Posted : 2014-01-23 16:12
Updated : 2014-01-23 16:12

Sempio going global with 'Yondu'

Park Jin-sun, CEO and president of Sempio Foods Company, said his company will launch the promotion of "jang"-based recipes in several European nations, including Spain, France, Germany and Belgium,
this year. / Courtesy of Sempio

150 recipes to promote traditional Korean sauces

Sempio's new product "Yondu."
By Park Si-soo

Sempio Foods Company is little known overseas. Were it not for the firm, however, the taste of such widely beloved Korean dishes as "galbi" and "bulgogi" could have crashed down as something nobody wants to try in order to avoid torturing one's tongue.

Sempio is the country's biggest provider of "jang," a term representing several fermented traditional sauces, including "ganjang," "gochujang" and "doenjang," that are must-have ingredients to highlight and balance the flavor of most Korean dishes.

Founded in 1946, the company controls nearly half of the domestic sauce market, but it continues to explore ways to tighten its grip. At the same time, the firm is quickly turning its eyes beyond borders as the rising demand for Korean food outside the country is expected to offer new business opportunities.

As a first step, Sempio teamed up with prominent Spanish food research lab Alicia, and Michelin-starred restaurants to create nearly 150 jang-based recipes that are considered marketable in Europe and North America. The firm is also working with a renowned Chinese chef for a similar project pinpointing the neighboring country of 1.4 billion people.

"Jang's globalization was something I have had in mind even before I took the company's top job," said Park Jin-sun, CEO and president of Sempio Food Company, in a recent interview with The Korea Times at his office in central Seoul. "We have spent many years preparing for this. I think the time has come for us to take action." Taking the helm of the company in 1997, Park said his company will kick off the promotion of jang-based recipes in several European nations, including Spain, France, Germany and Belgium.

Seen is Sempio's factory in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province. Its exterior is decorated with colorful paintings, which the company believes helps improve the creativity of employees.

"Spain is strategically very crucial for this project," he noted. "It's one of the trend-setting nations in the global food business, which means the impact of our promotion campaigns there could be far-reaching. In addition, Spanish chefs are more scientific and systematic than elsewhere in inventing new recipes. That's why we formed a partnership with Alicia." He said the firm's experiences in Europe will serve as a critical asset in mapping out strategies for the United States and China.

"The U.S. and Chinese markets are extremely competitive. At this point, the possibility of our success there is very low," he said. "Thus we are going to put ourselves to the test in Europe first and then move into the two battlegrounds."

Hidden card: Yondu

Park expressed high expectations for "Yondu" a brand-new naturally fermented seasoning sauce with multiple functions. The bean-based flavor enhancer hit the domestic market in 2010 and an upgraded one in 2012, taking it by storm. Sempio raked in 8 billion won ($7.5 million) with the product in 2012 alone, and 15 billion won last year. It aims to earn 30 billion won this year.

Seemingly humble, the figures are considered quite impressive from the perspective of the domestic seasoning market since its whole value is estimated at only around 450 billion won. Sempio recorded 227 billion won in sales in 2012.

"Yondu is a groundbreaking product that is changing the landscape of the domestic seasoning market. This is good enough to captivate foreigners," Park said beaming. "Yondu works like salt, which means it's suitable for everything. So I personally nicknamed it ‘Brand-new salt.'"

Seen in the left photo is a corridor of the Sempio research center specializing in fermentation in Osong, North Chungcheong Province. The center is designed to help researchers come up with creative ideas.

Last May, Sempio opened a research center specializing in fermentation in Osong, North Chungcheong Province, as part of efforts to develop another game-changing product. This is the only research lab of its kind in Korea.

"The center put together all sorts of experiences and knowhow we learned from numerous trials and errors over the past six decades to develop a new groundbreaking product," the CEO said.

In December, the company decided to build a new manufacturing plant in the country's first state-run food cluster in Iksan, North Jeolla Province, which is under construction to start operating next year.

"Sempio is set to fly high on two wings," he said.

The food cluster project, which cost 553.5 billion won in state funding, will transform 2.32 square-kilometers of land in Iksan into what government officials claim will be an "Asian hub" for food companies and research centers. This year alone, the government will spend 35 billion won building infrastructure and related facilities.

Among corporate investors in the cluster are CJ CheilJedang of Korea, Forno d' Asolo of Italy, NIZO Food Research of the Netherlands, Shanghai TDI Food & Beverage of China and Jalux of Japan.

Who is Park Jin-sun?

Born in 1950, Park studied electronic engineering at Seoul National University. He earned a master's degree in the same subject from the prestigious Stanford University.

But he drove a unique spin afterward by studying philosophy in his doctor's degree program at Ohio State University. Park joined Sempio in 1990 as an executive in charge of strategy planning and promoted to CEO in 1997.

"When I moved to the U.S. for study, my self-determination was that I would do anything but the food-related business if I moved back to Korea," he said. "But later I dropped that when I discovered critical troubles with Sempio's management system in the late 1980s." Sempio was founded in 1946 by his grandfather.

Under Park's leadership, the company saw a dramatic sales hike and, more importantly, invented ground-breaking products, including Yondu.

"My priority in management is on the happiness and wellbeing of employees, not on productivity, sales and other measurable indicators which businesspeople normally pay greater attention to," he said, revealing his "human-first" management style that may have been affected by his academic background.

"I want to make the company a place where employees are able to make any type of contribution to society they live in and feel happiness in the process."

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