Alex Jensen talks innovation, diversity and inclusion and what it takes to thrive for 30 years in a tough business world.
Kim Youngmi (May) the Country President of Henkel Korea and JW Min, head of Operations at the same company invited Alex to visit Henkel Korea’s downtown headquarters in Mapo.
Henkel, founded in Germany in 1876, first came to Korea with a simple distribution business model. Nowadays however it manages several top brands in adhesives, beauty and laundry and home care.
Kim Youngmi discusses the importance of innovation is tough markets, as well as how the company is improving its diversity and inclusion work to respond to the changing nature of doing business in Korea.
Today’s episode was brought to you by The Four Seasons Seoul. Stylish elegance in the very heart of the city.
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You’re listening to Koreabizcast with KBLA. I’m your host Alex Jensen, and it’s Tuesday February 8. Imagine running a business that covers adhesive technologies, beauty care, and laundry and home care. Well, that’s what our guests from today’s featured company do, as we’ll learn about what it takes for two Koreans to operate a German corporate giant. In this case, Henkel Korea. Incidentally, since we recorded the interview at their headquarters, Henkel announced plans to merge laundry and home care and beauty care to create a consumer brands business unit, aiming to have the new organization in place by next year. Before we head to their office towering above the Han River in Seoul. Let me also mention today’s sponsor the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, which boasts its own wondrous view of the city, offering stylish elegance in the very heart of Seoul.
So then, the company we’re putting a spotlight on today is perhaps one of the most diverse we’ve encountered so far on this podcast, headquartered in Germany, Henkel operates worldwide with leading innovations, brands and technologies in three business areas, adhesive technologies, beauty, care, and laundry and homecare. See what I mean when I say most diverse. I’ve come to their tower in Mapo-Gu quite literally, here in the center of Seoul, to meet with their country president and head of operations, who are May Kim and JW Min respectively. Great to meet you both.
Great to meet you, Alex. And hello, everyone.
Thank you for the opportunity. Hello. Hello, everyone.
Technically, we have actually met before and will explain why and how, in a few minutes. But first, tell us a bit more about what Henkel does in Korea, as well as its core business interests back in Germany and how they kind of blend with what you’re doing here in Korea with a focus.
Yeah, this is my key. So Henkel was established 146 years ago, back to the distributor of German. So since then, globally we achieved about the 20 billion businesses, basically half from the industrial business of the technology area. The other half basically the consumer business, beauty care and the legendary homecare business, such a unique combination of the industrial b2b business versus the b2c business. It is also the continuous innovation and sustainability philosophy, making such a long time of the successful business history for Henkel. So when it comes to the Henkel Korea, it was established in 1989. One year after the Seoul Olympics in 1988, so it’s more than 30 years now. So we are learning the four factories here now we are we are opening the grand, very big another plant here in Korea. So we have a very, very long history and successful business here. And here we are almost 400 million euro business to develop to for last 30 years. And we are the basically the major businesses I would say approximately 60% around and then another 38% is from the laundry homecare business and then it’s very small the beauty care business also we have. That’s the Henkel Korea business operation running by the over 600 employees.
Wow, quite a sizable operation then and also I have a feeling that even for people who are not super familiar with Henkel there we’ll know a lot of those brand names when I came through your reception, for example looking at even like some of the German shampoos and things, I recognize from my local Olive Young or whatever, or wherever I’ve seen it
Sure I think perhaps you know it’s the people who listen this or broadcasting may heard about number one liquid detergent Persil. Yeah, that is the number one brand and then it’s actually Henkel is the inventor of the detergent when it was comes to start with a powder. It is more than 100 years ago we are talking about and the other one is a lot tighter perhaps many over the major brands no heard of this Loctite brand because they are very high tech. And that is the various technology application possible the adhesive brand that is also very, very long for the craft men. Yeah, so that is the two key brand. Of course we have the short copper branded here in Korea. Yeah.
- What’s your live view working for a company with so many diverse interests adhesives, as we just heard from May making up 60% but all these other brands as well, as people would have heard of, you say you work for Henkel but then you’re also connected with all those other names. And then you’ve also got a whole load of different technologies under one roof.
