If you haven’t yet heard of the Seoul-based professional kitchen appliance brand, Dipo Induction, chances are you soon will. The two-decade-old company is looking to ride the global trend of creating eco-friendly products in an effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
For many brands, there is no longer a choice, as some of the world’s largest economies have already enacted legislation to address global warming. In the United States and in Europe for example, there are more and more cities enacting bans on new building construction from offering natural gas. This will have an especially big impact on professional kitchens, many of which are turning to induction technology which consumes a fraction of the energy used by traditional cooking methods.
Though the technology is actually nothing new – it was even featured at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair – the technology is still dwarfed by the use of traditional cooking methods. An even larger issue facing induction brands is an uneducated market that’s really not sure what induction actually is.
While induction appliances have gained traction in Asia, and in Europe, it has yet to catch on in the U.S. According to a report by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, in 2019 only one percent of stoves in the US are induction.
We recently caught up with Jinsook Hur, the Founder, and CEO of Dipo Induction, a family-run company that’s riding the wave of induction technology brands. Just last month no less than five major media outlets, including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, wrote about the increasing trend of both home and professional kitchens making the move to induction.
Jinsook, a single mother who started the company in the early 90s, is on a mission to become yet another South Korean brand to establish itself on the world stage.
What inspired you to start Dipo Induction?
Actually, I came on with Dipo as an investor when my daughter was born 29 years ago. We originally launched as a motor driver company, but at that time I found that the original technology wasn’t well-suited for the market.
Later, along with my partner, an engineer, Dipo started to develop induction technology for a Japanese company that approached us in the late ’90s. At that time, induction technology was in the very early stages for many countries and largely unknown in professional kitchens, but I saw the opportunity and potential and was determined to grow the business.
I started to learn more about using induction for cooking and I focused on the professional kitchen equipment market, rather than the home market, because I thought we had a strong point in terms of technology and that would appeal to professionals chefs.
Since induction was still relatively unknown in the South Korean market, it was difficult for me to study it and learn more about how to promote it. At the time there were only a handful of induction companies in the world vying for the commercial equipment market, but most were cost-prohibitive to small businesses. So, I found that there was a niche where we could compete with lower prices and superior technology.
“Developing a product is much more different than developing a brand. Actually, the product development part of the business was easy, but branding and marketing and keeping the company in the public eye was a totally different story.”
Over time I gained a better understanding of the market, especially the professional kitchen in restaurants. What I found was that the staff in many of these kitchens were working in very difficult conditions with very high heat and fumes from cooking with traditional methods which caused headaches as well as body fatigue. I was very touched by their situation and wanted to do what I could to help them by upgrading their technology to induction which produces very little heat and is much safer than traditional gas or electric element cooking methods.
At the time I read the book, Hidden Champions, by Hermann Simon. It made me realize that this could be a global business, and if we could develop our heavy-duty product line up for professional kitchens, then I believed Dipo would emerge as a strong global brand.
So, I focused on the professional cooking equipment market. After several years passed, it took time for me to fully understand this market as much as I wanted to, so I visited several conventions and exhibitions and I tried to understand the requirements of not only chefs but also appliance dealers and industrial players.
I found that the products that were available were not meeting the needs of consumers. I thought if I solve the problems I heard from staff in the kitchen, then that product design would work in the market.
A driving factor for me, along with making life better for kitchen staff was that it was also much better for the environment than traditional cooking methods.
We went on to develop the first induction griddle, induction fryer, induction rice cooker, and induction kettle. All of these were created for the first time in the world and offered professional kitchens the chance to increase safety, while at the same time being vastly more eco-friendly.
All of this inspired me to focus on this market and, more importantly, solve people’s problems.
When building the brand in a market that required a great deal of education, what were some of the biggest lessons you learned?
Developing a product is much more different than developing a brand. Actually, the product development part of the business was easy, but branding and marketing and keeping the company in the public eye was a totally different story.
From the beginning, I started the company knowing that I had to understand our customers and genuinely love them, otherwise I had no reason to develop new technology that would help make their jobs easier. I’ve always believed if you don’t love your customers you cannot develop the right products or even understand their needs – even the needs they don’t even know they have.
I continue to believe if I don’t care about my customers, how can I care about doing marketing, product development, or anything else? Keeping that in mind and that passion and feeling for customers was an essential part of the marketing and branding.
“Some brands look at marketing as kind of a mechanical process, using social media or advertising, or other channels to spread their message. When I started I was not a specialist in marketing, but I understood that the brand had to be one that customers could trust and eventually come to love.”
Some brands look at marketing as kind of a mechanical process, using social media or advertising, or other channels to spread their message. When I started I was not a specialist in marketing, but I understood that the brand had to be one that customers could trust and eventually come to love.
In the early stages of my business, when I visited current or potential customers, I always focused on having strong relationships with them.
Prior to starting Dipo, you owned a pharmacy. What were some things you had to learn when transitioning to an industry that was completely unrelated?
When I was in university, I studied chemistry, physics, biology, and genetics. Basically, I learned a lot about different sciences in my major, so it was actually great when applying basic science to product development.
I struggled at first to understand what customers needed which also made it difficult to understand the advertising and marketing strategies. The most difficult thing was working with dealers and learning how to expand in the market because my personality was never much of the talkative salesperson type.
