I was recently interviewed by Ahn Junghyun of 1013 Main Street on TBSeFM 101.3Mhz here in Seoul. We discussed a number of topics related to business in Korea.
Interviewer: Steven Bammel came to Korea in the mid-1990s. Since then, he has become an expert of sorts on Korean business practices.
He is currently a GyeongGi Province Foreign Direct Investment Advisor as well as a consultant to the GyeongGi Association of Foreign-Invested Companies and the creator of an online community called Korea Business Central.
In addition to that, he runs his own business weblog, Nojeok Hill: My View from the Top, and writes a monthly business column for Seoul Magazine.
He joins us now armed with essential tips and information for doing business here in Korea. Morning Steven.
Steven: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Interviewer: Thank you for joining us today. You’re a busy man. How do you find the time to do all this?
Steven: Well, I work more than 40 hours a week. I’ve gotten used to the Korean workweek, I guess. I did realize recently that I have hit my limits when I tried to start classes again at Hanyang University a couple of weeks ago.
I took a year off after a few days of classes and decided I’m going to think about it for a year, get my priorities arranged and maybe arrange some of the stuff that I do and try again in a year.
Interviewer: You’ve gotten into the habit of the Korean way of not wasting any minute.
Interviewer: How would you describe the business environment here for foreigners today, perhaps compared to when you first got here over a decade ago?
Steven: Korea has become a lot more open in the last ten years or so. I think a big factor in that was the end of the 90s with the economic crisis and all. Koreans really changed their outlook on things, realized they needed to open up to the world, and they did. It’s pretty amazing.
Today, so many more Korean young people go overseas to study than did even ten, twenty years ago. Korea’s a much more open place, more understanding of the ways that foreigners do business, and much more up to the international standard in many ways.
Interviewer: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in a positive way?
Steven: The government. A lot of regulations have been relaxed for foreigners.
You see a lot of efforts by the local governments to make opportunities for foreign companies to do business. You see a lot of free economic zones. You see a lot of industrial areas for privileged investing conditions for foreign companies that come in.
You find a lot of sectors that have not been open before are open now. These would be some of the big positive changes.
I’d say the success of Korean companies in and of itself has been a big factor. As we look at companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai having so much success overseas, I think that also opens up opportunities in Korea for foreign companies to find opportunities.
Interviewer: Then in your capacity as GyeongGi Province Foreign Direct Investment Advisor and consultant to the GyeongGi Association of Foreign-Invested Companies what are some areas where you think we could use some more improvement?
Steven: One thing that has been on my mind since I started in this position is when I look at all the opportunities the government has set aside just for foreign companies, for foreigners, it really does reinforce the separation between Koreans and foreign companies.
If you’re going to set aside a block of an area in an industrial complex down outside of Pyeongtaek or many other places just for foreign companies and give them special rights for investment, for tax purposes and all that, there are side effects.
The fact that if a company does come in, invests, and then they decide to pull out, where do they go? Who do they sell it to? There’s nobody available to buy it because it’s only authorized for certain foreign companies.
It reinforces the idea that, “The foreign companies go here. The Koreans do business over here.” I don’t think that’s a totally positive thing. I think foreigners already find it hard enough to do business in Korea sometimes and setting things aside and pushing them off to the edge has its drawbacks.
Interviewer: So we need to make more efforts to integrate them into the Korean economy?
Steven: Well it’s a very difficult question, actually. The easy answer is, quite simply, just make Korea an easier place for everybody to do business. I was in a discussion a couple of weeks ago and the subject came up. “Is Korea that hard of a place to do business for foreigners?” and I said, “Well, yes it is.” But it’s not just for foreigners. Middle, small, and medium size companies have a tough time too.
I think if the Korean economy can develop in a more fluid way that’s not quite as based on these very large Korean multinationals that there would be more flexibility and more opportunities for everybody.
Interviewer: Let’s start talking about some specific Korean business tips, if you will. You have a monthly column in Seoul Magazine and recently you wrote about things to remember about Korean job titles. So what do foreign businessmen need to know about job titles in Korea?
Steven: The key point here is that his Korean job title is the one that matters, not what his English business card says.
I’ve seen all kinds of translations of Korean job titles for everything. A “Cha Jang” – I’ve seen that translated as Director, I’ve seen it translated as General Manager, as Assistant Manager, all kinds of stuff. Koreans do have this tendency to “interpret” their job titles when they translate them into English.