Although the brand name is different, actually, there’s a commonality, which is about the knowhow and innovation. What Hancock tried to bring to Korea is not only the product and a brand, but also a knowhow and technology. So when you look at the Persil, so probably the audience who are listening to this program are pretty familiar with this brand. So we launched the green, the bottles of the Persil, so this is a way that we can contribute to sustainability. And when it comes to our audience here, right, so we are trying to help our customer to be more efficient product in terms of their operation, in terms of their innovation. So in that handheld is trying to bring the innovation and the knowhow to Korea, so I feel so proud of it. This will come in this diverse circumstance. So that’s what I feel.
And actually, to be fair, people in Korea, more than any other country in Europe, perhaps even would be very comfortable with this idea of having a big name associated with lots of different types of industries. Samsung and LG, for example, are in all manner of different industries, so you have this concept already in place where people could get used to the idea of dealing with Persil and then adhesives completely different. Do you have any particular expertise as head of operations that you focus on? Or do you have to keep an eye on all of that, JW?
Actually, our operation is basically to kind of be the same as other company. Probably we are trying to drive my efficiency and bring the competitive advantage to our company. So in the sense, our the project probably is similar and the same, so yeah, so that’s what we are trying to focus and improve it.
But we’ll come back actually to some of that, because I want to hear a little bit more of your personal stories before we get back to the operations themselves. And so May, how long have you been here? And how did you get this position with a foreign company? Have you always been working for foreign companies for example?
Oh, well, my career development, I think is a little unique because I started my career at the Korean local company, a chemical company. My background is Finance Administration and Accounting. I started the multinational company as acquired employee Yeah, local business to multinational and that is a multinational company acquired by Henkel. So that means is the I’m a twice acquired employees. So that is I took Henkel Korea country President role since 2020. Yeah. So that is about, the total 30 years career in my life. Yeah, so it’s been it’s just, yeah, exciting. And then it’s very challenges journey. Yeah, to me, but I’m very happy for Henkel’s appointment to me as the really pure Korean Yeah. Before myself is Country President is the foreigners or the Korean with a foreign passport but my passport is Korea I’m Korean so that is also the first female country President Yeah, that is also demonstration how Henkel sees people in terms of the performance commitment and also diversity perspective.
Yeah, that’s some excellent points you’ve just made there, firstly, be able to stick around through those acquisitions. But the bigger picture of being Korean without that foreign connection and being a woman, female leader in business, we’ve spoken many times on this platform already about how we need to encourage more diversity and not be afraid to embrace it.
Yeah, if I adding a little bit more, of course, that is a little bit of showing off my own capability or the commitment to Henkel. But the Henkel as the company is very well evolved to accommodate to really the local, the executive, fully empower and then is the trust to the local executive management to the coordination and then is collaborate within the multinational company in Korea. So this is such a sizable and then it’s many employees, many other sites. So that is the I think Henkel also the really the nice and the serious. Yeah, about diversity, and that is empowering.
And what’s your story JW?
My story. Actually, I joined Henkel as experienced new blood, I would like to say I joined Henkel two years ago. Before I joined the healthcare, I worked for three other multinational company. Actually, the reason for me to join Henkel is I was pretty much intrigued by Henkel, again, the Innovation way and then the way to drive the business because Henkel you know, we can see the brand of Henkel in the household, but the product that we produce, which is adhesive cannot be seen any places. But this is a use in all the places you can think about it so that’s why I also would like to learn how to do b2b business because the previous companies are doing the b2c companies so that those are the reasons for me to join Henkel so far. Henkel treats me so well, I also try to deliver the company expectation as much as I can. So I think the company is happy, I’m also happy.
May looks happy. So I would either of you to have any particular advice for someone who happens to be Korean, who likes the idea of having a big leadership role with a foreign company.
I think the language itself is not a problem. So language can be a convenient to communicate it, but the way that we are in what the key role that leadership need to do is basically communication. In order to do the communication means we need to understand how the employee thinking in a way, we also need to listen to the opinion of course to listen and to understand it. We need to have English capability, but there are many different kind of kind of different way to really to understand it to the people so that like as long as people can have adventurous mindset, and as long as the people has a good entrepreneurship, and then like a passion to do something, I think Korea is great places so that again, languages should not be a barrier for you to work it as a leadership role in a Korean company.
