CEO’s tumultuous journey to the top

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CEO’s tumultuous journey to the top

Ahn Eun-uk, general manager of Roche Diagnostics Korea, a Korean affiliate of Switzerland-based global healthcare group Roche, has a unique family history.

His father was a North Korean soldier during the Korean War. He was born in Suwon, Gyeonggi, in 1927 to an affluent family as the eldest son of five.

Ahn’s father was so inspired by communist literature that he immediately volunteered for the North Korean Army when the war broke out.

However, as reality deviated from the communist ideology he embraced, Ahn’s father began to grow skeptical. He escaped to the South after the two Koreas signed an armistice.

However, he was put behind bars when his record was revealed by South Korean authorities.

After being released from jail, he met his wife, who later gave birth to three daughters and one son - now the head of a global pharmaceutical business.

The former North Korean soldier, however, suffered hardships while living in the South. He was widely branded as an enemy from the North. He had no money and drank heavily.

Ahn’s mother died when Ahn was six. As his father and sisters couldn’t take care of him, Ahn was sent to an orphanage in Bucheon, Gyeonggi.

“I was branded as an orphan and the son of a North Korean soldier,” Ahn said.

Ahn seized the chance to leave for Switzerland through the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation, which ran a scholarship program for war orphans.

Every year until 1995, one or two South Korean orphans were selected to go to Switzerland to study on the scholarship.

Ahn’s school principal recommended him as a scholarship student, and shortly after he left for Europe at the age of 13 in 1978.

Ahn called himself part of the first generation of early overseas students. Living in St. Gallen, 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Zurich, he learned German, French and English.

“I decided to go to Switzerland because of the food, clothing and shelter provided by the program,” Ahn said. “If I didn’t have that opportunity, I would have probably become a gangster or something.”

However, the overseas program did not ameliorate the struggles of all its students.

“Unfortunately, students on the Pestalozzi program were not very happy in Switzerland, either,” Ahn said. Two of the 50 students in Switzerland committed suicide and some ended up addicted to drugs.

“My father died shortly after I left for Switzerland, but my sisters didn’t tell me until I was 18,” Ahn said. “When I was told about his death, my goal to finish high school successfully and return to Korea to meet my father vanished.”

Ahn quit school to come back to Korea. He tried to get a job, but it wasn’t easy without a college diploma.

“I found no breakthrough in Korea, so I went back to Switzerland to finish school,” he said.

Ahn entered the University of St. Gallen in 1987 and graduated with a Ph.D in business.

He joined Ciba-Geigy, a Swiss chemicals company, and volunteered to work at the Korean branch.

“Even though I had no networks in relation to my school or hometown, except for my sisters, I started off with brisk sales activities and got promotions earlier than others,” he said.

After working in several countries including Singapore and Germany, Ahn returned to Korea to work for Roche Diagnostics Korea in 2009.

He was promoted to the general manager position early this year.

About Roche Diagnostics Korea

Roche Diagnostics Korea (RDK), an affiliate of Diagnostics Division of Roche Group headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. Roche is a leader in research-focused healthcare with combined strengths in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. Roche is also the world leader in in-vitro diagnostics, tissue-based cancer diagnostics and a pioneer in diabetes management.

By Shim Jae-woo [ssh@joongang.co.kr]
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