Budding tofu magnate left the gutter and booze behind
That was 2003. Before tofu came into his life.
Now Kim Dong-nam, 49, runs a tofu company that’s going to incorporate next month. But he says he doesn’t think that what he has accomplished is a success, not yet.
“You ask me why I chose tofu, but I didn’t choose tofu. I didn’t have that kind of choice back then,” Kim says.
“A government program in Suwon offered me just one choice: tofu. But I didn’t know it would change my life,” he says.
The program is the “Self-Support Corporate Program,” which was established by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2000. It helps low-income people learn new skills, find jobs and even start their own businesses.
Local governments fund a network of Roman Catholic church-sponsoired self-help centers that run the program. Participants can earn a living for up to two years in various trades and get funding for a new business for up to three years.
Kim’s company, Jjaro Love, represents three dreams that have come true for the one-time derelict. “I want Jjaro Love to provide healthy food to metropolitan residents, security for local farmers and an opportunity for poor people to earn while helping others,” Kim says.
It’s been a long journey from homelessness to CEO of a firm making tofu out of locally grown, non-genetically-modified soybeans.
The company produces 500 to 600 packs of tofu every day, Kim says, and makes about 25 million ($26,425) to 30 million won a month.
When Kim joined the self-support group in 2002, he was only interested in the wage provided by the program, he says. Like the other participants on the program, Kim was despondent, homeless and an alcoholic.
But unlike benefit recipients, he had to work to earn the wage.
According to Lee Dong-hee, a coordinator at Suwon Hope Self-Support Center where Kim participated in the tofu-making program, Kim has a serious drink problem and had problems adjusting to the program during the first year.
“He sometimes pretended he wasn’t drinking while he lapsed into heavy drinking bouts that could last for two days. Then he would stop drinking for a while,” says Lee, Kim’s supervisor.
But Lee spotted something different about Kim. When he was dry, Lee says, Kim worked harder than most.
“He was the only person who applied for the program out of the 20 guys I met at a homeless shelter in Suwon,” Lee says. Kim kept on drinking, but he didn’t quit the program.
Kim wasn’t always homeless. He was a father and a husband in an ordinary family, working whatever blue-collar jobs he could find.
“My dream was to live a normal life,” Kim says. “I married at 23. I had a daughter. We had a house. It wasn’t a comfortable life, but I tried to support my family.”
But Kim says he used to blame others for what happened in his life.
“I blamed the world for my hardship. I was miserable,” he says.
He spent his 20s drinking his youth away. Marriage failed to curb his alcoholism. He brawled and did time in jail.
He tried hard to beat the bottle. From 1990 until 1999 while living in Ansan, he went on the wagon, he says.
But after the 1998 financial crisis in Korea, when the International Monetary Fund took over Korea’s finances, he lost his job as an apartment maintenance worker.
He relapsed into drinking.
Almost inevitably his wife left him in 2000 after 17 years of marriage, taking their daughter with her.
“I don’t keep in touch with them anymore,” he says. “It really hurts when I talk with them or see them. They don’t want that, and neither do I.”
But he kept in touch with his daughter, now 25, until 2002, according to Lee, the supervisor of the Suwon self-support program.
“His daughter was in college at that time, I think, and was having a difficult time paying her tuition,” Lee says.
“He wanted to help, but of course, how could he? So one of the reasons he drank heavily at that time was, I think, because he was disappointed at himself.”
Lee first met Kim at a homeless shelter in Suwon. He was trying to recruit self-support program participants.
Those who participated could sleep at a nearby shelter and work at the tofu factory in Songjuk-dong in Suwon, earning a wage.
Even when he was drinking, Kim stood out because he worked really hard, Lee says.
Everything changed dramatically in February 2003. Kim was hospitalized for the fifth time in his first year at the factory.
He’d drunk himself unconscious once again.
“When I awoke, Supervisor Lee and another official of the self-support program were with me in the hospital,” Kim says. “They said the same thing, that I shouldn’t keep drinking like this but I should focus on the program. But somehow, this time, I just felt this shouldn’t happen anymore and decided to make a change.”
Lee remembers that day clearly. Lee says he thinks the transformation had a little bit to do with him.
“I was a supervisor on the program employed by the center. I wasn’t just another participant,” Lee says.
“When we had orders, we had to make tofu no matter what. Some benefit recipients, who get the fixed wage as long as they work eight hours a day, didn’t like it when we had many orders. They complained.
“But when Kim was sober, he worked hard. But he was drunk a lot of the time so I had to learn how to make tofu myself. I woke at 4 a.m. to make sure we completed the orders on time and I worked until after midnight. Maybe he saw me doing that and thought ‘I must work as hard as that guy, who is not a participant and not as desperate as I am to learn this skill.’”
One day after that hospital accident, Kim had a talk with Lee. That was the day Kim took over Lee’s position.
“It was the Lunar New Year holiday,” Lee says. “Kim visited me and told me he would quit drinking, but he said he wanted more responsibility in the program. He said he wanted a leadership role. So I told him, ‘If you can promise me to get sober, I will hand over my authority to you.’”