And May, as you said in your position before being not just Korean, but also being a woman. Do you think actually in a certain way it helps that it is a foreign company, or do you think other Korean companies are also now transforming their mindset with all the ESG craze and the international mindset that does seem to be coming into communities here in Korea?
Yeah. Firstly about gender party. Yeah, so I think I’m a kind of lucky, joining international company. I would admit in Korea, Korean companies, still it is a little bit more the men oriented society. My case is I very early time more than 20 years ago, I joined a multinational company, which is relatively horizontal culture and a very open culture and that makes tmy career successfully developing. I think I admit it and any audience who here from the Korean company side I think we should still benchmark this openness from the multinational company, so that is for your question is that I think the male and the female leadership a little bit different features and characters, right? And then is in the female is the more the embracing or sensitive about especially the universe, the climate or the ESG part or the governance or the transparency. So I think the leaders especially executives who have the authority to hire and the develop people is these days even more the you know, it’s convenient to the developing the boss genders up to the higher level. So when it comes to your question to the JW, a kind of the leadership competency for the multinational companies, especially for the females, because my case is actually I received a lot of the questions from the female middle managers inside and outside how they can be up to my position. So, that is at least the local executive level. I normally advice the two points- first the points is to be yourself, do you really want to be a leader? leader is a tough job yeah, that is a tough job. So, if you want, you can be, but you must put your hands on heart and then need to ask yourself, do you want to be a leader and then do you handle all kinds of the complex coordination demands, and then it’s time management if you wanted to do that, and then is there are many, many ways to do especially these days. The second thing is in the working at the multinational company, it is a kind of open to the culture. I totally agree with JW. It’s not the communication is not the English matter. It is your opening eyes to that is the opening different culture and then different gender and then different orientation, different modality, then that kind of the openness makes even more than enjoy working at a multinational company, I would say.
I’m about to make one more comment. I suggested to learn the two important Korean language. One is Gamsahabnida, thank you in English, because there are when you feel really appreciation from the peoples resort and then the delivery, you have to express yourself to really say thank you with a really from the bottom of your heart. And the second thing is that you have to really learn Mianhabnida, I’m sorry, because we leader can make a mistake at any point of time. But once we recognize it, we have to be transparent and communicate to the emploee, what went wrong. So what we’ll do differently so that people can really understand it, where the leader is driving the company. So there’s two important language of Korean Gamsahabnida and Mianhabnida.
Just briefly as you were talking, I was just curious as well, speaking of language and communication within this building and within Songdo facility, or is it mostly Korean? Do you have many foreign staff for example to consider?
At Songdo, for example, we don’t have a permanent, can employ 40 employees to stay there. But we have a lot of employees from the headquarter in Germany, and then Asia headquarters in Shanghai and also Singapore, so people are interacting each other with English language so there’s a way that we also try the diversity. That’s one of the engines. So there’s a circumstance that we are in,
Especially in the COVID days everything is done virtually by teams or Zoom. I think even more communication with many more background colleagues all over the world.
Yeah. Okay, let’s just know, the elephant in the room has been brought up, let’s just touch on the COVID thing. So this pandemic, how optimistic are you right now we’re hearing about all these hundreds of 1000s of antiviral pills arriving, which might offer a game changer. Also, we’re hearing of the possibility of another variant on the horizon, but nothing concrete on that. At the moment, of course, Korea’s numbers have been shooting up because of the Omicron strain. Given all those factors. What’s your state of mind on the pandemic and doing business in this country right now? May?
I think everybody might frustrated for last two years now is year three, right? So everybody might be tired of hoping something. Yeah, getting better. But I think it is important for us to continue to hope. Things will get better because the time goes by, we know this crisis more. And there are a lot of the criticism, you know, a lot of the support. So sometimes I see kind of divided opinion within the country or country by country globally. But I really encourage the audience and then always, also Henkel colleagues. We are keeping a hope for things will get better. And then we wish everybody stay healthy. Stay safe, then is we can come we can overcome this crisis, and then is mankind that we learn very big lesson from this crisis and then based on this lesson, and then the world and the planet will be a better place to live.