I did a translation job a few years ago where it was actually a Korean Cha Jang. He had gone over to the U.S. to do business and it was a lawsuit of an investment gone bad and I was working on the internal documents.
To the Americans, he was a Director but when I was doing the work it was clear he was not anything close to a Director.
So the key point here is if you want to know what rank the Korean is, and he or she does have a rank – every Korean company has them – that you need to know the correct Korean version of the job, not the English name that they choose to use.
Interviewer: By that token should Korean companies and employees start printing their Korean titles in English, like Cha Jang?
Steven: I don’t know that that would communicate too well. They’re doing fine. There’s a certain advantage to be had from maybe not sharing everything about your job title.
I’m not sure that I would change it from the Korean’s perspective but I’m saying that if you’re not Korean and you’d like a small advantage, a little more insight into the person you’re working with, figure out some of this stuff.
Interviewer: You need to know exactly where they are in their company. How would you translate Cha Jang, just out of personal curiosity?
Steven: The way I’ve always translated it –and I will say that I have written the definitive guide on business cards in Korea – Deputy General Manager seems to be the most common term that I’ve seen used. That’s what was used when I was at LG many years ago. Assistant General Manager is another one that’s used.
Interviewer: You also talk about how the position of the employee representing a company that you’re working with can give you clues on what the company thinks about you or your business.
Steven: This connects with what we were talking about on understanding the rank of the Korean you’re working with. If you’re interacting with a Korean company, they should send someone to meet you of a rank similar to you.
If they come to you with a business card that says “Director” on it and you’re a Director in your Western company that’s a good start but what if you were to turn the card over and notice that they were a “Cha Jang” or a “Gwa Jang” or something?
It could represent a number of things, but for certain, it indicates they don’t recognize your position. That’s something that if you hadn’t been aware of these internal facts you would not realize. It should change your strategy on how you deal with them.
If you’re being dealt with with as much respect as you deserve, you’re going to deal one way. If you’re not, you’re going to have to reassess.
Interviewer: I think things are changing a little bit. I know that there are a growing number of companies trying to kind of go horizontal instead of hierarchical and vertical, for example, by removing all titles internally and just calling each other with the suffix “nim”.
So I would call you “Steven-nim” instead. I know one company that calls their people “masters” and “pros” – they’re professionals. What do you think about this sort of trend?
Steven: Well, are those the successful companies in Korea?
Interviewer: I would say so. Yeah.
Steven: Are they? I was talking to someone not all that long ago about this topic also and he was mentioning Korong. Korong is one of the companies that’s doing this, but I’m not sure that they are recognized as one of the leaders. Samsung, Hyundai, LG – they’re not changing theirs and they’re the ones that are really being successful.
I would not discourage it but I wonder if it’s even possible in the Korean language. The Korean language itself is so hierarchical-based that just to put “nim” on the end of every name, are you going to start speaking to each other in Panmal?
Interviewer: It wouldn’t be Panmal.
Steven: I don’t think a Korean company could have the speech be the same for everybody. I can’t imagine the employees speaking to their boss on the same level that he speaks to them. It’s a good start. I’d be interested to see what kind of results it achieves.
Interviewer: Another one of your columns talked about building business networks in Korea. Is it very different from how you would do it elsewhere in the world?
Steven: Back home I think cold-calling is a lot more effective than it is. It’s easier to establish a business relationship in the West for some reason or other. A Korean business relationship, once it’s established, is worth more but it takes more investment and it takes more effort.
If people come to Korea and expect that they’re going to do a networking session here and there and that’s going to be enough, I don’t think they’re going to get the same results.
I’ve had some phenomenal results from just one-time meetings back home and I don’t think that you could recreate that. I think Korea is a society where it takes an extra degree of trust and that has to be built. It has to be built in the Korean way.
Interviewer: How would one go about building that level of trust?
Steven: Koreans use the word “jeong”. You have to show the person that you’re dealing with that you have an element of jeong in your relationships – that you can give as much as receive.
Going out for a meal dutch is so uncommon in Korea. It’s apparently becoming more common but amongst co-workers at the office perhaps when they’re going out every day it would be one thing. But if you’re dealing with somebody trying to build a network, trying to build a business relationship, you should never go dutch and you should never make it clear that you’re going to let them pay.
