Thinking out of the box
How a Korean chalks up immense success in Canada
This is the first of a series highlighting successful ethnic Korean entrepreneurs overseas. The series was supported by such private and public entities as e-Bay Korea, JTI Korea, Korea Post and World OKTA. ― ED.
By Kim Tae-gyu
Lee Young-hyun managed to cross the Pacific Ocean back in 1966 with the ambitious goal of becoming a world-famous ice hockey player in Canada, the powerhouse in the winter sports.
He was quite good at ice hockey in a Korean high school but the move to Canada proved to be an ill-fated decision because an Asian whose weight was about just 65 kilograms could not take on Westerners, who weighed almost double of him.
It did not take long for Lee to realize his weak competitiveness on the ice and the crestfallen Korean killed time at a boarding house whose roof leaked one day in 1967.
Lee made a phone call for the leaky roof to be repaired and learned that it could only be done the following day, something he could not accept at the time.
``When I heard that the serviceman would be at my home the next day, I instantly thought of a business opportunity instead of getting angry,’’ Lee said in a recent interview with Business Focus.
``Back then, I thought up order-today-delivery-today, which I called OTDT. And such an approach has been one of my cornerstone assets in doing business over the past decades.’’
Such a unique approach has been the Crown Jewel for Lee, which helped him to become a self-made businessman who once led a global organization of successful Korean merchants ― the World Federation of Overseas Korean Traders Association (World OKTA).
After giving up a career on the link, Lee studied the English literature at the Ryerson University and after graduation garnered a decent job at IMB.
But entrepreneurship ingrained in his DNA did not allow him to dwell on a company made by others ― he quitted the good job in just a few months and decided to do his own business.
His maneuver was to create a company in 1971 named Young Lee Trading, which is supposed to import merely made-in-Korea products so as to sell them in North America.
The problem was that Korea was in the backwaters of the global economy and as a result, there were few items made in the poor country to gain attention of Canadian consumers.
His solution was to think out of the box and poured over ways how to reinvent needs for traditional Korean products and came up with a creative idea on a few items such as chamber pots and wash boards.
Koreans tended to use a bowl-shaped container with a handle and a lid, which was kept in the bedroom used as a urinal at night before present flush toilets were introduced.
While traveling Korea’s traditional markets, Lee watched the piss pots on sales in bulk at a price tag of at around $2 per pop. He snapped up a total of 850 and wrapped them up with quality boxes.
The well-packed chamber pots hit shelves of Canadian stores to sell as candy boxes at $189 and the innovative products won the hearts and minds of users there who had no idea on the original purpose of the “candy boxes.”
His second grand slam was wash boards, which were available at around half a dollar in Korea in the 1970s. He marketed them as Korean wooden crafts at Canadian department stores at high prices.
Still, many of them would be demonstrated in Canadian households whose owners would firmly believe that they are Oriental masterpieces, not ones for washing clothes.
Order today delivery today
His experiences of failing to make a leaky roof fixed on a rainy day in the late 1960s offered fresh business opportunities to Lee, who tried to sell Samsung’s cameras in Canada in the late 1980s.
At the time, the Canadian camera market was dominated by Japanese players like Cannon, which has boasted of decades of successful track records there. Samsung was simply no match as a substantial proportion of its products didn’t work properly.
Lee tried to dethrone the perennial business bellwethers to little avail but his keen eyes read some chasms in the mind of end users _ they were discontent with the long service periods of Japanese companies.
After realizing it took almost half a month for Canon and other Japanese firms to repair cameras, Lee promised that Samsung will fix its products at the very day of requests.
In case, customers visit the company in person, he pledged to do the jobs at just half an hour, which even his lieutenants labeled as “implausible.”
Yet, Lee forged ahead with the idea and suffered great financial damages due to the policy. It almost took 10 years and great amount of funds for the step to bear fruit.
In the late 1990s, customers started buying the ideas of order-today-delivery-today of Samsung and Young Lee Trading, which carved out a double digit market share. In 2002, they nudged past Canon to become an industry leader.
Lee’s strategy for market supremacy in digital cameras was not limited to just after services. He also tried to find niche markets, which his competitors didn’t mull over.
``I asked my officials to think about selling digital cameras at service stations and the requests met great uproars because they thought gas stations were just the place of filling gas for cars,’’ Lee recollected.
