중앙데일리

Turning Korea organic, leaf by leaf

[Faces inside Korea’s conglomerates:Pulmuone]
Housewives were once reluctant to pay extra for Pulmone food. Today, amid a health boom, annual sales have grown to 1 trillion won.

May 11,2009
Nam Seung-woo (57)
  • Chairman and CEO of Pulmuone Holdings, CEO of Pulmuone Co.
  • Bachelor’s degree in law, Seoul National University
  • Master’s degree and Ph.D. in food
  • Go grocery shopping at Korea’s supermarkets and discount stores and you will inevitably spot at least one product made by Pulmuone, Korea’s largest maker of so-called “packaged fresh food,” like tofu, bean sprouts, fresh eggs and kimchi.

    The company, which started in 1981 as a small vegetable grocery store in Seoul, has now grown into a household name here, especially among housewives, who are all too familiar with its organic tofu, vegetables, noodles, seaweeds and soy sauces.

    Though smaller and younger than many of Korea’s food behemoths, Pulmuone has developed its own novel niche market by promoting organic products made under a policy of “three nos” - no artificial sweeteners, no artificial preservatives and no monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer better known as MSG. The company, which recently adopted a holding company structure with 16 subsidiaries here and abroad, has annual sales of about 1 trillion won ($793 billion) and 3,500 employees as of last year, and maintains the top spot on the local market for packaged tofu and soy sprouts, two major ingredients in all kinds of Korean home cooking, especially stews and soups.

    Pulmuone was officially established in 1984, but its roots date back to 1955, when Won Kyung-sun, a local farmer, opened a small cooperative farm called Pulmuone to grow organic vegetables with no chemical fertilizers. Won grew organic vegetables for decades with other area farmers while actively campaigning against heavy use of pesticides and for a more natural lifestyle.

    Pulmuone Holdings Chairman Nam Seung-woo (left) and Chief Financial Officer Yoo Chang-ha (right) serve lunch made from the company’s food products to shareholders during the annual shareholders meeting held in March 2009. Provided by the company
    In 1981, his son Won Hye-young, a college democracy activist, opened a small vegetable store named after his father’s farm. The business grew, and Hye-young officially established a food company with the same name in 1984 to sell packaged tofu and bean sprouts. Hye-young handed over the firm’s management to Nam Seung-woo, a high school friend and a business partner, when he decided to go into politics in 1987. Today he is an Assembly representative with the Democratic Party.

    The early days of the company were not exactly smooth sailing, as “packaged” tofu and other vegetables were considered a foreign concept among local housewives, who complained the products were too expensive. But that started to change as Korea’s economic power grew, and consumers began to appreciate Pulmuone’s fresh, easy-to-store kimchi, tofu, noodles, eggs, mushrooms and bean sprouts in neat, sophisticated packages.

    The firm since then has reported steady growth, with total sales surging from 100 billion won in 1992 to 550 billion won in 2002 and finally nearly 1 trillion won as of last year. In the meantime, it has expanded and diversified into other food-related areas like distribution, nutritional supplements, catering, organic food retail and meal service at local schools, hospitals and company cafeterias.

    Today Pulmuone Holdings’ total value on the Seoul stock market is more than 280 billion won. The firm’s biggest strength lies in its soy products - tofu, bean sprouts, soy sausages, soybean curd and even cosmetics made with soy ingredients. The group’s flagship unit Pulmuone Co. has a more than 50 percent share of Korea’s 270 billion won packaged tofu market, which many bigger food giants are now vying to enter.

    The company has also accelerated efforts to expand its presence abroad by acquiring California-based tofu maker Wildwood Natural Foods in 2004 and establishing a joint venture in China, the world’s biggest tofu market, in December. Earlier this year Nam revealed his ambition to increase the group’s total sales to 5 trillion won by 2013, 3 trillion on the domestic market and 2 trillion overseas.

    Many of the group’s executives, not surprisingly, have backgrounds in food science, including Nam, the chief executive of Pulmuone Holdings and Pulmuone Co. The 57-year-old, who has master’s and doctoral degrees in food science, has been at the forefront of the company’s efforts not only to sell its packaged foods but also promote the healthy, organic, environmentally sustainable lifestyles the firm has championed since its inception.

    Nam was the first chairman of the UN Global Compact Network Korea, which encourages businesses to align their operations with 10 principles on human rights, labor and the environment. Pulmuone is one of 151 Korean companies and one of three local food firms in the network. Nam has also said that studying law at college helped him in his work in the food industry, where compliance with principles is essential, not only legally but also because decades of customer loyalty can be lost overnight in a single scandal.

    Lee Hyo-yul, chief operation officer of Pulmuone Co., is a something of a legend within the company, a college dropout who entered the firm in 1983 and steadily climbed the corporate ladder to the top, witnessing the ups and downs of past decades.

    Lee Kyu-suk, who has also spent most of his career at the firm, is now the chief executive officer of Pulmuone Health & Living, which produces dietary supplements and cosmetics.

    Kang Young-chul, CEO of Pulmuone U.S.A., is in charge of the firm’s overall overseas operations. A newspaper business reporter for two decades who once covered Pulmuone himself, Kang joined the firm in 2003 and is leading efforts to solidify the firm’s presence in the mainstream U.S. food market beyond the ethnic Korean community.

    Yeo Ik-hyun, chief technology officer of Pulmuone Co., is important to the firm’s development operations as head of the firm’s food culture research center. The longtime food scientist is also a director of the International Life Science Institute and the vice chairman of the Korea Society of Food Science and Technology and the Korea Soybean Society.

    Han Yoon-woo, the chief executive officer at ECMD, is in charge of meal services for various organizations and institutions, food catering and development of concessions menus.

    Yoo Chang-ha, chief financial officer of Pulmuone Holdings, is in charge of the firm’s overall corporate finance operations. The certified public accountant joined the company in 2005 after working for OB Brewery and Jinro Group, Korea’s largest soju maker.

    *“Faces inside Korea’s conglomerates” is a weekly series about key figures in major conglomerates to help readers understand Korea’s business world.


    By Jung Ha-won [hawon@joongang.co.kr]



    dictionary dictionary | 프린트 메일로보내기 내블로그에 저장