51-year-old CEO loses the shirt to find passion

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51-year-old CEO loses the shirt to find passion


Choi Hong

Choi Hong, CEO of ING Asset Management, is known for having created the first installment funds in Korea in 2003. He also has an elite academic background: Choi graduated at the top of his class in both middle and high school and studied business management at Seoul National University before receiving a doctorate from Columbia University. And it’s been 10 years since he became head of an asset management firm.

But the 51-year-old can add one more line to his resume: last month Choi was selected as having the fittest body at the 6th Cool Guy contest organized by Men’s Health magazine. He beat out 1,200 others, whose average age was 26.5 years old. Why did he participate in the contest?

“I wanted to win back the passion I had during my childhood,” Choi said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo at his office in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul.

Q. You won the Cool Guy contest, beating out young participants aspiring to become models. How did you feel?

A. Immediately after the contest, I received a tremendous number of e-mails and text messages from my friends and colleagues, perhaps one every five seconds.

How long did you have to prepare for the contest? And what was the most difficult part?

Around 1,200 people entered the preliminaries, but only 26 made it to the final round. After that, I met with the other young participants every Saturday for two months and worked out for eight hours. The most difficult part of preparing for the contest was overcoming the fact that the other participants were similar in age to my son, who is 26 years old and in graduate school. It was difficult to share my thoughts with a group of people from a different generation.

Why did you participate in the contest then?

I’ve been working out for the past 40 years. At home, I do several hundred pushups and sit-ups every day. Then I came across information at my fitness center that a magazine was going to hold a contest to select a momjjang, or a fit guy. I applied without any serious thought, but for two weeks afterward so many thoughts flashed through my mind. In the morning, I would think that it would be a good experience, but in the evening, I would regret the decision over concerns of what other people would think of me. I was able to make up my mind by thinking about my life’s motto, which is “always place myself in new and unfamiliar situations.”

Still, it wouldn’t have been easy to make the choice you made.

To be honest, my wife freaked out when I told her I would be on stage wearing only my underpants. What convinced me were my past memories as a child.

When my mother had me, my father went missing. And she remarried when I was eight after leaving me with my grandmother. Until I got married, I lived with my grandmother, and she was the only one I could turn to. It wasn’t easy. She sold cabbages, and we lived in an unlicensed shanty town in Busan. Those were times I recall as being lonely and painful.

What allowed me to overcome the difficult situation was my passion. I had to survive, so I decided to study and work out. For 20 years, I lived desperately. But as a grown-up, I thought that I had lost the passion I had as a child. After all, I had money, status and have been CEO for the past decade. I was too settled down, and I wanted some intensity and fierceness in my life. So that’s why I applied for the contest.

How did competing in the contest affect your business or business philosophy?

If you’re fit, you feel inner pride. And it’s much easier to work with pride than without it. Passion and pride led me to where I am right now. Without passion, you can’t succeed in any kind of business. In 2007 when ING Asset Management was established, the total volume of assets under control was 11 trillion won. Now it’s 20 trillion won, which is the sixth-largest among the 75 asset management companies.

By Kim Chang-gyu [angie@joongang.co.kr]
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