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[Kim Ji-hyun] Unraveling the family ties

From the day we are born, we are somewhat enlisted with the task of perpetuating the human race. 

This task isn’t limited to human lives, but to every entity that has a place in society, including companies. It’s obvious that in order for the economy to keep rolling, all corporations need successors to carry on the business.

Recently, we saw Masayoshi Son ― known also by his Korean name Son Jeong-ui ― pick such a person to run his multibillion-dollar enterprise.

Son has frequently made headlines with his unconventional business decisions, but his latest decision to select a former Google executive to run SoftBank did come as a surprise to some, especially to many Koreans who are used to seeing companies get handed down to family members.

Son not only has kids of his own, but he also a brother who happens to be in the business of IT, currently heading a couple of enterprises including GungHo, a mobile gaming company.

Instead, Son set his sights on Nikesh Arora, formerly the chief business officer of Google.

The Japanese billionaire said he sees Arora as the man who can navigate the tougher times that may lie ahead for SoftBank. The company recently said it posted a record net profit for the fifth consecutive year, but also declined to forecast any future earnings.

So I asked myself, how many companies in Korea would do what Son had done? He has just chosen an unrelated man to head a company he has built from scratch. Koreans would say he chose a “nam,” which means stranger in Korean.

I don’t know if Lee Jay-yong, the only son of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, is qualified to inherit the Samsung empire, but is there a chance that the elder Lee would have considered someone else even if he felt his son did not measure up?

The importance of a successor is … well, I doubt we even need to go into it, but a few powerful and sometimes controversial ones to come to mind.

Steve Ballmer, Jeffrey Immelt and Carly Fiorina are just some of the best-known examples.

Then again, there are some actually born into their jobs, literally conceived to become a successor: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

I admit this young man faced challenges from the get-go, having inherited one of the most reclusive nations in the world that seems to be slowly disintegrating, but one does imagine how drastically different things would be for the Korean Peninsula if one of the most controversial successors in the world had just a little more sense.

Shifting back to South Korea, it is not rare to see companies ―both big and small ― bequeathing their businesses to kin or at least next of kin.

Perhaps it is a cultural thing. Family, or people who can be considered family, is one of the most important aspects of Korean life. But strictly speaking, it’s less because of who they are, and more about putting them down as blood allies in life.

As far as I can tell, this does not seem to be the case for Japan.

Yes, businesses will be handed down to second and third generations. But the way people generally treat other in Tokyo, to me, shows more respect toward those whom you are not related to ― the perfect “nam.”

Not only are they polite, but they genuinely seem to be very concerned about not causing any inconvenience to anyone other than themselves, even to people they would probably never lay their eyes on again.

This is a big difference from the society I was used to in Korea.

I remember once when I was moonlighting for an English broadcaster here and had to invite a researcher from a think tank for an interview.

It was a scorching hot summer day in June, and he got lost but I couldn’t go out to greet him because I was busy too. Another staff member greeted him at the entrance but he got so upset at not having been escorted that he left without doing the interview.

I talked to my father about it, and surprise, surprise, he knew this man. One thing led to another and I called him up and apologized again, and he was suddenly very understanding about the whole episode.

For me, it was perplexing how actions he had criticized just days ago could be so easily forgiven after it turned out I was associated with someone he knew.

But that is the way things get done in Korea. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Your friend is mine, are we but “nam?” These are all slogans that have actually been publicly used by politicians.

This is why it may be difficult to understand how a man could build up an enterprise, only to give it to someone who has no blood relation.

But since that someone in this case has wowed the world over and over again with his brilliant entrepreneurship, I am willing to bet Masayoshi-san is shrewd enough to know that he is doing.

Many eyes ― including those of some of the conglomerates here ― will be watching to see if the carefully chosen successor can live up to the standards, or if in the end, family ties are the only answer. 

By Kim Ji-hyun 

Kim Ji-hyun is The Korea Herald’s Tokyo correspondent. ― Ed.
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