One certainty with business is that it’s never short of metaphors related to war and to fighting. How appropriate then that U.S business consultant and South Korea specialist, Don Southerton, was first exposed to Korea through its martial arts in the early 1970s while a university student.
Southerton would later go on to earn a black belt, instruct West Point cadets in martial arts and, in 2013, be inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame.
Of course, his business connection to Korea flourished along the way as well.
In 2003 he founded Bridging Culture Worldwide, a Colorado based firm that consults South Korea-based companies operating internationally, as well as companies looking to tap into the Korean market. His firm’s client list includes automotive giants Hyundai and Kia, and he also served as advisor to the developer Gale International and Korea’s mega-urban development “City of the Future” Songdo International Business District.
Along with consulting, Southerton has authored 13 books on topics related to entrepreneurialism and to South Korea –including his most recent book Korea Perspectives, which offers insight into the nature of the Korean workplace.
Branding in Asia recently caught up with Southerton at his office in Golden, Colorado.
How did you first become interested in Korea?
My passion for Korea reaches back to college in the early 1970s and the study of traditional Korean martial arts. In the 1980s, a deeper cultural interest grew with Korean-Americans in my employ, as well as, serving as an instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I subsequently traveled to Korea, which allowed first-hand insights into the Culture.
Returning to Academia in 2000, my focus turned to US-Korean business and corporate culture. In 2003 I formed Bridging Culture Worldwide and began working extensively with Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors—in the U.S, globally, and in Korea. Over time I have supported most of the major Chaebol, in addition to Western firms entering the Korean market.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the business culture in Korea over the years?
For starters, Change is a constant within the Korean companies. As for corporate culture, Korean companies have found that as they expanded operations overseas the rigid norms and practices that worked well domestically needed to be adapted to local Western markets.
In turn, this gap in cultures is well recognized by HQ teams who are in daily interactions with the West. Most recently, the leading Korean brands have crafted more global savvy corporate visions, core values and communications to reflect their international footprint and diverse workforce. In some cases, I have developed and shared these programs worldwide.
From a cultural perspective, the Korean approach to business and projects differs from the West. Agreements can be seen as more of a roadmap versus a detailed blueprint.
What were some of your early difficulties and successes when you started working with Korean businesses?
One of the early difficulties I encountered was in situations when tensions had elevated between Korean and western teams. This was often a culture clash. Fortunately, senior leadership recognized support was needed. Over time through mentoring and training the relationships were strengthened as greater understanding and channels for communicating issues developed between teams.
You’ve said that Korea is the place for companies to start before moving into neighboring markets like China and Japan. Can you talk about that?
International market entry can be a huge challenge for Western brands looking at new opportunities. I have long seen Korea as providing a sound entry point for further expansion into China, Japan, India and Vietnam. Ever growing, Korean companies have divisions in these countries and have strong international business networks and supply chains. Options include partnering in a Joint Venture or Licensing Agreement with local Korean firm, first for Korea, and then for a rollout across East Asia.
Hyundai is gunning for the luxury market. While the automaker has done a great job escaping the perception as a discount brand, how hard is it and what steps are they taking to make the jump to luxury brand?
First, both Hyundai and sister company Kia Motors have done an amazing job transforming their brands. This began with an obsession with quality, which has now resulted in Kia Motors ranking Number 1 in J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey and Hyundai coming in 3rd among all car brands, just behind Porsche. Both Korean car companies have also made significant strides in their design and a move upmarket in their lineup. Turning to the future, the launch of the standalone Genesis luxury brand allows the carmaker to further differentiate from core Hyundai and tap new premium markets.
This younger generation of Koreans is less concerned about ideology and more pragmatic. Their primary concern is finding a job. They are also a strong “gotta have it” consumer class.
What are some of the biggest challenges foreign businesses face trying to establish themselves in the Korean marketplace?
As I mention above partnering with an established Korean firm can be sound market entry strategy. The challenge is always finding the right partner, a process that can take time. The key is building a collaborative relationship. From a cultural perspective, the Korean approach to business and projects differs from the West. Agreements can be seen as more of a roadmap versus a detailed blueprint.
Having said this, establishing trust through strong relationships between the Korean and Western organizations is essential to work through the issues and come to solutions. Frankly, this has been role—finding workarounds and alternatives.
Looking to the new generation of Koreans, what do you view as being the major challenges when compared to their parents’ generation?
I like to describe Generations in Korea as defined by shared experiences rather than by a specific number of years, and in particular, the New Generation or Shinsedae.
Many of this group have studied abroad, worked some of their careers on overseas support and projects, are fluent in English and often another language or two, and have a global perspective.
This group grew up after the 1997 economic meltdown in Asia, which strongly impacted South Korean culture. This younger generation of Koreans is less concerned about ideology and more pragmatic. Their primary concern is finding a job. They are also a strong “gotta have it” consumer class.
Regarding the workplace, once a lifetime dream of their parents to work for one of the top Groups is changing. In my work with teams from major Groups and with two recent Korean startups, in comparison, I see the startups offering more flexible work hours and an opportunity for employees to express themselves and impact decisions.
You can reach Don Southerton at www.bridgingculture.com