I like the message and it does feel like a comfortable place to view the pandemic for up here and we are just to give a little bit of geographical location, we are overlooking the Han River at a very safe distance several floors up you’ve got massage chairs in this employees lounge or nursing room if someone needed to use that. It’s a really great view, great scenery and even on a cloudy cold day It looks quite beautiful. So summer time must be wonderful. Let’s come back to operations as I promised before May, with you on that subject overseeing everything it’s a huge jop not just with all the staff but all the different business interests. What are some of the most important things for you to focus on when considering who you’re selling products to finding new people to buy and and bringing them in as well through customs etc.?
Oh, I think just reflecting COVID crisis situation short-termly but in the long term we are the change of the fundamental evolution I have to say into the digitalization way and then you know in terms of the retail businesses and commerce way. Let’s start the basic assumption. If we are looking at the Henkel Korea business alone, Henkel is almost 40 different technology base and we are nine the SBU the sub business units are working on out of this nine sub division is number one and the biggest division is electronic materials. Just one example is how many camera on your mobile, Alex.
I know I use at least two of them on the front and back but I know there’s also more than one on the back so.
These days already is the four or the up to the six different camera so you don’t imagine this six cameras are the bolt and nut assembled, this is the whole bonding materials in it. That is Henkel making and then is the semi conductor Daya techy. When the memory chip is they are exchanging the information or the chips it is actually on the Daya techy. It is basically adhesive bonding agent making the roll in these chips attached on the device. So that is we are making. The other one is we are helping the mothers because all the baby diapers is actually bodning by Henkel’s Donnovan adhesive so if you are wearing Nike shoes, that is the shoes athletic shoes using normally 60 different natural synthetic sub stretch materials. This is how they are making together by bond. So that is we are helping our customers and this is our consumers as well. So that is of course our Percil laundry, the homecare business is really helping the family yeah for their hygiene. Yeah, hygiene and then we do the really good performance. And then it’s also very nice fragrance as well. Yeah, so that’s our focus. Besides we continue to making our employees consumers and our customers safety. Yeah, from the specially from the crisis, our business podcast is we are really really brace with this industry and then each consumer demand and then also we are the contributor to the change into the next stage with sustainable method, sustainable production, sustainable innovation, and that is a sustainable, the entire value chain to making this planet is continued to be healthy. We are already selling more, always producing more, but we will use less resource as much as we can. So that is I would say our key focus area.
And you’ve got this facility here where a lot of office spaces devoted here in Mapo-Gu but over in Songdo it’s a plant which has been very, very highly praised for its role in bringing about sustainability. JW. Can you tell us what happens at Songdo versus what happens here, for example?
I mean, Songdo is a brandnew building, so when we designed Songdo, we brought into the concept of sustainability so there’s a distinctive difference between the multiple buildings that we are in, and the SongDo. You know, speaking of sustainability, right, so if we’re looking at our environment, one of the key changes that environmental and safety and quality regulation is a more, we’re getting stricter. And then the regulation is the fundamental license to operate our manufacturing side so that, again, the SongDo plant is kind of designed to meet 100% compliance regulation, and also to outperform the sustainability that our society and our stakeholder is expecting Henkel. So that makes me proud when we talk about Songdo.
Well, I met both of you at the KGCCI Innovation Awards. It’s the German Chamber of Commerce, if you’re not familiar with that, anybody. It’s something that I had the pleasure of hosting. And it was wonderful to talk about all the areas of innovation that not just German, but also local business communities have been very much engaged in and it was Henkel Korea Songdo plant won innovation in sustainability. But the speaking of innovation, and tech and in what you’re trying to do, JW, I know that’s an area that you’re interested in, as well. How important is it to be able to embrace some of those areas of technology, whether it’d be AI or any other buzzword that’s out there right now in terms of beyond embrace that and not just to bring about sustainability, but I guess, better and more efficient operations.