Things like gifts – my next column for Seoul magazine will be about gift giving. Gift giving in Korea is on a whole different dimension. Koreans don’t give gifts. “It’s the thought that counts.” That may a nice thing to say back home but price is pretty important around here too. A cheap gift could actually work against you.
We were given a Chuseok gift from one of my business colleagues of $150 of beef. We’d never buy that for ourselves, and I think we gave him some red ginseng socks and towels that cost about $100 for that. You’ve got to show that you’re not pinching pennies in your relationships.
You’ve got to show that you’re not pinching time. If you’re going to say, “Let’s go out for lunch. I’ve got 35-45 minutes,” if you’re setting limits right out of the chute when you’re trying to build a relationship with a Korean, you’re going to hit some walls.
Interviewer: I understand the need to respect local traditions and practices and so on but at the same time when Korea wants to attract more foreign investors, wants to do more business with foreign partners, shouldn’t we be changing our way as well?
Steven: It depends on who you’re talking to. If you’re going to talk to Koreans, I might be giving them a different spiel. When I’m talking to Koreans, I’m going to tell them, “You’re going to have to learn to do things the Western way.”
If I’m talking to Westerners doing business in Korea, they’re going to get a totally different side from me. I’m going to tell them, “You’re going to have to do it the Korean way.”
No Westerner is ever going to do it 100% the Korean way and no Korean is going to do it 100% the Western way, but if you can push them halfway each you can find that happy medium.
Interviewer: You run an online community website called Korea Business Central where you hold some interesting discussions. What have you found are some of the most common business related issues that people have?
Steven: I would say number one is getting a job in Korea. It’s been a surprise to me how many foreigners want to work in Korea. Number two, how few jobs there are outside of English teaching for foreigners in Korea.
There’s a huge mismatch. We’ve got an intern database on our site and I think I’ve had 100 people sign up for it on the intern site and as far as companies hiring interns I don’t know that we’ve had more than a handful.
There’s this huge mismatch between the numbers on each side. People want jobs in Korean companies. There are a lot of them and that’s a major reason that people are joining the community.
Interviewer: What would be your advice for people who want to come work in Korea?
Steven: English teaching is a great way to get started. I started that way. If you stay in that position, it should be a stepping stone. Once you get to Korea you need to start working very hard to network as we’ve talked about. Two, learn the language, learn the culture, and figure out what you can do next and what you can contribute next.
It’s a long-term process. A lot of people join our community hoping for some kind of a short-term solution and, unfortunately, as of yet I have not found any short-term solutions for them.
Interviewer: You need to invest time and effort.
Interviewer: I understand you have a business networking invent in Suwon on this coming 8th of October?
Steven: Yes we do, and it’s going to be very big. The GyeongGi Province is co-sponsoring it. The GyeongGi Association of Foreign-Invested Companies and Korea Business Central, we’re co-hosting it. We’ve got CEOs coming from many foreign-invested companies in GyeongGi Province. We’ve got food catered by a five-star hotel there in GyeongGi.
It’s actually the weekend of the annual Hwaseong Cultural Festival and the venue is right at the Hwaseong palace, so it’s right in the midst of all that from 5:00 to 7:00.
It’s going to be 30,000 won at the door and you’ll get far more than 30,000 won of food and networking opportunities if you come.
Interviewer: Just some quick advice for perhaps Koreans not necessarily used to these business networking occasions.
Steven: It is interesting how this networking meeting thing does seem to be a Western import. However, last year I was at a networking event which I think may have been modeled on a previous event we had on Korea Business Central. It was all Koreans and they seemed to know what to do. It wasn’t that hard.
We sat around the tables for a short while, had a speech which, that might have been the Korean part of it, but then once the moderator said, “Okay we’ve got about an hour here of networking. Stand up and pass out cards,” our people knew what to do.
Interviewer: So all you have to do is go armed with your business cards?
Steven: Yeah bring business cards. That’s a good thing to do.
Interviewer: What other plans do you have whilst you’re working here in Korea?
Steven: I’m here semi-permanently. I love Korea. I’ve been here for quite a while. My goal right now is to figure out how to simplify my life enough that I can go back to school next September so I’m thinking through that process very hard right now.
Interviewer: I hope that works out for you. Thanks very much Steven for spending time with us this morning.
Steven: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
Interviewer: We spoke with Steven Bammel of GyeongGi Province, Foreign Direct Investment Advisor and Consultant to the GyeongGi Association of Foreign-Invested Companies about doing business here in Korea in particular.