[OUTLOOK]Bright spot on the textile frontPresident Roh Moo-hyun is no Jimmy Carter. Mr. Roh wants no talk of crisis in Korea.
Mr. Carter, when he was president of the United States, once warned, in perhaps his most famous speech, that Americans were facing “a crisis of confidence that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Mr. Roh, on the other hand, has bluntly told business leaders to stop bad-mouthing the economy, or the crisis they are talking about may actually come about. His likely point was that many countries would be delighted about an economy that is forecast to grow by 5 percent this year.
If a recent tour of Korea’s small textile makers provides any evidence, the president has support coming from an unlikely sector.
The sharp fall-off in domestic consumption in the country has deeply depressed clothing manufacturing, but exporters, especially for top-of-the-line garments for U.S. retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, are expressing cautious optimism and determination.
Kim Ju-hyeung is president of Sun Hyeung Textile Co, in Dongducheon city. Those who know him call him aggressive. A self-made success, he is proud to show off his high-tech fabric-making machines bought in Italy and Japan.
In an interview at his sparkling three-year-old plant, Mr. Kim said the future of Korean textile making no longer lies in the mass production of millions of cheap garments for the discounters of the world, such as Wal-Mart, but in turning out high-quality fabrics to be used for costly brand-name clothing.
In fact, Korean firms focused on massive volumes have long ago moved operations to such places as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Guatemala and China, seeking to keep labor costs low.
Inside Mr. Kim’s factory, giant 4-meter-high (13-foot) circular looms weave thread from hundreds of spools into cloth of astonishing intricacy and texture. No workers were in sight as the $350,000 machines clicked and clacked.
“The trick is to stay ahead of the competition in the sophistication of what we do and to be able to handle relatively small orders,” said Mr. Kim. With 80 employees, the company in recent months has been buying new machines and expanding production. The workers include a handful of technicians to maintain the looms and others to pack and transport the material.
A half-hour drive away in Pocheon City is Paradise Korea Textile Co., a fabric dyeing operation. Eager to talk about his business, the company’s president, Chung Hyun-soo, relaxes in his office in a Renoma sports shirt. Staking a claim to having built Korea’s model dye works, Mr. Chung says the chief challenges he faces are dealing with environmental issues, ensuring his plant has sufficient water for industrial use and paying for rising energy costs. Dyeing takes large amounts of water and heat. One advantage, Mr. Chung says, is that Korean corporations pay less on average for electricity than consumers.
In the plant, dozens of stainless steel vats tumble great rolls of cloth, all of it computer-controlled, from the mixing of the dyes to the length of time the material is washed.
Like Mr. Kim, the fabric producer, Mr. Chung says handling smaller individual orders and going for the highest quality production possible is powering his business. He is also finding new revenue in teaching manufacturers in other countries how to improve their own dye industries. Neither executive employs organized labor.
Their message is that to succeed, Korea’s small textile manufacturers need to be fast-acting and flexible as they are forced to give up the old model of small profit margins based on mass production.
Some of the material Mr. Kim and Mr. Chung are turning out goes into high-priced sports gear, for example $90 golf shirts. If they try to turn out $5 T-shirts and compete with China, where labor costs are one-tenth of those in Korea, they know they face a hopeless future.
The story is borne out at the last stop in Jangan-dong in eastern Seoul. Jin Yang Textile Co. is a sewing operation with 50 employees, all middle-aged women, except for a single man. Set up as an assembly line, workers last week were meeting a limited order for hot pink rayon camisoles for the U.S. market.
Woo Jae-chang, who created the company 30 years ago, says his workers are all longtime employees, who today earn on average 1 million ($850) to 1.2 million won a month plus health insurance and other benefits. That’s almost 10 times the average wage for similar work in China.
“The economy is not easy, but we’ve had steady work for the export market,” said Mr. Woo. Quality and being able to respond rapidly to orders ― often turning around shipments of 600 to 800 pieces in a month ― are the keys to his business, he said.
Next year, under long-anticipated changes in global free trade rules, quotas on garment imports will be lifted, giving low-cost producers an enormous advantage over Korea. While all three executives are realistic about the competitive challenge, they are also unfazed.
Two items are common to many Korean business offices: a grandfather clock, which often isn’t working, and a large, framed calligraphic slogan of encouragement. Mr. Kim’s reads: “It takes hard work to achieve success.” Mr. Chung’s: “Look to the future, if you want to succeed.” And Mr. Woo’s: “Be united to be successful.”
President Roh may be comforted to know these small manufacturers are taking their own advice.
* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Charles D. Sherman