Shattering the glass ceiling in finance

By Korea Herald

Kwon, Korea’s first female bank CEO, recognized for devotion and hard work

  • Published : Feb 21, 2014 - 20:03
  • Updated : Feb 21, 2014 - 20:03
The country is now led by a female president and the number of women in high positions is growing in both politics and business.

But when it comes to banking ― an industry traditionally known for long hours and heavy workloads and at times still referred to as “no-woman territory” ― women, especially in higher ranks, are still scarce.

That is perhaps why when Kwon Seon-joo became the chief executive officer of Industrial Bank of Korea, it came as a big surprise to many, including Kwon herself.

“I expected women to eventually take up senior positions, but I didn’t expect I would be the one,” Kwon, who is now the first female CEO of a Korean bank, said in an interview with The Korea Herald. 

Kwon Seon-joo, CEO of Industrial Bank of Korea (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

It has been nearly two months since she took the helm of the state-owned bank, and yet a “chairman” nameplate still hangs outside of her office at the bank’s headquarters in downtown Seoul.

“I decided to keep it that way because I think the word ‘chairman’ is generally accepted,” Kwon said. “I also know the time is coming when using specifically male or female titles will be unnecessary.”

Kwon’s uniqueness does not end with her gender.

Unlike many of her colleagues in banking, she chose to stay at a single workplace for more than three decades.

“Working in a bank can be stressful but I try to be positive, and this optimism has allowed me to remain in my place.”

Her passion has also helped drive her perseverance.

To this day, customer meetings still thrill her because she feels that she learns something new and different every time.

An influential woman in banking

Kwon was recently recognized for her work and vision when she was included in Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most influential women in business. Ranked 47th, she is the only Korean on the list.

“I am proud to be on the list, but I think it was not because of my personal skills but because of IBK’s global influence,” was the modest reply she gave.

Some now expect Kwon’s presence to pave the way for more women to join the senior ranks.

Kwon agreed that banks’ boardrooms need more women, but expected it to take several more years before another woman becomes CEO of a bank here.

“There needs to be more vice presidents and senior officials before we see a woman CEO,” she said.

IBK has been running 10 nursery schools and plans to provide more free child care services for employees.

“It will take more than this. We need to change our social awareness toward gender,” the banker said.

Working towards smoother communication 

One of the 57-year-old CEO’s priorities is to facilitate communication between employees and also with customers.

The first thing she did after becoming CEO was to pass on her mobile phone number to all employees.

“I try to offer an answer to all the questions that come my way. Even on the weekends,” she said with a laugh.

Another change she has brought to IBK is holding regular breakfast meetings with clients.

“I promised myself that I would meet more customers than any other bank CEO,” Kwon said.

But the challenges remain.

On top of the pressure of being the first female CEO, she has to lead some 12,900 employees who are looking at her to guide the bank of the slump in the saturated banking industry.

IBK Bank, in particular, saw its earnings for 2013 decline 27.5 percent from a year earlier on a squeezed interest margin.

Its net income amounted to 812 billion won ($755 million) last year, compared with 1.12 trillion won the previous year.

Looking for new opportunities abroad

To create new business opportunities, the banker is looking toward more expansion in overseas markets.

IBK currently has 22 overseas branches in eight countries and a network with 14 other foreign banks. The CEO said the bank is planning to establish more overseas branches and offices ― branches in China and India, as well as more offices in Indonesia and Cambodia within the year.

But the purpose, she added, is to accompany Korean companies and provide them with necessary financial services overseas.

Unlike many of its local rivals, IBK has a relatively small retail bank and is more focused on financing small and medium-sized firms than big corporate clients.

“Our duty of offering financial resources for the country’s small and medium-sized companies will remain unchanged,” she added. 

Profile of Kwon Seon-joo

● Kwon took office as chairwoman and CEO of Industrial Bank of Korea in December 2013.

● She joined IBK in 1978 after graduating from Yonsei University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.

● Kwon has held various positions in several departments such as international trade business, risk management and credit cards. She also served as senior executive vice president.

By Oh Kyu-wook (