Suk ― CEO of action with interesting story
By Oh Young-jin
CEOs can be categorized into thinkers and doers.
One category is not necessarily better than the other. Oftentimes, corporate leaders, as those in other parts of society, come with a combination of both characteristics.
By this standard, Suk Wi-soo, Volvo Construction Equipment and president of its Asian operations, may as well belong to the category of doers. But if you spend more than 10 minutes talking with him, you will certainly find that it is not all action that has taken him to the top of his field.
If I gave a heads up about my recent one-hour interview with him at the conference room of his company in Seoul, his early life reminded me of a scene from a Korean chapter of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” or at least his upbringing in a rural area where he showed what he was meant to be.
That part comes later. First, it was a booming voice I heard waiting for him to arrive for the interview.
It was hard to distinguish what was being talked about but the voice of the man was loud enough to give me a start. So I asked a group of PR officers what the din was about and was told that it was Suk wrapping up a conference call with executives in China.
A couple minutes later, he appeared with a red tint to his face and immediately offered his hand in greeting. It was a mechanic’s hand that even years of paperwork can’t mask.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, I asked him what he was so upset about as to raise his voice.
He said that it was an encouragement pitch to get the job done more promptly and better.
But he made it clear that he was not upset but wanted to convey his sense of urgency. His statement echoed what his PR officers told me while waiting for him ― when he raises his voice, he doesn’t intend to intimidate subordinates but to convey his sense of urgency.
After all, Suk runs global operations from Korea through China to Europe. Communication is crucial to the success of multinational operations, challenging him to overcome not just language barriers but cultural and perceptional differences. Considering his job performance is praised by his firm and those outside it, he has successfully met those challenges and prevailed.
“My key principle in communications is being straight,” he said. “Leaving as little room for misunderstanding as possible is what has proved to be my winning strategy.”
In the early stage of his executive life, he was vexed over nuances in linguistics and culture in communicating with those from other countries but it no longer poses as great a problem.
Rather the bigger challenge is to get his message and that of the company down to the rank and file members and keep them on the same page and on the same line, if possible.
He travels around his operations in an effort to meet workers as frequently as possible, in addition to using the usual method of talking to executives in the hope that the message will trickle down the chain of command.
Suk believes that this camaraderie makes the company work as a close-knit team and concentrates on achieving what they set out to do.
This is also what is believed to have propelled the successful transition of his company from a Samsung subsidiary to part of Volvo. Now, Volvo Construction Equipment is one of the pivots that enrich the Swedish group’s bottom line.
His beginnings, however, seem to be far apart from making state-of-art machinery.
Suk said that his hometown was so steeped in old traditions that he first learned how to read Chinese characters rather than Korean or multiplication tables. It was his college-attending elder brother who played a role model and his ticket out of his hometown was his innate skill with machines. He couldn’t suppress the urge to pick apart any mechanical things and reassemble them. To him, things mechanical are what the chore of painting fences is not to Tom Sawyer.
So in college, he majored in mechanical engineering.
In hindsight, he was confident of what was in store for him.
While working as a junior manager at the Samsung subsidiary that was sold to Volvo and turned into what he works for now, Suk guessed when he would be in charge as factory head and told one of his associates about it.
The associate blurted this out to others and Suk faced a mild ostracism for being cocky in the very conservative atmosphere of the blue-collar working environment. But he overcame this and became factory head at around the time he had calculated he would.
Asked whether he is satisfied with what he has achieved so far, he answered by recalling two principles. First, he said he sticks to his word. Once he was offered a big career-changing job he didn’t accept because he had a prior engagement.
Second, he dreams big but tries even harder to be realistic. “I might have wanted to get more involved in our group’s global operations, if I had been a bit younger.”
What appeared to be an even more important principle was to do his best to fulfill what he is given to do at every given moment. “I have another engagement and I will fill you in about your other questions,” Suk said politely, preparing to depart for his next destination.