What was the driving force to establish MK International? What did you set out to achieve?
When I was a little kid, my dream was to be most respectable businessman in the world. I wanted to contribute my knowledge and modest capacity to different countries in whichever way I could. I had a keen interest in contributing to the Agricultural and Educational sectors, which seemed to be my focus early on without me being quite aware of it. Further on, I saw that in order to maintain a viable business model, and to improve the quality of services, the focus shifted to industrializing underdeveloped countries. My aim was never to make a large amount of money, but a large impact.
What did you set out to achieve with your company?
I see us as a very small company, and on an international level, we are a medium scale company. As an example, South Korea is now well known as a global industrial leader. Alongside Asia’s other newly Industrialised countries as dragons, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These four countries were the leading Asian economies- and with the change in China’s ‘One China’ policy, we see it take a leading position in the global economy as well. Decades ago, however, this was not the case. South Korea had its beginnings as an agricultural economy, with less than 20% of its GDP income from the industrial sector. Like many others, they realized that economic advancement and prosperity through an agriculture based economy was extremely difficult.
There are so many variations in labor, cultivation, produce- you can really control the weather to a certain extent – and the rest to nature … that’s a very risky industry to build a nation on. That thought process influenced the way I viewed the progress and growth of this company. A company that produces fresh apples has to factor in large labor costs, seasonal variations, cost of shipping etc – whereas a company that produces wrist watches can streamline the production, the time it should take each employee to assemble a watch, as well as the number of employees needed to meet the output per day. There are so many factors you can control and that you can calculate. With that thought process in mind, I asked myself how agriculture based developing economies stood a chance against industrialized ones?
Some would refer to you as an industrialist, others an entrepreneur. How do you see yourself?
I see myself as a responsible human being first and always and a Businessman second – it’s that simple. You and your company enjoy a wide presence and network in Africa – which is uncommon for an Asian businessman, let alone a South Korean entrepreneur in the early 1980s. How did it all begin for you?
My classmate in San Francisco, California – a Nigerian scholarship student, was the beginning of my introduction to African people, culture and customs. I witnessed firsthand the mutual pillars our cultures were built on; hospitality, giving and sharing with friends and family – and due to his unfortunate circumstances, he became my housemate, and we cemented our friendship even further.
After his graduation, he returned to Nigeria and was appointed as a high dignitary, and sent me a Telex inviting me to visit him in Nigeria, as well as a four page letter thanking me for all I did for him during our stay in USA, the truth was all I did was offer him a place to sleep, and I’m sure anyone else would have done the same for a friend. I visited Nigeria and was introduced to decision makers and influencers in the West African community- I saw a huge opportunity to widen and advance my network in a region unbeknownst to me months before!
The warmth, hospitality and openness of the Nigerian people really motivated me to pursue Trade and Industry in the African region.
Your journey began in the West African region, extending to 27 countries throughout the continent- I think we are one of the oldest in African in terms of ASEAN presence, and we have been very fortunate to receive recognition from the South Korean government, and International Organizations such as UN and World Bank and its entities supporting our work. We have since travelled and reached out to developing economies and regions throughout the Indian sub continent as well as establishing a presence in the GCC and throughout the Middle East. We’re always aiming to meet new people, introducing ourselves to new markets and expanding our reach and vision.
Are you consciously attracted to developing markets?
Absolutely – there is a further future potential to grow and expand, rather than an already developed country and economy. The first phase of introduction and establishing yourself and your brand at the early development is always complicated, alongside navigating bureaucracy and understanding local customs, cultures and sensitivities. We are setting precedence in these markets and it is important to represent ourselves and whoever follows us in the best light possible. We want people to meet with future traders, developers and entrepreneurs from different parts of the world with positivity and optimism. Our approach from the moment we set foot to the moment we leave it always of the utmost importance in our agenda.
These markets can be notoriously difficult to access-How have you found that experience as south Korean?
Allow me to share a personal experience. As a South Korean, with a PhD from the United States – in the 1970s, I was something of a rarity in my country. The expectations placed on me from my family, and friends and perhaps the society as a whole – were different to what I envisioned from myself. I was offered an opportunity with a Huge Group in USA – on the largest construction firms in the world. It was an unbelievable offer with all the security and prestige that came with such a position – and yet, my heart wasn’t in it.
When I told my father I wanted to take a chance and pursue opportunities in the African region – really see what I could add to that dynamic landscape; to say I was met with opposition would be an understatement (laughs). Where others saw risk, I saw opportunity, what they saw as opposition, I saw as a learning experience – looking back now, I understand my parent’s hesitation – but I’m glad I listened to my intuition and pursued my ambition . I believed then, and I still do now – there is truth, opportunity and wealth in Africa. A great wealth in its’ land, and its’ people. Regardless of how diverse they are.
The corporate world has changed a great deal since the 1970s – what has that change meant for you?
Unbelievable change – and all for the better! Globalization has had an unbelievably positive impact on the way we do business, not to mention the strides being made in Information Technology and the democratization of knowledge.
Access and reach, marketing, researching and planning is all made easier, faster and with much more accuracy because we can reach out to the individuals and markets we hope to have a stake in. The world has taken a quantum leap in the last decades – and we really do have the internet to thank. That being said, I’ve recognized that without understanding a culture, and its nuances, it’s very difficult to make your business successful – you need to eliminate as many cultural barriers as possible. Whenever I go to other countries, I try my best to educate myself on their history and customs – to avoid embarrassing myself or my hosts.
You’ve witnessed all these changes-what are some of your favorite experiences or teaching moments?
You have to learn how to be patient and responsible in your life, business, and personal relationships. Most people are rushing from one place to another – they don’t know how to keep patient. South Koreans are moving faster everyday – we have ten minute lunch breaks (laughs) So – if I could share a valuable lesson – it would be: be patient, be respectful. Travelling through Africa – I’ve seen the value and importance placed on happiness, quality time with loved ones, enjoying life as it comes. Clearly, the quality and standard of life in South Korea and the UAE is better – but I dare say the African continent is a happier one. Another lesson I would like to share, we should not impose our measures on others. If I were to measure a developing economy or market with the measures I use in my own country – I don’t think much would compare – and perhaps, for someone coming from East Africa – they would view my country lacking perhaps in enjoyment of life, quality time for oneself and loved ones – each person has a personal measure for the way they like to live, and what they view as important standards in one’s life and/or community. We have to find commonalities that allow us to come together, communicate and discuss, there should be a keen focus on what we can do together, discuss together, work on together – rather than what we cannot. That is a belief I’ve held internally – and I’ve seen proven right time and time again regardless of whom I’m encountered.
So that would be my advice to everyone, whether you are just getting started in this market , or have achieved all your personal and career goals – be patient, be respectful and be open to others and their way of life – you’ll always come out ahead.