From riches to rags to riches

  • AseanPlus News
  • Sunday, 11 Mar 2012

Daughter of a Korean tycoon shows that life is what you make of it.

SINGAPORE: Women, don’t fight glass ceilings, tradition or men. Create your own game instead – and win.

This is the advice of Kim Sung-Joo, who debuted last Thursday on the first Forbes list of Asia’s Power Businesswomen. The South Korean luxury entrepreneur was in Singapore last week for a Forbes Asia forum timed with the release of the new power list, ahead of International Women’s Day on Thursday.

The youngest daughter of an energy conglomerate tycoon, Kim grew up like a princess cosseted in an old presidential palace, their family abode. Ten helpers, five drivers and two janitors tended her bubble of privilege.

Her strict Confucian father and puritanical Christian mother expected her to marry well and never work.

“I rebelled,” she recounts. The youngest of six children was appalled that her parents, especially her father, were often displeased that her two older sisters scored top marks in school, dimming their marriage prospects.

At 21, she secretly secured a place to study sociology at Amherst, a liberal arts college in America. She invited 16 prominent Amherst graduates to meet her father, Kim Soo-Keun, founder of the Daesung chaebol which deals in energy, auto parts, entertainment and a host of sectors.

Among the Amherst elite were former Korean Cabinet ministers and ambassadors.

“They came to my house and convinced my father, ‘Release your daughter to study at Amherst.’ He couldn’t say no,” she says.

In the United States, her boundary-breaking spree continued. Without telling her parents, she took temporary jobs like waitressing and scrubbing toilets during summer breaks.

“I was training for a real life,” she says. ”

After her BA at Amherst, she went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics, then a Master of Theological Studies in business ethics and economics at Harvard.

By then it was the mid-1980s, and her parents asked her to return home for good.

“I knew if I went home, they would prepare an engagement to someone I don’t know well from a super-rich family,” she says.

But she had fallen in love with an “innocent-looking and kind” British Canadian from the Harvard campus.

This was a big threat to her traditional folks.

“Koreans are very homogeneous, especially high-society families. They think mixed blood in the family is a real shame,” she says.

“But for me, it was a basic human right to choose my own spouse and choose my own life.”

So she proposed marriage to the young man, who was similarly shocked. Overnight, she was disowned and penniless.

Over the next five years, her siblings were not allowed to contact her.

“I was like a satellite in orbit that suddenly got into a black hole,” she says.

While her husband completed his degree, she landed a job on the planning team of Bloomingdale’s legendary chairman Marvin Traub in Manhattan from 1985 to 1987. It was like being trained at a luxury retailing school, she remembers, picking up skills that would stick for life.

Stressful times

It was also a tumultuous season, however. Her hasty union unravelled as she and her husband differed vastly “in culture and expectations”. Though she knew life with him would be spartan, it was painful that they could not save a cent together.

“I worked overly hard, and was under a lot of mental stress as a foreigner with no fashion background. I probably worked 10 times harder than my colleagues. I got very ill.”

She had surgery for an ailment she declines to name.

“I thought I was dying. I was like a princess thrown into a stream. That made me think of returning home.”

Before she flew home, however, a friend in the Detroit car industry alerted her that Bendix Electronics, now part of Siemens, was interested in a US$200mil (RM600mil) joint venture with her father’s company.

Too afraid to call her father, she spoke to one of his trusted deputies. Her father and his suited men flew to Detroit. No smiles or hugs when they finally reconciled – but he assigned her to sit beside him as a translator for three days of negotiations.

The deal was sinking after the third day.

“So I asked if I could intervene.” She summarised the discrepancies, and made it clear that there were similar goals but different cultural perspectives.

The joint venture was saved and she packed for home, pregnant, but separated from her husband who knew her family would not accept him.

Soon, her father invited her to his office in Seoul for the first time. Her mother had never ventured there, so conservative was the company.

He asked what he could do for her; she asked to borrow US$300,000 (RM900,000) to start a fashion business.

In 1990, she launched the Sungjoo Group, a company representing global brands like Gucci, Sonia Rykiel and Marks & Spencer in Korea.

“Father thought it would be a hobby. But we grew very fast, more than doubling or tripling every year, because we were a gate-opener and pioneer for luxury brands,” she says.

“In less than four years, I repaid father with interest.”

But her path to success was riddled with chauvinism and corruption.

The Korean business culture involves heavy drinking, parties and bribes, which she resisted. Like her father, she maintains she steers clear of political favours.

Transparency saved her business when the Asian financial crisis pummelled Korea. She lost more than US$30mil (RM90mil), and closed half her stable of 88 stores.

“My company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Luckily, Gucci suggested a 50:50 joint venture. I told them, ‘Take everything.’’’ So she sold her exclusive Gucci franchise back to the company.

She reasons that if she had kept double or hidden accounts, her firm would have tanked. Based on clean records, Gucci valued the assets at the value she sought. She bagged US$27mil (RM81mil), a lifeline.

Another decisive turning point was her acquisition of the ailing German luxury brand MCM in 2005. She liked the artisanship of its bags and luggage, which are toted by Hong Kong artiste Sammi Cheng and supermodel Cindy Crawford.

MCM Holdings achieved gross revenues of US$450mil (RM1.4bil) last year, up from US$100 mil (RM300mil) in 2005. Globally, there are 110 direct-owned MCM shops, and it supplies to another 200 high-end stores. The label is available in 30 countries, including Singapore at Changi Airport Terminal 2.

The brand has recently proliferated in China, including its second-tier cities. “If China goes well, I expect in three or four years that we can be a US$1bil (RM3bil) company,” reckons the single mother.

“I am joining the billionaire’s club.”

Her father, who died in 2001, will never witness that shining moment.

But on his deathbed, he said she had inherited his ‘business blood’, more so than her three brothers. She cherishes his acumen more than any inheritance, which daughters in a patriarchal chaebol family are not entitled to.

She says: “He was like a tiger, but he didn’t know he was growing a bigger tiger. That’s me.”

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