The finance industry has always been the favorite playground of the world’s superrich leaders.
Although new promises of prosperity lurk in the much-thriving IT and mobile industries, one-fifth of the world’s wealthiest are financiers. In England, the top 5 percent of financiers monopolize about a quarter of the entire upper class’ wages.
There are also many in South Korea who became rich via the financial industry, but under a slightly different system than in the West.
This is because banks, which are at the heart of any financial industry, are virtually owned by the state here. The flow of capital is thus restricted by the government. Financial investment corporations also are strictly banned from making investments that exceed their owners’ capital ― a regulation aimed at maintaining decent capital-adequacy ratios at financial institutions that in the past have been prone to over-investing at their own risk.
Under the circumstances, money flows into insurance companies or financial investment firms that mainly sell products and services to the general public.
Currently at the top of the list of Korea’s 20 wealthiest in finance is Kyobo Life Insurance chairman Shin Chang-jae, who holds 33.78 percent of his company’s shares.
An estimate of his stock value exceeds 2.11 trillion won ($2.06 billion), but it may be worth a great deal more, taking into consideration that Kyobo Life is a nonlisted company.
Kyobo Life, however, is currently at a turning point.
Although Shin has been tight-lipped, industry insiders predict that Kyobo Life may move to acquire Woori Bank as part of its plan to become a merchant banking group.
This means there is a high possibility of the company going public and becoming a holding company in the process, some experts say.
If Shin is the representative billionaire in the domain of insurance, Mirae Asset Financial Group chairman Park Hyeon-joo leads the field of investment finance.
The value of Park’s shares is estimated to be nearing 2 trillion won. He owns almost half ― 48.69 percent ― of the unlisted Mirae Asset Capital, 48.6 percent of Mirae Asset Consulting and 60.19 percent of Mirae Asset Global Investments.
Although Park and Mirae Asset were responsible for Korea’s boom in fund investments in 2000, Park seems to have taken on a different persona.
This is because while Mirae Asset is still largely focused on stock investment funds, it has recently expanded its investment assets to include real estate funds and private equity funds as well.
The third-richest in South Korea’s financial industry is Cho Jeong-ho, Meritz Financial Group chairman since 2011 and the fourth son of late Hanjin Group chairman Cho Joong-hoon.
He possesses shares of both Meritz Securities and its holding company for a combined stock value of about 650 billion won.
Although he stepped down from his position as chairman last year, he regained management rights when he returned in March as a registered board member.
Meritz Financial Group first took off in 2005 when Meritz Fire & Marine Insurance ― formerly Tong Yang Fire Insurance ― separated from Hanjin Group.
Hyundai Marine & Fire Insurance chairman Chung Mong-yoon, the seventh son of late Hyundai honorary chairman Chung Ju-yung, is also a wealthy financier and owns roughly 19.4 million shares worth some 570 billion won.
Though Hyundai Marine & Fire ranks second among nonlife insurers, some argue that it needs to soon diversify and branch out its businesses.
Kim Nam-ho, a department head at Dongbu Steel, is the youngest wealthy shareholder of a financial corporation.
The eldest son of Dongbu Group chairman Kim Jun-ki, Kim Nam-ho got his MBA at Washington University before joining Dongbu Steel in 2009, where he is currently receiving management training.
Most of his 570 billion won in stocks is in the group’s core company, Dongbu Fire & Marine Insurance, of which he owns about 9.4 million shares. In terms of Dongbu Fire & Marine, he owns about 4 million shares more than his father.
Korea Investment Holdings chief executive Kim Nam-goo, the son of Dongwon Group chairman Kim Jae-chul, also holds about 11.2 million shares, or 420 billion won, of KIH.
He is known to have climbed his way to the top, starting out at the very bottom when he joined Tong Yang Securities in 1991 before acquiring and becoming CEO of KIH by 2005. He is revered as one of the most skilled and experienced CEOs in the local investment finance industry.
NICE Holdings chairman Kim Kwang-soo, on the other hand, is a financier who does things a bit differently.
He currently heads one of the few consumer and enterprise credit evaluation firms in Korea.
Kim kicked off his career as a cofounder of KH Vatec, a mobile parts manufacturer, before acquiring Seoul Electronics & Telecom.
Kim currently owns about 11.3 million shares of NICE Holdings as well as shares in various nonlisted companies.
At 10th place on the list is LIG Nex1’s vice chairman Koo Bon-sang.
Koo holds 4 million stocks or so in LIG Insurance and some shares in LIG Corp., together worth about 140 billion won.
But in reality, his wealth does not have much meaning at the moment due to the recent convictions for fraud of himself, his father (LIG Group chairman Koo Cha-won) and his younger brother (former LIG Engineering & Construction vice president Koo Bon-yeop).
Bidding for their shares will open on Monday.
Meanwhile, others such as the chairman of Shinyoung Securities, Korean Reinsurance and KTB Investment & Securities and the president of Daishin Securities are also major players in the financial industry, though the value of their shares does not exceed 100 billion won.
Waiting for Korea’s Warren Buffet
There is also one person in South Korea who is not on the list, who owns more shares in financial firms than anyone else. He is none other than Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee, the richest man in the country, who is also among the world’s 100 wealthiest people. Lee holds roughly 41 million shares of Samsung Life Insurance.
Despite being excluded from this particular list because finance is not the group’s primary business, the value of Lee’s shares in Samsung Life, is close to 3.9 trillion won.
Considering the scale of South Korea’s economy, the time may be ripe to start increasing the power of the local financial industry. The nation’s financial leaders will be crucial in helping such plans take off, and it is up to them to decide whether they will become recognized as world-renowned financiers such as Warren Buffett and George Soros.
By The Korea Herald Special Investigative Team
(Hong Seung-wan / Sung Yeon-jin / Do Hyun-jung / Bae Ji-sook / Kim Joo-hyun)