Pair can’t see the work for their trees
Two men in a drinking tent hadn’t spoken for a while. They had run out of energy from walking all day and their mouths were dry with fatigue. Earlier that day, one man had driven across the nation to places like the Gangwon and Jeolla provinces, searching for the proper trees that a client had ordered, and the other man had visited banks, capital companies and even private loan agents to seek investment for their business.
That night, they couldn’t even afford to order a side dish of grilled eel. All the money they had between them was just enough for a few glasses of soju. One man spoke, handing a glass to his colleague. “Hyun-taek, we are doing well.” The other man took the glass and tossed it back. Both felt fatigued. The other man replied, “The only thing we can do is to keep working as hard as we can. In the long run, we will be able to distribute all the trees in Korea.”
A mutual friend, who worked in a construction company, had complained of the difficulty of acquiring trees for landscaping new constructions. Even though the landscape gardening market was large at the time, without an effective distributing system, construction companies often had trouble finding and purchasing trees. The friend added that because living products have to go through quarantine, it was also hard to import such trees. Upon listening to their friend, Mr. Chae, now 36, and Mr. Im, 40, decided to start their own business, believing they could find success in this niche market.
After the company had been launched, four more former businessmen joined the duo.
“We intended to create a tree auction,” Mr Chae said. Our aim was to create a profit margin by connecting buyers and suppliers online.”
Yet, six months after they began the business using their retirement funds, the venture went bankrupt, costing them half of their early capital.
“That was because we did not know about the market,” Mr. Chae explained. Back then, online selling was not appropriate for their target market. Farmers seldom used the Internet and potential buyers didn’t believe in the newly started company. After a while, requests for information stopped coming in and the other members started to disassociate themselves from the venture. Mr. Chae and Mr. Im believed, however, that the market for landscape trees was sure to be successful because large-scale construction projects were beginning to focus more on landscaping. The two decided to stick with the business but to modify their strategy.
Their first step was to buy a one-ton truck on a 36-month installment basis. They toured the country looking for suitable trees and switched their business model to an offline venture. They quickly got into the habit of finding out who owned any trees they thought of value.
“I used to change into a formal suit in our truck on the way to meet buyers. I remember how much the bellboys were surprised at me and the dirty truck, when I entered their fancy hotel,” said Mr. Chae. “The first order we took was for wax trees worth 300,000 won ($317) each. It took several hours for me just to drive to where the trees were. On arriving at the site, I sent images of the trees to the buyers and took snacks to workers, while I also helped to dig up the trees. But the net profit for that was only 30,000 won.” There were more serious problems, however. Back then, most deals were done by bartering and farmers wanted to sell their trees only to acquaintances, even if that meant less profit. It also meant the only way to purchase the trees was to pay in cash.
Another problem for the pair was that they had very little knowledge about trees. Many farmers refused to sell to them because the men barely even knew the names of the trees. They were often deceived as well by landowners who were not the official owners of the trees on their land. Even worse, last year, they lost pre-purchased trees worth 60 million won to a forest fire. The pair felt as if they were on the edge of a cliff.
They began to solve their problems one by one, however. They even fell to their knees, begging farmers to do business with them. They persuaded the farmers to accept formal contracts, thus making the business dealings transparent. They also advised farmers which trees to cultivate and studied an arbor picture book to increase their expertise. Through their efforts, Supro began to get noticed and the number of landscaping companies ordering from Supro has increased ever since.
These days, the two men do not need to strive to get information. They have constructed a database that covers such things as the types, numbers, locations and prices of all the trees they deal with. Mr. Im proudly said that even the Korea Forest Service does not have that kind of database.
Supro has grown to take exclusive responsibility for several large-scale construction projects. They helped set up an artificial forest in Ttukseom, and supplied trees for the restoration of Cheonggye stream. Recently, they got a contract to send trees to North Korea for the Kaesong Industrial Complex. They now employ 19 others and expect that sales this year will reach around 15 billion won, almost 16 times more than the 0.9 billion won they managed to make in 2000.
The men hope to make more progress in the future and further revive the tree business in Korea.
First, Mr. Chae said, companies should standardize the size and features of types of trees. To achieve this, they have set up a private research center and tree nursery, where they transport trees to be cultivated under similar conditions from where they originated. “If farmers can learn the standardizing technique, the tree market will improve completely. One other project is to build tree farms under our company name. Almost all of the trees in the garden will be trees that were returned to us for one reason or another.” Mr. Chae said those returned trees, from six years ago to now, are worth 100 million won.
Both Mr. Chae and Mr. Im agree that the biggest gift working with trees has brought them is the people they have met. “People that care for trees are sincere. We work everyday with people who love trees,” they said.
by Shin Eun-jin