The transformation was immediate, Lee continues.
“It must have been really tough for him to get sober, but he has this strong faith in the business and he set specific goals for himself. He began waking up at 3 a.m.. He knew that making tofu requires a lot of hard work and time,” Lee explains.
It wasn’t easy for Kim to lead the group.
“As a fellow participant, he took on a leadership role toward other participants,” says Shin Hae-jeong, who is in charge of administration at the company.
“There were a lot of hurdles. Some of the participants on the program said, ‘You and I are in the same situation. Why are you telling us to do this or that?’ He was criticized by both the participants and some self-support center officials at the same time,” Shin adds.
“Kim thought the participants had to take matters into their own hands, not try to depend on the government,” Lee says. “But some said to Kim, ‘What do you think you are? You and I are all participants and cannot be leaders.’”
Shin, 27, a college graduate who majored in business administration, was a center official who stuck by Kim.
She quit her job of more than two years at the Suwon Hope Self-Support Center and joined the tofu company in March 2005 when it became an independent firm under the name Jjaro Love.
Big heart and Jjaro Love
Shin says she loves her work at the company, especially because it isn’t profit-seeking and it tries to make a difference.
“When we get more orders and sell more tofu, we don’t try to expand the firm overtly,” she says. “We just want to make the firm more secure so we can hire more employees from low-income families.”
Shin says Kim has a big heart, but his leadership sometimes frustrates those around him.
“He doesn’t order us to do something unless he himself does it, too,” she says. “He has this strong faith in his own way of doing things.”
But Kim believes his way of pushing people can make a real difference to their lives. At least one person is living proof of Kim’s approach.
Seo Jeong-shim, who underwent surgery for cancer last September, wanted to quit after the operation.
But Kim persuaded her to stay for her own good, he says. “If sick people stay in bed or at home, their health gets worse,” Kim says.
Seo seems glad she stayed.
“I’ve no regrets,” she says. “This company helps people who find themselves in difficult situations. Even if we share less, we want to hire more people. And I like that. Kim and I share the same cause. I like the concept of living well together, not alone, but together.”
So that is why Seo stayed, even after a painful pay cut last year that forced others to leave the company.
“I like looking at things from a long-term perspective,” she says. “We need to look ahead, not just at the short term.”
Seo, now in her late 40s, was married for 20 years to a man 11 years her senior who was suffering from a debilitating disease.
She worked two jobs, sleeping only two hours to support her family. She raised poultry and worked as a sauna receptionist at night. She has three kids. After taking painstaking care of her husband for more than a decade, who often abused her physically and verbally, her husband began to recover, surprising everyone, including her husband’s doctor.
But life changed irrevocably when the police called her at work one day in 2004.
“They said my elementary school son called the police to report his father’s abuse,” she says. “From then on, I realized I couldn’t keep pretending nothing was wrong with my husband. Hitting me was O.K. But abusing my children was a wake-up call.”
She left everything, including her own house and the poultry business to her husband. But took the most important things in her life ― her two daughters and one son.
She collected their belongings and moved into a one-bedroom flat in 2004. They are poor but happy now, Seo says.
“I always tell my children to try to do whatever they want,” says Seo, a dropout from a prestigious college in Seoul.
“I tell them to be positive. Since they were young, I’ve always bought them books. I think that’s why my kids think differently to other children their age.”
Hopes and dreams
Just like Seo, Kim Dong-nam says he wants to help others achieve their dreams through his business.
Jjaro Love began in a cramped warehouse in Suwon. The equipment was secondhand and rusty. Now he rents two stories in a modern building.
There are five full-time employees including Kim, and other workers come and go through the self-support program, which sends trainees to the factory equipped with modern tofu-making machines.
The company received and borrowed from various government assistance programs to pay for the new machines and rent, Kim says.
His business will expand next month into a fully fledged corporation a little more than three years after he named the company Jjaro Love.
Jjaro means real or true in Korean. Kim says the name represents his hope to live a life “for real” and the company’s “true” love for locally grown produce.
Now Jjaro Love has a branch in Anyang, Gyeonggi, and another one Ansan, also in Gyeonggi, will open soon, he says.
Also its tofu and byproducts such as soy milk get distributed in Seoul through Korea Reviving Rural Community, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmentally friendly and locally grown produce.
His dream is to open more stores in more cities including Seoul.
And he has bigger dreams, too.
“I would like to open a silver town for low-income people, where we can create jobs for those who have retired or lost jobs because of their age,” he says.
These are not new plans. He set up 15-year plans for the company in 2004.
“Some people call me crazy. They say I should think about my own retirement,” he says. “But they cannot measure me by their jaded standards.”
He’s right. He’s still homeless. He sleeps and eats at the company. He doesn’t make a dime. His monthly salary is reinvested into the company.
But Kim seems to have found something worth fighting for in life. After all, he is not an ordinary guy. He’s made something out of hopelessness and homelessness and he’s inspired people around him.
He’s not ready to settle yet.
By Lee Yang-kyoung Staff Reporter [email@example.com]