People could be forgiven for likening the life of Sung-Joo Kim to a soap opera: a girl grows up in one of the richest families in the country but defies convention and her parents to pursue her own dream. Cut off by her family, she scrapes by in a foreign country and builds a business from zero to a billion-dollar global fashion enterprise.
One day Sung-Joo's father asked her why she was not born a boy. She told him, “No worries, dad. Although I’m a girl, I will be as successful as if I were a boy”
But the last thing Sung-Joo Kim wants young women to do when they hear her story is to daydream. She wants them to be inspired, to act and to work as hard as she has to make their dreams come true.
In her own case, the dream expresses itself through Sungjoo Group, a major Korean fashion retail group its own right, which has gone on to secure franchises for global designer names including Gucci and Saint Laurent, as well as Marks & Spencer. At the high end, it took over the struggling German luxury group MCM in 2005 and has revived it and begun to make it a formidable global presence.
Not bad for someone who at one point in life found herself nearly penniless and alone in New York after graduation, hoping to catch on at a department store and learn enough about the retailing business to help her get started on a career.
Sung-Joo was the youngest child in one of the wealthiest families in South Korea. Her father, Kim Soo-keon founded Daesung Industrial Corporation, one of the country’s largest energy conglomerates. She has three brothers and two sisters.
Her life was supposed to follow the same script as that of her two older sisters: she would be treated like a princess and groomed to marry a man chosen by her family, from another prominent business family, and become a good wife and mother. End of discussion.
Korean culture in the 1950s and 1960s when Sung-Joo was growing up was still strongly influenced by Confucianism. Men were superior to women.
“South Korea once was one of the worst places for women to live. Women were in the lowest position in society,” she says bluntly.
Among rich families, businesses would be inherited by sons, whereas daughters would get nothing. Parents would seek men from other rich families to marry their daughters. Consequently, education for girls was a low priority.
“I was lucky as I could directly experience my two sisters’ lives,” says Kim. “Although my sisters were very smart and good at studying, they could not choose their futures or the careers they wanted. They just waited for men to pick them up. I didn’t want to be like my sisters.”
Thus, after she graduated from Yonsei University in Seoul, she decided to go to the United States. This might be normal today, but not in the 1970s. She passed the difficult entrance exam and was accepted to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Her parents refused to support her and said she had to get married to a man they had arranged.
She finally struggled to go abroad and was able to study in the US as she wanted. After earning her BA in Sociology from the college, she went back home to find that her parents had arranged for someone to marry her. She refused, and said she would only marry a man she loves. She flew back to the US, started going out with a foreign man, and got a job at Bloomingdale’s, the upscale department store in New York.
Her parents were furious. They cut her off from the family and did not talk to her for many years.
Her life went beyond her expectations. She studied in the area she loved and eventually began to earn a living.
“My first mission was to run away from my home and I did that when I went to study in the US. When I started my career at Bloomingdale’s, I wanted to test myself to see how far I could go without the support and privileges of my family.”
Living and working in New York without the family’s support was difficult, she admits. She faced tough times on the job and cutthroat competition. She had to save every cent; there was no luxury living. Learning to overcome obstacles helped her gain confidence to live with complete independence in a country far away from home.
“When I survived, I told myself I could live any place in the world,” she says.
When Sung-Joo went back to Seoul, she helped with her father’s business and their relationship began to improve.
One day her father asked her why she was not born a boy. She told him, “No worries, dad. Although I’m a girl, I will be as successful as if I were a boy.”
She meant every word. She established her own company in 1990 and today Sungjoo Group is the second largest retail operator in South Korea. It now has more than 90 retail stores for MCM, Marks & Spencer, Lulu Guinness and Billy Bag. As CEO, Kim oversees 11,000 employees in 15 countries.
Her three brothers inherited the business from their father and they are the owners of billion-dollar companies. Unlike her brothers, Kim has created her own wealth.
When she looks back at her past, she tells herself that although she did not inherit her father’s business, what she got from him was business acumen.
“[My father] actually created someone like himself in me. I was never able to tell him this because he had already passed away.”
Even after Kim set up her fashion retail company, the road to business success was not always been smooth. She failed during the Asian financial crisis in 1997. At that time, she had borrowed a lot of money from banks for business expansion. The currency devaluation caused by the crisis increased the debt burden of Sungjoo Group. The crisis taught her that in future, she should expand based on cash flow only, and try to keep the company debt-free.
Sorrow touched her personal life as well, when daughter was seriously burned when she was only eight months old. She thought her daughter was going to die, and even contemplated abandoning business to care for her child full time. Luckily, her daughter survived and has grown into a lovely girl.
“If I decided to stop my business [when my daughter became ill], I would not be here today,” Kim recalls. “My mother is the key person who taught me to think positively. She told me to thank God for keeping my daughter alive.”
Today, Kim Sing-Joo has reached the pinnacle of success. She has been named by many media and business groups as one of the most powerful and influential women in Asia.
She would like her life to be an inspiration for women in Asia, empowering and awakening them that whatever they want to do, they can do if they have strong intention and put in the effort.
She is also recognized as a businesswoman that has strong intention to fight corruption in business, and hopes that the next generation of business leaders will reject corruption in all its forms.
For her own business, she would like to prove that an Asian company can be successful on a global scale. Sungjoo Group once was a small and medium-sized company. After it acquired MCM in 2005, it was able to demonstrate the power of an Asian company in the world fashion business.
Sungjoo Group today is achieving annual sales of around $500 million, with 20% growth in the Chinese market alone. Its CEO believes her company is well on its way to competing with some of the giants in global fashion retailing.
While the founder’s wealth is increasing along with the company’s, the profits are not all hoarded away in investments and bank accounts. The policy at Sungjoo Group is to contribute 10% of its net profit every year to charity. This is one of the ways Kim hopes to encourage businesses to help society.
“My definition of success is not when I get nice house, lots of money or become a billionaire. It’s not about money. My success is that I can achieve whatever I want to do and to serve others,” she says.
“I’m not a kind of money-driven person. I’m a mission-driven woman. You only live once. So, whatever you want to do, do it right.”
About the author
Writer: Nalin Viboonchart