Executives discover lessons in leisureLee Kun-hee has been a skiing enthusiast since 2003, when his doctor recommended he take up the sport to aid his recovery from surgery for lung cancer. Since then, the chairman of Samsung Group, Korea’s top corporation, has visited the Bogwang Phoenix Park ski field every year and has gradually developed a philosophy he calls “ski management.”
Last winter, Mr. Lee visited Phoenix Park with a team of chief executives from Samsung Electronics, hoping to strengthen their teamwork outside of the office. Mr. Lee dubs his idea “skin-ship management.”
The chairman’s son, Lee Jae-yong, on the other hand, is a horse-rider who has represented the country in international events.
Many other leaders of Korea’s major conglomerates have their own sporting preferences, whether they view them as purely leisure or character-building.
Chung Mong-koo, the chairman of Hyundai Motor Company, is an avid hiker while Koo Bon-moo, the chairman of LG Group, is a talented golfer with a single-figure handicap. Before he reshuffles high-ranking officials in his company, Mr. Koo decides the character and potential of each candidate after observing their playing styles.
Choi Tae-won of SK Group, one of the youngest chairmen of the nation’s top four conglomerates, plays tennis at the Hotel Walkerhill most weekends. He even met his wife, Noh So-young, through a shared interest in the game.
Other keen hikers among Korean chief executives include Kim Seung-youn of Hanwha Group and Cho Yang-ho of Hanjin Group, who both keep fit through hiking.
Then there are the marathon runners.
At 65, Min Keh-sik, a vice-chairman of Hyundai Heavy Industry, is silver-haired but still runs marathons. Whenever he has free time, he practices by running beside the breakwater of the company’s Ulsan shipyard.
Jo Woong-rae, the president of Sunyang Soju, took part in the Boston Marathon last year. Yoon Jae-seung, the vice-chairman of Daewoong Pharmaceutical Company, who runs a half marathon in under an hour, is a noted leisure enthusiast and enjoys many sports including skiing, tennis and kayaking.
Chang Heung-soon, the chairman of Turbotek, and Nam Seung-woo, the president of Pulmuone, are so enthusiastic about marathons that they formed a club that is coached by Hwang Yeong-jo, an Olympic marathon gold medalist.
“Triai,” another club made up of chief executive triathlon buffs, has members including Yu Kyung-sun, the chairman of Eugene Group, Kim Jin-yong, the president of Samsung Books, and Lee Gang Yeon, the CEO of Samjung Construction. Mr. Yu, who is also the director of the Asia Triathlon Association, has a special affection for his hobby, and taught the sport to Oh Se-hoon, the mayor of Seoul.
Koo Cha-yol, the CEO of LS Cable, was in middle school when he first rode a bike. He would arrive at his school in Gyedong soaked in sweat every morning after cycling from his home in Yaksu-dong, a distance that takes about 15 minutes by car.
When he was in high school, he suffered head injuries when a car hit him on his bike. He said he can still see his father, honorary chairman Koo Pyong-hwoi, throwing his bike away in anger.
Mr. Koo became a mountain bike enthusiast only nine years ago, after meeting singer Kim Se-hwan, who had taken his mountain bike to a ski resort they were both staying in. Stepping on a bike again felt as if he had met an old friend, he said.
Mr. Koo has now designated alternate Sundays in May of each year as “club days” in his company, during which staff members can enjoy sports such as hiking, tennis and inline skating.
He usually rides alone or with close aides and is currently planning a journey with his son, who is now in the army, to traverse the Rocky Mountains or the Patagonian plains of South America.
“You have to have a certain spirit to ride a mountain bike,” Mr. Koo says. “The younger generation tends to give up too quickly without overcoming their barriers. When you pass a high mountain, you develop a sense of confidence that you can do anything. You get a true taste of life when you confront difficult obstacles.”
His best leisure memories are of a mountain bike tournament in Germany in 2002, the “Adidas Trans-Alps Challenge.” The course is 650-kilometers long and features steep cliffs and rugged mountains.
