The sweet taste of successIf you hope to understand the success of Gwon Sang-beom, a 59-year-old bakery entrepreneur, you might like to draw from the world of nuclear physics.
In particular, the term “critical mass” ― the minimum amount of material needed to sustain a fissionable chain reaction. Similarly for Mr. Gwon, after years of hardship and poverty, he had a moment when his business exploded.
Now an owner of the popular Richemont Bakery chain, Mr. Gwon knew years of trouble before he made it big. “I did my best to save what I earned, but no matter how hard I tried, I just seemed to be spinning around the same point,” he says. “Then in the late 1980s, I hit this critical point.” His assets now exceed 1 billion won ($800,000).
Looking back at his past, Mr. Gwon wears a faraway look. He spent his teens not in school, but in the woods, so poor that he had to gather firewood in the mountains to make a living. Later, he started to do odd jobs at a small bakery in Uiseong, North Gyeongsang province, that was run by his mother’s family. Thus began his life with bread and cookies.
At 17, he went to Daegu, the third-largest city in Korea, and got a job at another bakery. The German poet Goethe called his teenage days times of “Strum und Drang” (storm and stress), but this was not true in Mr. Gwon’s case ― he was too busy working hard all day, every day, to feel any such anguish. “I swore to myself, no matter what, I would never pass along my poverty to my children.”
By the end of his teen years, Mr. Gwon realized that he needed to make a change. So at 19 years old, he left his home for Seoul with just 2,000 won in his pocket (although 2,000 won is barely enough for a copy of this newspaper and a chocolate bar, back then it might equal several days’ wages). “I just went off to Seoul, without any plan, any money and any place to sleep,” he says. “I had this gut feeling that I should be in Seoul to learn just anything.” He slept at a friend’s and took buses, but after 10 days, nearly all his money was gone.
Just when things looked bleakest though, he was lucky enough to get a job at the Seongnim Bakery in Jongno, downtown Seoul. He was exceedingly happy to get his very first month’s salary, 1,500 won. He worked so hard he only had time to sleep five hours a day.
But his ill-natured boss was more than he could take, and after two and a half months, on Feb. 1, 1965, Mr. Gwon gave his two weeks’ notice.
It was perhaps not the wisest of moves ― workers were a won a dozen, but jobs were scarce. “There I was, 19 and homeless, with no money and no place to sleep, wandering about the strange streets of Seoul,” Mr. Gwon says. “During the day, I stopped by every single bakery I could find, asking for a job. At night, I slept on a street corner, barely covering myself with a sack. The memory cuts right to my bone. I would never ever again quit before I found a new job.”
Once again, just when Mr. Gwon was on the verge of quitting and stealing a train ride back home, he found another job, this time at Pungnyeon Bakery, one of the biggest bakeries in town. Mr. Gwon’s main task was to wash dishes, which he did for long hours once again. But while he washed, he also looked over the shoulders of the 25 professional chefs who were employed there, learning all he could of the cooking craft.
His hard work finally began to pay off. His monthly wage jumped from 2,000 won to 3,000 won after one month. From then on, he always made sure to save at least two-thirds of his monthly wage. The owner of the bakery noticed how hard Mr. Gwon worked and gave him an exceptional raise and a promotion. “From dishwashing, I went to taking care of the ovens and then kneading flour,” Mr. Gwon says. “The next steps were taking care of baking sheets, then baking cookies. The highest step I could go was decorating cakes. But just as I made it to the baking sheet level, I got a new boss, who brought his own men.”
So it was back to the bottom. Two more bosses, and two more trips to the bottom of the totem pole.
But he was not a feeble-minded 19-year-old anymore. Instead of quitting, he grew determined to prove his worth. “I thought, just give me one month, then the boss will have no choice but to take me to the top,” he says. His determination was well founded ― Mr. Gwon earned the second highest position at the bakery. It just took a little longer than one month: try eight-and-a-half years.
Finally at the top of the bakery game, Mr. Gwon decided to try something new. He received offers from Deoksu Bakery in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, and Napoleon Bakery in Samseon-dong, northern Seoul. “It was obvious that Deoksu Bakery was a cut above,” he says. “But while Deoksu was more established, Napoleon was a newcomer to the market, having been launched less than two years earlier.”
So he chose to become the chief baker at Napoleon. The owner of the Napoleon Bakery also sent him to Tokyo Bakery School, where he was the only foreigner among the 350 students taking the six-month course. Already knowledgeable in Japanese he turned his attention to English.
“Although I could not go to school, I kept studying English by myself. I had this urge within myself that I should make efforts to improve myself.”
Knowing English was a great help to Mr. Gwon. He made friends with an Austrian man who also knew English, and through him started to learn European baking techniques.
Back in Korea, Mr. Gwon started to apply all he had learned at the Napoleon Bakery. The bakery’s success led to his success, and his salary began to climb ― it had started at 50,000 won, and by 1979 it had jumped to 600,000 won.
At last he was ready to branch out on his own. With the help of the Napoleon owner, Mr. Gwon launched a branch in Mapo, western Seoul. Mr. Gwon had a high-price, high-quality policy, which was a big adventure back then. “Kids who tasted our bread just once, always came back,” he says. “There are no parents who win over their children, and my strategy worked perfectly.”
He was doing well, but he still hadn’t quite reached critical mass. He kept making trips to Tokyo twice a year to learn new baking techniques, staying for a month at a time at local bakeries there.
Finally, in November 1983, he changed the name of his store to Richemont, after the prestigious bakery school in Switzerland. The new store took off. Today, Mr. Gwon has four Richemont bakeries around Seoul and his own bakery school. He has no plans to add more branches, fearing it would harm the quality of the stores.
Earlier this month, Mr. Gwon’s eldest son, Hyeong-joon, 29, graduated from the Tokyo Bakery School. After he hands his stores over to his son, what does Mr. Gwon intend to do with the rest of his days? “There are no retirement plans for me. I’m determined to bake bread and cake until the day I die.”
by Roh Hye-ryeong