Right. I think one of the key change that I’m observing is the workforce is evolving. So what I’m saying is that as information savvy, but the less experienced generation comes into the operation, so but at the same time, the role that new generator comes in once held by the veterans that we have, it’s that they have already retired or is looking to retire. So this AI, I used to think about when we talk about AI, I used to think about that. This is like innovative technology, and innovative technology will bring in the kind of innovative result. But what I come to realize is that this innovative technology can make our operation excellence stability, far strong. So as I said, what we’re trying to do is make our fundamental strong by downloading our kind of veterans’ knowhow into the digital system. And there’s a way that we can detach the people from the machine and the best way that we can drive the productivity. And of course, we also think about the various innovative results from this some AI and machine learning technology. For example, when it comes to quality management, the timing that we know whether the product that we produce is on spec or off spec is after a production after we test the product in the lab. But once we detect it, this is off spec, you know the only destination is scrapped is a huge cause. So that’s what we are trying to think differently is that whether we can accurately predict the quality before we produce a product with raw material, the data, with the machine condition, with people’s skill set profile, so that with this combined data, we tried to predict accurately the quality of the product, not after we produce that one. So this is a completely different approach that we are wishing for the brilliant results that we never had before.
And just a final question aside from technology. May, in the foreseeable future, how important do you see the Korean market as being in the Henkel empire?
Ah, I think Korea will be important as much as Ojingeo Game.
I think that that kept on Netflix going for a few weeks.
Yes, I’m serious because one of the reason I think when the SongDo plant was decided by Henkel, actually it was almost two years of competition all the location globally in Henkel have. That is one of the reason we finally Songdo was chosen for this huge investment was part of the region was people. So people’s skill set, people’s commitment, people’s openness to the change and the challenge. So I think this is a huge asset for the Korea’s importance within the Henkel world, and Henkel actually announced the new corporate purpose last year. So which is we are the pioneer at heart for the good of generation. This new purpose is the very nicely the reflection the entrepreneurial pioneers at heart for the good all generation. It is not only for us our prosperity but also it is a sustainable you know prosperity for our children and children’s childrens and that is also the reflection Henkel ‘s 146 years histories and the humanity philosophy behind I would say. I’m so proud of I’m Henkel employee for that and I’m literally done finally adding for the future about the technology. Henkel already it’s been a few years we are talking about and then is a training about automation smart factory and AI machine learning, deep learning so that is what I feeling right is here 2022 to finally come to our daily management. It already started last year even under the COVID you know, it’s the challenge period, I think it is so close, I think it is so close. There is the famous wisdom you know, Ales, it is about the training so that is if you tell me I will forgot, if you teach me I will remember, if you involve me I finally learn. I think all kinds of this AI automation, the machine learning, the big data, blockchain all this is really learning periodic because everybody now is involved for this change not only the business operation and the value chain. I think if you aren’t start you should be hurry. Yeah, if you already started you have to finish the teach period as soon as possible but then it makes everybody involved then we are finally learn and then we are moving on.
Thank you so much both of you. I mean for inviting me here in the first place but for sharing so many valuable words of wisdom as well. May Kim, Country President of Henkel Korea and JW Min, head of operations. I wish you all the best. I hope I can come back and enjoy this view again in another season. We should do it seasonally regular things so that I can see how all the blossoms bloom across the river. Tthat would be lovely. Thank you again so much. Best of luck.
Thank you Alex for coming here to Mapo and all the best to everybody. Thank you very much.
Thank you. Wish you Alex and all the audience of this podcast a happy and safe, wealthy healthy new year. Thank you.
Let me again extend to everybody a very Happy Lunar New Year especially if you missed the start of our week. You can check out all our past episodes via your preferred podcast provider, just search career biz cast. If you can’t find us, please let us know via email, info at kbla.net or LinkedIn by searching KBLA. Thanks also to today’s sponsor, the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul for making today’s episode possible. The hotel has been hosting some great events lately. And you might be surprised by what’s possible, even as the pandemic lingers on something to ponder if you’re thinking about driving your business forward with a gathering of some kind. Well, that’s it for now. See you again tomorrow.