Hynix CEO has no role models
Corporate chief executive officers (CEOs), as with leaders of other fields, are bound to have their secret recipe for looking ahead and getting the job done faster and better.
CEOs share such characteristics as confidence, determination and optimism but the successful ones add their unique twists.
For Kwon Oh-chul, CEO of Hynix Semiconductor, his lack of reservation separates him from the rest of the field.
During a one-and-half-hour interview at his office in southern Seoul, last week, he didn’t hesitate to offer the condition of “off-the-record” about points he thought were too delicate but necessary to press home. Kwon’s directness, however, was used in helping bring the other party to his side. At one point, the 53-year-old leader of the world’s second largest computer memory chip maker, looked and sounded as if he were speaking during a road show for investors.
Kwon showed little pretensions that may well come with being at the top of his career.
“I have not reached the level to speak,” Kwon responded, when he asked about the controversial proposal of mandatory corporate profit sharing. Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee dismissed the suggestion as “unheard-of.”
The Hynix chief came back to the subject toward the end of the interview, interjecting that profit sharing should be conducted according to market principles, while elaborating on his firm’s good relationship with the subcontractors.
When asked about his weak and strong points, he said that he had too many flaws to speak of but he has one strong point that he obviously could talk about_ being positive.
Positivity included the hallmarks of Hyundai, the conglomerate built by the late tycoon Chung Ju-yung, evident in Kwon’s speech and behavior. Hyundai’s corporate culture comes down to directness in contrast to Samsung’s subtlety. The two, now split into a myriad of smaller conglomerates and individual firms, represent two extremes of the culture of Korea Inc..
Kwon may have inherited Hyundai’s corporate character but it doesn’t mean it interferes in his job. “Hynix is the result of Hyundai and LG,” he said, pointing out that his mission as CEO is to restore his employees’ pride not just on the basis of old ties but more as Hynix employees. Hynix has been under the control of creditors-turned shareholders since 2001 as part of the government’s restructuring “Big Deal” initiative but had its best year yet last year, paying the first-ever dividends to shareholders.
One of his biggest wishes as CEO is to manage Hynix well enough so as to continue compensating the shareholders.
Interesting enough, Kwon’s directness eclipses his professional background in finance and strategy, an area that is commonly identified with subtlety.
Such a streak of his professional expertise could be detected, when he spoke of the state his firm is in and described the goals he set out for the next 10 years. “I am running a firm that produces chips that require silicon purity to have 12 nines (99.9999999999).”
A post-interview review showed two points he made deserved a reference or two.
One was about his lack of a role model among corporate leaders not because he had a big ego but because his job requires him not to choose one over the others.
Here is Kwon’s response on the question.
“It would be risky for me to stick to one model in the current situation facing Hynix as a Korean firm that heavily relies on exports. I do have a lot of people I respect but I don’t take one as my role model. Politicians who live on popularity may have Queen Elizabeth or our independence fighter Kim Koo as their role models but the corporate world is different. Each firm is in a different situation and faces a different competitor. It is wrong bringing in success models that worked in different times and under different circumstances and taking the leaders of those models as ours. Hynix is in a unique situation, working in a Korean culture as a memory chip maker competing with global multinationals with the important goal of restoring the pride of our employees, some from Hyundai and others from LG. There are no models that fit this set of circumstances. Thus, I have not found the right one.”
Kwon also talked about the core competency of his management.
“Appointing the right people at the right time and rewarding them properly is the core of managing a firm. I overhauled our personnel system as the first thing after I took over last year. Now, depending on one’s performance, one can leapfrog on a hierarchical ladder, receiving a promotion two or three years faster than others.”