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Hyundai founder’s saga inspires beyond generation

Following is the first in a three-part story featuring the late Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung’s leadership and his management philosophy on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth. ― Ed.

As the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai empire, draws near, a zeal to learn from his leadership is building across generations in Korea, whose economic vitality is weakening due to low growth and an aging population. 

The books published to reevaluate his achievements and leadership have ranked highly on bestseller lists this month. 

“Chung Ju-yung Is Still Alive,” by Kim Moon-hyun, former public relations head at Hyundai Heavy Industries, is one such book highlighting the leadership of the nation’s most inspirational business leader. 

Chung Ju-yung
Chung Ju-yung

As the writer pointed out in his book, Chung, who had built one of the nation’s top conglomerates from scratch over three decades, experienced a comprehensive spectrum in his career when compared to other business leaders in modern Korean history. He was not only a businessman, but also a politician, a social reformer and a messenger for peace on the Korean Peninsula. 

“The late Chung is a visionary leader who made the impossible possible. His can-do spirit (called ‘candoism’ in his book) influences people of all time who face challenges,” he said. 

He was a leader who trusted the power of action and experience more than knowledge and words. 

Chung is remembered as a man of action through his famous quote: “Have you ever tried this?’’

Based on his observations of Hyundai’s late honorary chairman in the 1980s and 1990s, the writer Kim summarizes the essence of Chung’s leadership with five C’s: challenge, credibility, “candoism,” creativity and commitment. 

Alongside the nation’s economic development from the 1960s after the Korean War, the Hyundai founder scaled up the company by creating something from nothing, armed with business insight, passion and a creative solution. “He believed that there is an opportunity in the road not taken,” Kim said in his book.

There were a number of anecdotes in different sectors in which Chung exerted his leadership skills with full potential to make the impossible possible. 

In the business scene, he completed the project to build the nation’s longest highway connecting Seoul and Busan, the artery of Korea’s economic development, without overseas assistance partners or major accidents, in 1970. 

Hyundai’s entry into the shipbuilding industry is another case showing how Chung made things happen. Despite strong opposition inside and outside the company, Chung decided to enter the shipbuilding business in the 1970s following his success in the construction sector. 

The biggest challenge to realize his new goal was to finance the first shipyard construction project. To resolve the issue, he approached U.K.-based bank Barclays with a creative idea. He persuaded the lender by presenting a 500 won note with a picture of an ironclad warship made in the 16th century as proof of Korea’s ability to build ships. 

In the 1980s, he carried out a massive land reclamation project in Seosan, South Chungcheong Province, to help the farming industry. Facing the challenge of blocking the tidal flow during construction, which required 200,000 tons of rock, he had a creative idea and used an oil tanker from Hyundai’s shipyard to block the tide. 

Beyond the corporate sector, Chung continued to prove a lot of people wrong. Beating the dominant pessimism, he attracted the 1988 Summer Olympics over Japan in 1981. He is said to have enthusiastically interacted with international figures to convince them that Korea had the ability to host the international sports event. He had built an extensive overseas network, while doing business abroad and working as the chairman of the FKI, the big business lobbying group, between 1977 and 1987.

Chung was not invincible. He ran in the 1992 presidential election, but was defeated. However, he didn’t take the result as a failure, putting more value on his challenge to politics.

“He was a man who went his own way with all his might in silence,” Chung Mong-joon, the sixth son of the late Chung, said during the academic symposium on Asan’s leadership. The event was held at the Hyatt Hotel on Monday to commemorate the 100th birthday of the Hyundai founder. 

The Asan Foundation, which Chung founded in 1977 to give back to society, will continue the study on Chung’s leadership for the next generation. 

By Seo Jee-yeon (jyseo@heraldcorp.com)
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