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‘The Tall Man’ and the globalization of Hyundai Construction

Hotel architect Bill Swank opens chaebol to West through trustworthy management

By the mid-1970s, Hyundai Group, Korea’s leading industrial conglomerate, was expanding their construction and engineering efforts to international projects.

With new Middle East projects such as the Arab Shipbuilding & Repair Yard and the Diplomatic Hotel, both in Bahrain, and the Jubail Industrial Harbor project in Saudi Arabia, Hyundai’s construction division needed additional technical support.

In particular, there was a need for an in-house Western architect ― and one with experience in luxury hotel project management. They would turn to American architect Bill Swank, Sr.

Swank’s career within Hyundai closely parallels the rise of the conglomerate outside Korea and demonstrates his contribution toward its growth.

Swank’s working relationships and sway were not only with the international Hyundai teams but also extended to co-worker Lee Myung-bak who would rise from the ranks of Hyundai Construction to become president of South Korea. Furthermore, Swank’s frankness and opinion were respected up the leadership chain to the Hyundai founder and chairman Chung Ju-yung. Swank recalls, “I was called the ‘tall man’ by the chairman who would ask, ‘Where is the tall man?’” Over time, the American’s contributions came to be well respected.

Swank first encountered Hyundai in 1974 while working as the architect for the developers of the Diplomat Hotel in Bahrain. Swank employed Hyundai as the supplier for the steelwork on the hotel. Swank noted, “I was impressed with the Koreans and in particular Hyundai’s strong work ethics.”

The feelings must have been mutual since Hyundai soon recruited him to assist with their new projects and he and his family relocated to Seoul. At the time he was the only non-Korean officer stationed at HECCO headquarters there.

Although hired as an architect, Swank’s ability to work through challenges in any business area resulted in the American being relied upon more and more for his project management skills. Swank points out, “I quickly recognized that one of the characteristics of Hyundai teams and management was the ability to constantly adapt to new roles.” This certainly was the case with Swank as he was given constantly changing assignments that varied in size and scope. He further notes, “One day we might be reviewing a proposal for a single building and the next for a citywide construction project.”

The American’s role continued to evolve in tandem with the company’s expanding overseas operations. As Hyundai boldly tackled new projects well beyond their previous experience ― and following the “can do” and “even if it’s impossible” mindset ― issues surfaced. In turn, Swank was dispatched from Saudi Arabia to St. Louis, Missouri, to troubleshoot and resolve everything from lagging construction projects to securing a constant supply from a manufacturer of windows.

On more than one occasion when chairman Chung Ju-yung entered the Hyundai HQ’s building en route to his office and saw Swank, the chairman would motion for the lone American to accompany him in the private elevator to discuss progress or solicit a frank opinion. Questions from the chairman varied from international to domestic. For example, Swank might be asked if he thought Hyundai should produce its own paint or manufacture elevators.

By 1978 and with ever-growing confidence in his ability and contributions, Hyundai asked Swank to assist with the Doha Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center project being built in Qatar. Tension was running high between Hyundai and the developers. Now seen as the “go to” and “can do” person within the organization, Swank was given control over the hotel construction, which appeased the developer. In typical “can do” fashion, the hotel was completed in 1980.

The next assignment from Hyundai for Swank would be an even more demanding three-hotel complex in Singapore. The project began in March 1981 and included the Oriental Hotel, the Pan Pacific Hotel and the Marina Mandarin. The size and scale of construction required Swank as the project manager to reside in Singapore.

Upon completion of the hotel project and with Chung Ju-yung’s desire for more projects in the U.S., Swank moved back to America. Soon after with new opportunities surfacing, Swank left Hyundai and returned to local hotel construction in southern California.

To conclude, Bill Swank respected Hyundai traits and also embodied them. He became a dedicated and committed company man. One can sense that he, like many of the Korean team, found inspiration in the Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung’s personal values and reputation for an iron will, determination, and a “can-do” spirit where “even the impossible was possible.”

Swank summarizes, “I was injected into all kinds of situations. ... My goal was to support the team and strive for success. I always reported up the chain. (We) needed strong executive support in order to be effective. (I) respected the abilities of the team.”

As we look at Hyundai in 2013, although we find a much different variety of companies, we still see that they are integrated well globally. Hyundai companies’ overseas successes are not without the support of an ever-growing team of Westerners. One can surmise that Swank’s work and commitment at Hyundai encouraged its firms to be more open to recruiting foreign staff.

Bill Swank, Sr., lives on a ranch in Mountain Center, California. He is still actively involved in local land and hotel development. 
Don Southerton
Don Southerton

By Don Southerton

Don Southerton has authored publications on the Korean auto industry, new urbanism, entrepreneurialism and early U.S.-Korean business ventures. He heads Bridging Culture Worldwide, which provides strategy, consulting and training to Korea-based global business. The opinions reflected in the article are his own. ― Ed.