Making green from greensWith a handful of dried squid, Lee Young-suk has made more than a handful of cash.
A decade after selling the seafood snack from a truck, Mr. Lee has become the chief executive of a successful chain of grocery stores.
After graduating from a small college in 1991 with a degree in recreation, Mr. Lee started to work for an event planning company but quit his job six months later.
The reason? In that brief time, he found that without a diploma from a prestigious university it was next to impossible to meet the right people and open new accounts for the company.
“This is how our society works,” says the 35-year old. “Without the right connections you can’t even see the face of the guy in charge. The reality struck me hard. And that’s when I decided to call it quits and do something on my own. To earn an amount of money equal to the amount I worked was my ultimate goal.”
To ponder his life’s direction, he meandered along the Han River. By the riverside, he met someone who catapulted his life to a new level. This was no venture capitalist or soothsayer but a seafood peddler from whom he bought some squid for 20,000 won ($16) only to resell it for twice that amount in half an hour.
Inspired by his mini-bonanza, he reinvested his take in more squid and unloaded them rapidly. After only two hours he had made 80,000 won.
“That’s when I figured that a trade like this was the best thing to do,” he says. “It was straightforward business. The only thing I needed was the right merchandise.”
He asked the peddler to become his mentor and shadowed the peddler for about a year to learn the trade. With his savings, he bought a delivery truck and started his own business. For the next six years, he worked the streets as an itinerant peddler, hawking 50 food items including squid.
With 100 million won he had amassed, in 1998 he opened a store called “Everything from Nature” along with five other small entrepreneurs. Today, two such stores fall under Mr. Lee’s direct leadership, and six other stores have been opened by people who studied under him.
The grocery store chain now employs around 70 people, with 12 alone in the chain’s flagship store in Daechi-dong, in southeast Seoul. Because Mr. Lee wanted the business to be less vulnerable to economic downturns, he has situated all stores in the relatively comfortable economic confines of the Gangnam district.
Although it’s still early on a Thursday morning, a line of people has already formed at the flagship store.
“I have been coming to this store for over three years now,” says a housewife who lives in Bundang, a satellite city in Gyeonggi province. She is not the only one to travel from afar: at least one third of customers hail from neighborhoods outside Gangnam.
Mr. Lee’s strategy is to buy items from wholesalers whose prices have dropped drastically. For instance, he will buy truckloads of strawberries in season when the vast supply translates into low prices, and resell them at a very low margin.
“I don’t intend to make 1,000 won by selling one item,” he says. “I rather earn that same amount of money by selling ten items.”
News of the bargain basement prices on quality foods has spread through the shoppers’ grapevine faster than a taxicab at 2 a.m. Because most of the buying is done by garrulous ajumma, little can go wrong if the quality is right. The food chain’s custom of providing free fruits at meetings held at nearby apartment complexes doesn’t hurt, either.
Another strategy that does not cost the business a dime is to address customers with affectionate terms like “mother” and “father.”
It seems that friendly lines such as “Ah, eomeonim [mother], I see you changed your hair style,” or “How was your daughter’s wedding?” carry serious weight in this business of constant customer contact.
Unlike most vegetable stores, which operate late into the night, Everything from Nature follows traditional company hours: stores are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays; on Saturdays, they close at 3 p.m. and on Sundays they do not open.
The company treats its staff professionally as well. An employee who has worked for more than two years has an opportunity to travel abroad and study other countries’ supermarkets.
“Some may find the idea of a simple vegetable store employee going abroad funny,” says Lee. “But I truly believe that learning foreign cultures adds much to our business.
by Kim Chang-gyu