[OUTLOOK]A tip of the hat to DaewooIn May of 2005, I wrote a column criticizing Kim Woo-choong, the founder of the Daewoo Group. At that time, several of his executives had been tried, convicted and been handed tremendous fines while their boss was still a fugitive.
He has now come back to Korea and has been been put on trial while fighting for his health. I feel a bit sorry for him.
He used to travel all around the world, working hard, saying “Every street is paved with gold,” just as the title of his autobiography read. But now it is hard to imagine him doing the same.
But when I travel around the world, I still run into traces of Kim Woo-choong, a hero in many places: in remote places in Africa and India, countries in Central Asia, Vietnam, China, Eastern European countries such as Poland and former Soviet empire components such as Ukraine and Russia.
In these countries, signs that read “Daewoo” have not been removed. Or, if they have been removed, at least the Daewoo spirit has been preserved and remains alive among the people.
Mr. Kim has left huge footprints in the economic field. If carmaking factories in Poland or India could have been saved, Daewoo might have bought General Motors of the United States by now.
If Daewoo had bought the lucrative land that it spotted in Hanoi, the destiny of the company could have been changed.
The company’s creativity and challenges have created legendary stories. If Mr. Kim had not run away at the last moment, he could have saved his company and his honor. That is truly regrettable.
Today’s international trade by Korea has grown so big that it is meaningless to compare it with the days when Mr. Kim was working. Back then, people packed sample products in bags and traveled around the world to sell them.
Now, our country has become one with advanced high technology. Our cell phones are some of the world’s best and our digital television sets are more competitive than those made by Japanese companies.
We used to be looked down upon and treated badly by companies of advanced countries, but now things have changed. When I travel abroad and meet Koreans doing business there, I can instantly feel that they have high morale and pride.
Korean companies are truly competitive; looking at that more closely, their sales have improved despite efforts by politicians and the administration to block their business activities.
Finance Minister Kwon O-kyu said recently that creating a growth engine is a job for the private sector, as if that were a great new idea. In fact, that has been proven all along by our private companies.
If government officials or politicians are not generous in giving credit for companies’ achievements, they only show they are incompetent.
We have companies and businessmen to depend on. Although politics have been in chaos and government officials have produced many unreasonable regulations, Korea’s economy has advanced this far thanks to companies’ persistence and hard work.
But recently, companies are not performing the way they used to. Is that because they have grown too big or too rich? Companies seem to have become bureaucratic and tend to prioritize safety over challenge.
I can sense that their frontier spirit and response to challenges have seriously weakened. That seems more true for conglomerates. It is a serious problem if companies that we depend on have also changed in that direction.
Probably it is too much to expect a person who has a full stomach to work as hard as if he needed money to buy bread. But Korea’s economy of today should feel hungry, instead of feeling full. It should continue striving to advance further.
When Korea’s growth rate is similar to that of the United States and is less than half of that of China, the government says the economy is good, citing the “potential growth rate.” That is nonsense.
Our last chance to make a breakthrough is our companies. This is why I talk about Kim Woo-choong. I wish there were more businessmen like him.
We desperately need businessmen who will lead companies with a more competitive mind.
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by JoongAng Daily Staff.
by Lee Chang-kyu
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