“It became difficult to breathe by the time I got to a point 3,000 meters above sea level. My buttocks were sore but I couldn’t give up. I pressed on my pedals, imagining I was a member of the national team,” he said.
Mr. Koo was the first Asian to complete the eight-day Trans-Alps course. His wife, Lee Hyeon-ju, who worried about his safety as she waited at home, gave him the nickname wanju, which means “staying the course.”
Lee Hyang-lim, the president of Volvo Korea, is also, on weekends, a mother, daughter and housewife. She said she plays golf to relieve stress. As a female entrepreneur with no concrete background in sales or marketing, golf has given her the chance to expand her social relationships and strengthen her human networks.
Jeong Jin-gu, the president of CJ Foodville, enjoys fast driving. His habit goes back 30 years, when he worked for 7-Eleven in the United States. In four months, he became an assistant manager and was becoming a workaholic. He said when he was overwhelmed by stress, he found relief by driving at high speed. There was no comparison to the thrill of driving a sports car at 200 kilometers per hour, he said.
Seven years ago, Kim Young-hoon, the chairman of the Daesung Group, had a pain in his shoulder that had lasted for months and would not improve, regardless of what treatments he had. An acquaintance suggested that he take up archery and in less than a month, the pain had disappeared.
Ever since, he has been an avid fan and even set up a target in his backyard to practice in his spare time. Standing 145 meters from the target, he said, he feels the energy in his mind and body center into one point. He added that it is the best way he has found to relieve exhaustion.
Archery involves eight steps, which the players say embody the principles of life. Mr. Kim said he thinks about manjak, or the moment just before shooting, whenever he is about to make important decisions. He knows that a bad manjak always leads to a disappointing result and said he sees this as a life process in which one needs to think twice about any incident he faces before making decisions.
Another chief executive who has found an important life lesson through leisure is Park Jin-wan, the president of Neowiz, a game portal site.
In the headquarters of Neowiz, there is no president’s office. Instead it has a sarangbang, or traditional guestroom complete with ink and calligraphy brushes next to a traditional tea set.
The room was designed by Mr. Park to break down the barriers between him and his staff. He said this was in order to treat everyone with loyalty and respect, a lesson he learned while hiking in the Himalayas.
Three years ago, Mr. Park weighed 94 kilograms (207 pounds) and his doctors prescribed a diet and exercise regimen for him. Every weekend from then, he hiked on a nearby mountain and, a year later, had lost 20 kilograms.
Wanting a bigger challenge, Mr. Park decided to join a hiking trip to the Himalayas with a group of people with disabilities and celebrity mountaineer Um Hong-gil.
“It’s not best to climb quickly to the highest points of a mountain,” Um told the group during the climb. Mr. Park said he keeps that as a life lesson.
“When you plan on climbing major mountains, you get excited,” he says. “Then when the expedition actually begins, it’s so difficult that you ask yourself why you came. A chief executive is like a master of an expedition in that he has to overcome those barriers.”
Park Ju-man, the president of Auction, is also a sports enthusiast, who plays tennis during the summer and skis in the winter. He made most of his friends through the game while studying in the United States (where he earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania). He said he enjoyed competitive games before he got married but now, as a father of two, he prefers group sports like badminton.
He takes late summer vacations every year to spend more time with his family, teaching two daughters to play badminton and ride bicycles.
Seok Jong-hun, the president of Daum Communications, spends much of his weekends digging mountain vegetables. He said his favorite pasttimes are hiking and walking. Since his office moved to Jeju Island, he has enjoyed hiking the island’s mountains and has climbed to the peak of Mount Halla four times. He has also taken a walking tour of the island.
Mr. Seok said this is in stark contrast to his previous lifestyle, when he suffered liver problems for more than 10 years, mainly brought about by heavy drinking and stress. Nowadays he takes pleasure in accepting the difficult moments of life, a fact which his acquaintances credit for his broad-minded leadership.
by Park Sang-jun