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Tasteful Korean designs in Africa

Unlike small Korean designing firms struggling to outdo one another in the domestic market, Serene Co. is taking its business vision abroad, particularly to an untapped market.

It was Africa, a market avoided by most Korean design firms, that Serene has set its sights on.

The company, which specializes in sign boards, interior displays and color planning, entered Angola in 2005 to participate in a project to build the Talatona Convention Center and Hotel in Luanda, the country’s capital as a subcontractor for Namkwang Engineering & Constructions. 

Serene Design Co. CEO Kim Sung-geun Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald
Serene Design Co. CEO Kim Sung-geun Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald
Thanks to its reputation and excellent track record in getting contracts done on time, Serene was chosen as the subcontractor for the project with a tight schedule. It had to complete the project in just nine months for Angola to host an OPEC meeting in the hotel.

“Serene has so far been making headway as a small yet capable company in the local construction industry. We are known for being a little expensive but thorough,” Serene Co. CEO Kim Sung-geun said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Kim said he was delighted to enter an untapped market, since the company had been struggling in other overseas markets such as China and Vietnam, which were not that business-friendly to foreign enterprises.

Together with other firms, Serene successfully completed its project in Luanda despite harsh conditions such as scorching hot weather and poor facilities.

And thanks to the project, Serene was able to earn credibility from the local government, which began offering more projects to the company. Kim then shifted his focus to business in Africa.

The 50-year-old had never expected his business to grow this much when he first started off with nothing in his pockets. Indeed, Kim has never formally studied design.

“Born as the oldest son in a poor family in the countryside, my parents could not afford my college tuition. I felt the burden of having to earn money to support my family so I worked anywhere that paid me,” he said.

From working at factories to running a pub, Kim experienced failure after failure.

But when he turned 30, Kim said he realized that designing is something he always enjoyed and that he could have as a lifelong job.

“When I ran the pub, I made the pub’s signboard myself -- drawing the chicken and beer, plus connecting electricity to it. I thought I could do this for a living,” he said.

After learning the industry for some 10 years at local companies, Kim founded his own one-man business in 1997 at a garage in Seoul, which later became Serene.

He said nothing but his dedication and hard work were what enabled him to come this far.

“I hope my story can inspire and motivate young people. I feel really sorry for the younger generation these days who do not try hard enough to achieve what they want despite a better environment,” he said.

Kim also mentioned that the strengths of Serene -- its positive reputation and sophisticated works -- largely came from his ambitious young designers with good tastes.

“As a designer, you always have to find a balance between utility and artistry. Unlike most designers, my staff puts emphasis on the latter, saying that they want to create designs that suit each client’s needs, even though they might not be commercially widely appealing,” he said, adding that he also encourages such style.

Although the turnover rate for small design companies is high in the local market, Kim said he and his employees have been working together for a long time in a family-like atmosphere.

Ultimately, Kim intends to make the company a “design group,” where it can take care of everything that is needed in the design-related area.

“I’m picturing it as a combined PR agency where we cover interior designs to publication designs as well as their promotions. I’m trying to get this done in 10 years before I retire,” he said.

Kim revealed his after-retirement dream, saying that he desires to do volunteer work in underprivileged regions of the world such as Nepal and Africa. Even now, Kim regularly donates money to and engages in activities with the Korea-Nepal Social Welfare Solidarity with his employees.

“I’ve always admired Audrey Hepburn, not only for her beauty, but also her elder stage of life which she spent helping those in need. I want to be like her,” Kim said, pointing to the picture of the late actress pinned on the wall next to his desk.

By Koh Young-aah  (youngaah@heraldcorp.com)
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