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Friday, July 15, 2005

Fond Memories

I never met Kim Woo-choong. But I feel like I know him well. That's why this brings back a flood of memories.

Founder of Collapsed South Korean Conglomerate Daewoo Hospitalized
The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - The former chairman of collapsed South Korean conglomerate Daewoo Group was hospitalized with a life-threatening heart ailment Friday, casting a shadow over a multi-billion dollar fraud investigation.

Kim Woo-choong was admitted to Seoul's Severance Hospital in (sic) was in serious condition, said hospital spokeswoman Park Doo-hyuk. (link)
I had the good fortune of working side-by-side for a few years with executives at the now-defunct Daewoo Automotive Group (Daewoo U.S.), before the parent company collapsed under the weight of its staggering debt.

(Interestingly, this article throws out a debt figure of $70 billion. When I was travelling regularly to Compton, CA to meet with my Daewoo counterparts in 1998 and 1999, I remember reading, in the Wall Street Journal, articles that pegged Daewoo Group's debt at $20 billion. Then $30 billion. The last report I read estimated the company's debt at $50 billion. With the profligate spending that I was witness to, I knew the ever-accelerating race to insolvency was a fast-approaching matter of time.)

Despite the regret that I still feel for those who were thrown out of work by the company's collapse, I have nothing but fond memories of my Daewoo experience. And of those with whom I worked.

What was particularly interesting about Kim Woo-choong and the many executives that would show up in Compton for routine updates on the progress of their company's U.S. entry into the highly competitive sub-compact car market, was the extraordinary deference that was paid these people. I could use the word godlike (OK, apostlelike) in describing the way they were viewed by the employees and it would not be too much of an exaggeration.

When a corporate executive came near, everyone around me bowed (No. I didn't. I bow only to my wife.). There was only fleeting eye contact on the part of those I was with, especially if an executive chose to speak directly to one of them. It wasn't out of fear so much as a profound respect for the position that executive held within the company.

And the stories about Kim Woo-choong were legion. His work ethic. His wrath. His power. Many of the stories were recounted to me over dinner or mixed drinks in bars and restaurants in Torrance, Redondo Beach, Palos Verdes, and aboard the Queen Mary down in Long Beach Harbor. Stories related in hushed tones almost. With an occasional sideways glance that ensured the storyteller that Kim Woo-choong wouldn't find out that he was the topic of casual conversation.

I remember too that every Korean working at Daewoo smoked cigarettes. Every one. Non-stop. Which was understandable, considering the fact that employees there had no life. An 80 hour workweek was the norm (oddly, workers at their headquarters were expected to be there at all hours but it wasn't unusual to walk past someone's office and see the occupant sleeping).

I took all this in with a great deal of fascination. I had, at the time, a number of opportunities to fly to Seoul to inspect facilities there but I never set aside the time (and I hear they serve dog in restaurants there; the un-hot kind; I can't say for sure). In any case, I wish now I had taken that time.

So, I hope Mr. Kim gets well soon. I hope too that all those wonderful friends I got to know at Daewoo U.S. have prospered.

And have given up their god-awful Korean cigarettes.