How did you overcome those challenges?
It took a long time. I had to learn about the industry and then learn how to build trust with consumers so that they knew that the CEO of Dipo was someone they could rely on and that they could trust our products in their kitchens.
It took time. For the first seven or eight years, we lost money but eventually, our brand mission gained traction with consumers in the South Korean market and thankfully, we now have a long history behind us and many customers that we love and that love us.
You recently opened an office in Europe with an eye towards expanding into western markets. For people who don’t know your brand, what is it about Dipo that differentiates it from the competition?
Actually, the original idea behind the name “Dipo” was “Differentiated Power”, so we’ve always wanted to be different from the competition. To be honest, I really don’t enjoy competing with others, rather I’ve always focused on competing with myself and trying to be the best.
That’s why our brand has always placed importance on using high-quality materials that we manufactured ourselves. Even though that meant a higher price, it also meant our products last longer and make for a better long-term investment – especially for professional kitchens.
Another thing that I think is important to differentiate our brand from others is we placed a huge emphasis on listening to professional chefs and kitchen staff about what they need to do their job better. As I mentioned before, we developed several industry-first products such as the induction griddle and induction fryer that were not on the market before. We also were the first induction company to develop a probe to control the temperature when using induction cooking appliances. These kinds of unique features have made us different from others and we think our innovation will give us an advantage when competing in the global market.
You’ve established a strong presence in the South Korean market as well as in Asia and the Middle East. What pushed you to expand into western markets?
Actually, I learned a lot from a bad experience in the American market. Back in 2006, I rented a very small booth at an industry trade show in Chicago. I was quite excited at the opportunity to expand there because we had products that weren’t available in the American market yet.
It was a bit funny when I would visit potential customers as well. A lot of people I talked to were still unfamiliar with the products because they had not heard about induction technology for cooking yet as the industry was still in its infancy.
Later, in 2008 I registered a company in the U.S. and hired staff and we tried to spread the Dipo brand there. I spent a lot of money at that time, but I was confident I could persuade the market that our products were the best and that they would help them grow their business.
One of the difficulties was getting the certifications like Underwriters Laboratory (UL), the FDA, and others which were very complicated and also quite expensive because you have to get approval for each product in your line. So, I invested a lot of money.
Another problem at that time was my limited English ability, which often made it difficult to communicate our offering to American businesses or to fully understand what American businesses needed. Slowly, as my new staff could better understand our products then they could educate the market about the benefits of using Dipo.
We traveled to eight cities in ten days visiting potential customers including large American restaurant franchise headquarters. They tested our products and said that they were better than others they had tried, but the problem was that we were still an unknown brand and that made it difficult to get them to choose us over brand names they were already familiar with.
So, America was a very, very difficult time for me. But I learned a lot.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and I closed the American division in 2014. We decided to focus more on the Asia Pacific and the Middle East and have enjoyed great success there as well as in markets such as Australia.
All of these lessons I learned from that first failure when I tried to expand actually make me excited now about expanding into Europe and taking those lessons to try again. After we establish ourselves in Europe, eventually, I want to take another shot at the North American market!
Much of your branding emphasizes the eco-friendly aspect of induction technology. How important is that to you personally?
I have been active in the Green Movement here in Korea for more than 25 years. Not just from a business perspective but personally. That is another reason that induction technology was appealing to me when I first started Dipo because of the eco-friendly benefits.
Currently, we are in the process of building a new factory outside of Seoul that will use all of the latest green technology to reduce our carbon footprint, so while we are pitching the importance of being greener to the market, we can authentically share our own experiences making Dipo a greener organization.
Induction still has low market penetration. What are some of the challenges of convincing customers to make the switch?
That depends on the country. Here in South Korea one of the biggest challenges is the price when trying to convince professional kitchens to switch. Induction technology is more expensive than traditional gas and electric cooking methods.
Therefore, one of our most important missions is educating consumers about the long-term benefits of using induction technology. Though the initial investment is more than traditional cooking appliances, the savings on energy bills, along with the safety of staff in the kitchen when using induction is one of the reasons our sales continue to quickly grow, despite some resistance to the upfront investment.
“Another problem at that time was my limited English ability, which often made it difficult to communicate our offering to American businesses or to fully understand what American businesses needed.”
Our induction fryer for example not only greatly reduces power consumption, but also reduces the use of cooking oil because our patented filter technology allows kitchens to recycle much of their cooking oil which greatly reduces cost. Right now, that’s nearly unheard of in the market as the vast majority of professional kitchens simply replace the old oil with new oil which is more expensive.
So, overall, I think it is our job at Dipo and the job of the induction industry, in general, is to educate consumers about the benefits of switching to induction from traditional gas and electric cooking appliances.
It’s easy for people in the industry who are well-versed in the benefits to see why professional kitchens should switch, but it’s crucial that we share that knowledge and convince the market that this is literally, a way that can help them save the world and create a greener planet for future generations. And for some, there will be no choice as more governments are enacting legislation that blocks the use of natural gas in new building construction.
My experience has been that once a professional kitchen has switched to induction they never go back. Never. And that’s what we’re counting on for our continued success in global markets.