How to Build an Empire

Hyundai 30th Anniversary Special

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Hyundai this year celebrates 30 years in Australia. To celebrate, myHyundai News brings you this two-part series on company founder, Asan, who started life with nothing and finished it overseeing a vast industrial empire. In this, Part 1, we learn how Asan built an empire from scratch.

Humble Beginnings

“Can-do spirit overcomes hardships.”

Born in 1915 to an impoverished farming family in what is now North Korea (Korea was still unified under Japanese rule until 1945), Chung Ju-yung – now better known by his pen name, ‘Asan’ – couldn’t afford much of an education. But with the heart of an entrepreneur and a determination to succeed despite the odds, Asan left his village at the age of 16, financing his journey by selling his family’s only cow (this sale would prove to be a key moment later in his life – as you’ll discover in Part 2 of our Asan story).

Asan’s work ethic was robust. Bookkeeping, dock work, construction (he discovered a true passion for the latter); the young man worked wherever he could. Upon reaching Seoul, Korea’s capital, he took a job as a clerk in a rice store at age 18. Four years later, when the owner became ill, Asan took ownership of the store: his first business venture. The store quickly grew and made good profits under his watch, until 1939, when Japan introduced rice rationing to aid its military. It was an unfortunate turn for the young entrepreneur.


The business closed soon after, but Asan’s drive to succeed remained strong. He began repairing cars, and nightly read lectures by his more educated associates to better understand the business world. It was becoming clear this peasant’s son would not let a few early failures prevent him from achieving his dreams.

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Building an Empire

“Success or failure depends on our thoughts and attitude.”

While World War II left Korea devastated and divided, Asan knew there were business opportunities to be found as the nation looked to rebuild. With his previous experience working in the automotive and construction industries, Asan founded two companies: the Hyundai Motor Industrial Company in 1946, and Hyundai Civil Industries in 1947. The meaning of Hyundai in Korean? “Modern era” – a clear statement that Asan intended to prosper alongside the South Korean nation.

Indeed, Hyundai Civil Industries was responsible for building much of South Korea’s new infrastructure: dams, expressways, power plants, shipbuilding yards. Asan’s venture into the latter is quite remarkable: with no previous shipbuilding experience, he managed to convince an Italian customer to order a ship for tens of millions of dollars. The industrious young man didn’t shirk at the challenge: not only did he build the ship successfully, but the Ulsan Shipyard soon became the largest shipyard in the world.

South Korea’s success fed Asan’s, and vice versa – in many ways, both man and country mirrored each other’s paths to prosperity. Soon, Asan turned his attention beyond achieving success, and instead to achieving dreams. For example: ever the patriot, Asan wanted to build a car using only Korean technology and expertise. He gave that brief to his automotive company, who developed the Hyundai Pony: the first Korean car, and a source of great pride for both Asan and the people of South Korea.

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His Workers

“The company should be for the people, as it is by the people.”

Much of Asan’s business success stemmed from his belief that people were more important than capital or technology. He had faith in the intelligence and diligence of his workers, because in Asan’s view, Korean human resources were second to none. Asan’s attitude towards his workers could be summed up by the Korean term samgo choyeo: providing opportunities for all workers to prove themselves patiently before being granted authority and responsibility.

But Asan never forgot where he came from: himself a former labourer, he would often join his employees for Korean-style bouts of wrestling and games of volleyball. He was regularly seen attending introductions and training sessions for new employees. Asan shared the joys and sorrows of his workers; they were like family members to him, and each one played a key role in the success of his enterprise.

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See Part 2 of Asan’s story in the next myHyundai News!

Don’t miss part two of Asan’s story in next edition of myHyundai News as we look at Asan’s life philosophy, his contributions to his country, and his admirable efforts in re-unifying North and South Korea.

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