chairman Yoon Seok-keum, center, leads new employees of the group’s affiliates in chanting the group’s motto, “We love, love and love,” at an event announcing the group’s new corporate identity in January 2008. Provided by the group
Chairman Yoon is a self-made man who is a legend among Korean salespeople.

A graduate from Konkuk University in Seoul, hardly a first-tier college in Korea, Yoon’s first job was at Korea Britannica Corporation, the local unit of the U.S.-based publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Just one year after starting out in 1971, he recorded the best sales performance not only among Koreans but among all Britannica salespeople in 54 countries, for which he received an award from the parent publisher, the Benton Foundation.

His confidence reinforced by his sales, Yoon climbed the ladder of corporate success quickly and joined the board of directors at Korea Britannica Corporation in less than 10 years.

In 1980, he struck out on his own, starting Heim International, the predecessor to Woongjin Publications. Woongjin Publications changed its name to Woongjin ThinkBig in 2005.

One wouldn’t think, watching the company set up shop in a tiny 12th floor space in the Daewoo Building across from Seoul Station, that one was witnessing the birth of a giant.

And it wasn’t a good time to be starting an educational publishing house , either: The Chun Doo Hwan administration had just enacted a ban on afterschool tutoring for students in high school or lower, in an effort to cut down on the nation’s rising education costs.

But Yoon turned crisis into opportunity.

He decided to bypass the outlawed cram schools and sell directly to students, counting on their desire to study after school despite the ban. That idea became Heim High School Studies, which quickly became the top brand for high school study aids.

On the back of his publishing success, Yoon expanded his kingdom by setting up Woongjin Food in 1987 and Woongjin Coway, a water purifier maker, in 1989. Woongjin Coway soon became the top local player in the industry.

At the advent of the new century, Woongjin Group further expanded through mergers and acquisitions, financed by Woongjin Coway and Woongjin ThinkBig, its two cash cows. Woongjin took over Kukdong Engineering and Construction in 2007. Early last year, it bought Saehan, a chemical materials maker, which was merged into Woongjin Chemical.

To Yoon, the ongoing economic turbulence is another opportunity to grow.

“The more difficult the market conditions, the more important innovation becomes,” the chairman said in a recent internal note to his employees. To encourage new ideas, Yoon said he plans to introduce what he calls the “W?TPS,” or “Woongjin Total Profit System,” designed after the Toyota Production System, the innovation-driven management philosophy of the Japanese carmaker.

The company will continue to expand into new business areas. In recent years, Woongjin Group has tried to take on “green business,” an effort already grabbing global attention.

At the end of last month, the Sunday Times of London placed Chairman Yoon 69th on its “Green Rich List” of ecologically conscientious world business leaders, in consideration of Woongjin Group’s investment of 310 million pounds ($437 million) in solar energy. He was the only CEO of a Korean company to be included aside from CEO Huh Yong-do of Taewoong.

According to Woongjin Group, green industry will be a key growth engine for the company, and many of its businesses will be realigned to support it.

The group plans to use the water purifiers and air filters made at Woongjin Coway and Woongjin Chemical for seawater desalination. Woongjin Energy, Kukdong Engineering and Construction and Woongjin Polysilicon together will develop a solar power plant.

To make the ambitious plan work, the group created a new job title, Chief Green Officer, a first among domestic companies.

Lee Jin, a vice chairman at Woongjin Group and a former environment vice minister, is the first CGO. He is in charge of coordinating the eco-friendly activities of the group.

Unlike other local conglomerates, Woongjin enjoys a reputation for hiring leaders from other companies and the government, instead of promoting from within.

Yim Jong-soon, a veteran senior government official specializing in economic affairs, has been serving as president of Woongjin Holdings since December 2008. He worked on the merger of Woongjin Holdings and Woongjin Happyall, a customer service company, to be finalized by next month.

In the three years after Choi Bong-soo joined Woongjin ThinkBig in 2005, sales tripled. Choi, now Woongjin ThinkBig’s executive director, created and leads Innocean, a taskforce to bring innovation to the publishing company.

Hong Jun-ki, president of Woongjin Coway, served as an executive at Samsung Electronics before being recruited by the water purifier maker, which hired him to bolster its overseas businesses in 2006. Though his background is in engineering, Hong is known to have superb marketing expertise. Early last year, he added to his portfolio the presidency of Woongjin Cuchen, a home appliance maker.

Ahn In-sik, president of Kukdong Engineering and Construction since August 2007, is an expert in plant construction with years of experience at Hyundai Engineering and Construction. Before joining Woongjin, he oversaw international business at Poonglim Industrial and was a vice president at Hyundai Engineering.

Park Gwang-up, president of Woongjin Chemical, worked for Saehan for 32 years. He turned the company’s longstanding deficit into a net profit last year. Yu Hak-do, president of Woongjin Energy, is an engineer with a doctorate in chemical engineering. He worked as chief technology officer at SunPower, a solar power solution provider in the U.S., before moving to Woongjin in January 2007.

Vice President Baik Su-taik is an expert on polysilicon, a component of solar panels. He was named the first head of Woongjin Polysilicon in July of last year.

Yoo Jae-myeon, executive director of Woongjin Foods, joined the group in 1990 and served as a key adviser to the group’s chairman. He also served as CEO of Woongjin Japan.

Moon Moo-kyeong, executive director of the Rex Field Country Club, the golf course run by Woongjin Group, worked for the now-defunct Daewoo Electronics for 17 years.

Song In-hoe, president of Woongjin Happyall, served in the past as the head of the Korea Electrical Safety Corporation.

The contingent of young leaders at the group also boasts colorful and diverse resumes.

Kim Jung-shik, executive director of Woongjin Capital, earned his Ph.D. in international finance at Harvard University. Until 2000, he worked at Goldman Sachs in New York, where he spearheaded investment in Europe and Asia.

Shin Gwang-su, executive director of Booxen, a book distribution company under Woongjin, was a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and graduated from Wharton Business School. Shin, 40, is the youngest CEO at the group.

Also among the young elite at the group are Seo Young-tak and Jin Ki-myeong, who jointly head Woongjin Passone, a publisher specializing in state license examinations, Jeong Cheol-jong, executive director of Woongjin System and Technology, and Kim Dong-hyun, the head of the office for planning and coordination for Woongjin Holdings.

By Moon Gwang-lip Staff Reporter [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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