Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Room of Her Own, With No Ceiling

To belatedly mark the occasion of International Women’s Day last Thursday, I would like to call attention to a particularly admirable member of Asia’s elite - Kim Sung Joo. The more that I have learned about her, the more I have come to admire her lifelong spirit and dedication. So if you are looking to read something cynical and sarcastic, this posting will disappoint.

Kim Sung Joo is one of the women profiled in Forbes’ inaugural Asia 50 Power Businesswomen , a list which the magazine released on IWD. She was one of four Korean women who made the list. The others are spread geographically according to the table below. As you can see, Forbes did a commendable job in gathering a diverse group of accomplished individuals.

Ms Kim’s personal history started off as a typical one among Asia’s wealthy families – she was the youngest daughter among six children raised in a conservative family with the hope that she would do little more than marry into another wealthy, conservative family. However, she developed ideas that were decidedly different from her strict Confucian father and Christian mother. She excelled at studies, which made her parents nervous that she would not find a suitably un-intimidated mate. Undeterred, she went abroad for university, attending Amherst, then London School of Economics, then Harvard. But that wasn’t enough “rebellion” for her. (If my own daughter ever “rebels” to that extent, I’ll go to my grave a proud father.) When she informed her family that she wanted to marry a Westerner who she had fallen in love with, she was disowned. And left penniless. The next few years also proved to be difficult ones. She ended up splitting from her husband. She had health problems that required surgery. But the fight in her remained undiminished.

During those early years, she learned the luxury retail trade while working at Bloomingdale’s. Also, ironically, because of her overseas experience, she found herself helping her father negotiate a joint venture with a US auto-parts company. When he asked how he could reciprocate, she asked for, and received, a $300,000 loan from him. In 1990, she started a business-Sungjoo Group-importing global brands, including Gucci and Sonia Rykiel, into Korea. It was successful enough that she was able to repay her father with interest within four years. When Gucci subsequently bought back the Korea franchise rights from Sungjoo, she used the $27 million to acquire an ailing German luxury leather brand – MCM – that she thought had great potential.

She has transformed MCM into a thriving brand. In 2011, the company had revenues of US$450 million, 110 company-owned stores worldwide, and a proliferating presence in China. It is a rare example of a Korean-controlled luxury brand that has done well globally. She hopes that, in 3-4 years, she will be Korea’s first self-made woman billionaire. Not bad for a single mother.

Success stories abound across Asia; the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well all over this hard-working region. However, this story struck a special cord with me, since there are so many reasons it should not have happened. Woman rarely succeed in Korea in business. Rich kids don't often stake out on their own and persevere to make independent fortunes. Korean-controlled foreign retail companies usually flounder due to lack of vision and profound cultural differences. Kim Sung Joo broke through all those obstacles; she is worthy of all the success that has come her way.

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