How one salaryman hit the jackpot -- again and again

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How one salaryman hit the jackpot -- again and again

How I became aware of Hong Ki-tae was pure chance.

While talking with some other reporters about work and life in general, the question popped out that always lingers among people who haven't hit the lottery jackpot yet: If a salaryman tries really hard to become rich, how much money could he make?

At first, the question was kind of vague and really broad, but then someone who has some ties and good sources in the financial industry came up with an answer.

"You know there is a person named Hong Ki-tae who is the CEO of some company and who is said to have made hundreds of billions of won."

As everyone tried to count the zeros, a voice of objection was raised: "Well, he's not a salaryman; he's a CEO."

"He's a CEO now," came a reply. "But he made all that money when he was a salaryman."

Mr. Hong, 46, made it big without using connections or school ties. He is a graduate of Keimyung University, majoring in accounting.

His first job was as an accountant for the air force at Kimhae airport in Busan. There his responsibilities were simple: the only thing he had to do was acquire goods on his list, and the prices were all already set.

Nevertheless, instead of just sitting down at his desk and signing his paperwork mindlessly, he started to check every item on the list, even the coffee. "I went out on weekends to the market and made a price comparison for every item," Mr. Hong says.

"After a year, I knew my business better than our master chief who had been doing this for 30 years."

In 1985, he entered Samsung Electro-Mechanics' International funding department. When he first joined the department, Mr. Hong remembers vividly how a manager tried to scare him off on the first day.

"Do you have any slightest idea of foreign exchange dealings?" the manager asked.

"To be honest, I have no idea," Mr. Hong said, "but if I don't adapt myself within three months, I will give you my resignation."

For the next three months, Mr. Hong studied all he could about foreign exchange, getting help from other employees.

After those three months were up, Mr. Hong and the other worker there had agreed to the general principles that could be used for foreign exchange dealings. "Those principals that we came up with have become the cornerstone of Samsung Electro-Mechanics' foreign exchange dealing rules," says Mr. Hong.

When he first made his reports on foreign exchange to the company, only one person, Ahn Ki-hoon (the then senior manager who later became the CEO of the company), recognized the value of the report and gave the right to manage the company's foreign currency holdings to Mr. Hong.

In 1986, this move paid off, for Mr. Hong predicted that the won would perform strongly against the dollar.

Although company officials high up at the ladder did not believe him, Mr. Ahn did; the company made nearly 4 billion won ($3.3 million) on a foreign exchange conversion.

It was a great individual achievement that changed his career in an unexpected way. At the time his annual salary was around 2.5 million won, but in accordance with company policy, he was up for a 5-million-won bonus. Nevertheless, when the supposed payday came, Mr. Hong received just 120,000 won.

The company felt it could not give out such a large bonus to someone who had made money just by moving money around -- it felt that such a bonus would be a blow to the moral of the factory workers. "It was then that I realized that there is a limit to what I can do at the company."

In 1987 he started to work as a foreign exchange dealer at Deutsche Bank, and did so for the next 10 years. Compared to other salarymen, his salary there was high -- by then over 100 million won. But it was the work he did at night, after his regular job, that catapulted him to riches.

At night, Mr. Hong would research and study small venture companies and invest in those he thought had potential. Because he thought that the hardware side was too competitive, he sought out software companies.

In 1995, the only software company that he knew about was Haansoft, the company that developed a word processor called Hangul, designed for typing the Korean alphabet.

"At the time I really did not know Lee Chan-jin [founder of Haansoft]," he said. "I just met him and liked what I heard."

The investment he made paid off handsomely, for Haansoft eventually became a role model for successful venture companies.

It was not only the seed money that he invested into Haansoft that paid off, but also the engineers he got to know through Lee Chan-jin that paid some serious dividends.

Other companies that he invested in include NCSoft, now a leading online game company, and Ahnlab, a computer virus vaccine developer.

When the companies were listed on the local stock exchange, Mr. Hong sold his holdings and made his fortune.

Mr. Hong does not dispute that he made quite a lot of money, but says that he lost some as well. "I am not as rich as people think I am."

Two years ago, he established his own investment company, Serome Venture Investment Co. Ltd. So far he has invested in 60 companies, while in December he is scheduled to become the head of Serome Technology, which he acquired a controlling stake in through a stock acquisition in August.

The really odd part is how Mr. Hong reads the future. It's not all research and number crunching. From 1988-1996 he sought the help of Taoist fortune-tellers around the country.

He learned a breathing method that supposedly enhances the energy of the body. He believes that energy is what drives people to acquire knowledge that develops wisdom, which in the end will enhance life.

"A good manager needs to have this energy," he says. "When I invest, I look at this energy level and the person himself."

by Park Seong-won

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