This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).
Eric Kim had only been to China once before CKGSB to play golf.
After working for several years for private equity firms in Seoul, he was considering a career change. Most of his friends were doing MBA programs in the US—at Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford. At the time, CKGSB wasn’t too well known in South Korea.
But Eric wanted to do something different. China had become South Korea’s number one trade partner.
And Eric started hearing more about the ‘Harvard of China’—about a one-year MBA program where he could study and network, not just with his fellow Koreans, but with internationals and top-level Chinese executives.
Eric’s early years were an idyllic portrait of countryside life on the southern tip of South Korea—swimming, fishing, playing baseball, climbing mountains, fresh air and good friends.
Then, in the late 1980s, industrialization made its unforgiving advance. Aged 11, Eric and his family were forced out of their homes by the government and relocated north to Daegu, a city with over 2.5 million residents. Today, Eric’s hometown doesn’t exist—it’s underwater, flooded by a government-built dam.
After moving to Daegu, Eric’s family had to downsize—his father set up a small grocery shop. Eric’s school in the countryside had fewer than 200 pupils. His new school in the city had 4,000, with 60 students in each class.
At first, Eric was angry about the move. But, slowly, after the initial shock wore off, he began to adapt to city life.
As a teenager, he moved to study business administration at Seoul National University. He then joined the Korean Air Force for 14 months of compulsory service. Training as an officer, he began to hone his leadership and management skills for the first time.
“The first stage of military training was very tough,” Eric recalls. “We got up every day at 6am. Sometimes, we ran 40 miles up mountains carrying very little water. 100 of us did that for almost four months.
“After that, when I became a lieutenant, there were still challenges. I found one guy was abusing his power, but nobody seemed to care. I decided to do something about it and expose his abuse. I had around seven soldiers under me, and I gained a lot of experience as a leader.”
After the Air Force, Eric moved into finance and private equity, working for a Moody’s affiliate in Seoul. But the Air Force had fed Eric’s appetite for adventure and more senior leadership roles. Around that time, he decided to take the leap and pursue an MBA at CKGSB.
Eric knew nothing about China growing up. His first China education was from his Chinese classmates at CKGSB: living in dorms, cooking for each other, playing tennis, traveling across Sichuan province, and staying up late drinking Chinese tea.
Through tennis, Eric met students on CKGSB’s Executive MBA program—a breeding ground for the Chinese business elite. Soon, he was dining in the homes of some of China’s leading entrepreneurs, and learning more about Chinese business culture at the same time.
“China and Korea are very different,” Eric muses. “Koreans are very hot-tempered people. In China, people are calmer but, in business situations, they make important decisions fast.
“And then, in Korea, there’s a strict hierarchy system. Even if you do well, promotions take a long time. In China, if you do well, they promote you very quickly—all of my Chinese classmates are VPs or CEOs.
After his MBA, Eric landed a management job at a leading healthcare group in Seoul.
“They saw I could do business in China, so they hired me with a good position and salary. I was able to meet with top managers and chairmen who wanted to talk to me about business in China— without CKGSB, I couldn’t have done that,” he explains.
Today, Eric sits on the board of directors and heads up the corporate strategy department at a major food manufacturer in South Korea. His phonebook is jam-packed with C-suite contacts. That network, gained at CKGSB, helped him land his current job—a famous alumnus friend from CKGSB recommended him for the position last year.
“I was lucky,” he says, modestly. “Without his help, I couldn’t have become a board member. I met with the CEO of the company at the time and, although there were various candidates, he liked me and he liked my China knowledge.
“Those were the best things about CKGSB—the friendships I made and the help I got doing business in Korea and China.”
It’s a tough gig, but Eric enjoys it. He leaves his home at 6am every morning to go to work. In rush hour traffic, it can take over an hour and a half to drive to his office in downtown Seoul.
One day, with the contacts he has, he thinks he might start a business of his own. Even now, Eric meets up with his Chinese classmates from CKGSB on a regular basis.
“Leading in a company is much more difficult than leading in the military—in the military, following orders is compulsory!” he smiles. “In a company, persuasion is important—listening to different opinions, and making decisions together.
“It’s a difficult job, but I relax and stay calm by drinking tea—the Chinese culture I learned from my friends at CKGSB.”
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