``However, once digital cameras hit filling stations, motorists started picking up them en masse so that up to 60,000 items were sold a year in gas stations alone.’’
How to think different
Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs has initiated the Think Different campaign to ask its employees to look things with different viewpoints, or the very source of innovations at the U.S. firm.
However, it is one thing to stress that youngsters should think out of the box to be successful and it is another to learn how to do so ― people cannot get the knacks of Jobs-like insights of thinking differently overnight.
Lee gave an advice that youngsters are required to feel the sense of urgency. Otherwise, the chances that they weed out prejudices and gain successes are one in googolplex, according to the entrepreneur.
``Those who are free from stereotypes can think differently. To be free from stereotypes, youngsters should experience rock bottoms of the life through earning bread on their own without depending on their parents,’’ Lee said.
``Without facing such difficulties head-on, people are inclined not to look things with totally different perspectives. Instead of trying to live an easy life, youngsters need to happily enjoy hard times.’’
While turning Young Lee Trading as one of the most successful Canadian firms operated by Koreans, Lee confessed that he tried to commit suicides three times due to financial distresses.
Yet, he managed to grapple with the hardships and Lee said that the difficulties were actually a blessing in disguise, which made him stronger in the world of the businesses.
In 2007, Young Lee Trading chalked up a record turnover of about $120 million. The figure somewhat went down thereafter due to the global financial crisis but the entity fares well.
One policy that the 69-year-old has abided by throughout his entrepreneurial career is that Young Lee Trading will sell only made-in-Korea products, a way that he says is expressing patriotism.
His rationale: under the Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century, patriots were those who fought against Japan to achieve independence. In comparison, today’s patriots are those who make Korea and its people rich.
``In the 1970s, Korea has few items to sell overseas and people hardly know much about Korea. Accordingly, I almost begged consumers to buy Korean products,’’ he recollected.
``Things have abruptly changed by now as the country churns out a lot of good merchandise. I strongly recommend youngsters to follow my suit to be patriots of the future.’’
To spread his philosophy, Lee has vehemently tried to infuse entrepreneurship to ethnic Koreans across the world but listening to his lectures is not a bowl of cherries.
He does not sugarcoat situations where young Koreans suffer ― the rising youth unemployment rates and their lack of guts to take risks to become a big figure.
In fact, he attempts to shock the audience.
``A collegian asked me whether the life is about money and I replied that he did not deserve asking the question because he did not succeed yet,’’ Lee said.
``I understood why he asked the question but I wanted to give a wakeup call to him. My reply would be a dagger to his heart and my mission is to wake him up so that he will be able to start his business and become rich through the shocks.’’
World OKTA is an organization composed of ethnic Koreans, who are working in the global scenes. Established in 1981, the Seoul-based entity currently has about 6,500 members across the world.
From the very beginning, Lee has put forth great efforts for the outfit geared toward promoting Korea’s cross-border trades as well as raising the country’s awareness in offshore markets.
Lee took charge of World OKTA in 2002 for two years and one of his legacies is a project of nurturing next-generation Korean merchants, which was launched in 2002.
During the past decade, more than 12,000 young ethnic Koreans have gone through the three-month programs of perfecting their command of Korean and learning knacks in business.
After the annual event, which is offered free of charges, the participants are supposed to sell products of Korea’s small- and medium-sized enterprises at their nations.
In other words, it is an initiative of duplicating other Lee Young-hyun’s worldwide.
``We have to instill our spirit to second- and third-generation Koreans overseas. Hence, they are required to speak Korean in order to take part in our program,’’ he said.
``Capitalizing their network at each country, they would be able to become rich through selling Korean products and Korea gains evangelists of its products at every corner of the world markets.’’
Still, Lee is one of most proactive lecturers in the yearly gatherings, which take place in dozens of countries in the summer.
The program, officially named the World OKTA Future Leadership Academy, aims to take full advantage of the country’s competitive edge, for example the information technology areas.
The major markets of developed countries are already crowded by a number of established powerhouses but there exist niche markets where nimble players can carve out some shares.
Organizers of the leadership academy believe that ethnic Koreans with knowledge on their residing places would be able to find the niche markets to introduce Korean companies to them through the advanced info-tech infrastructures here.