Hyundai cars are popular vehicles
in car markets all over the world. But it wasn’t always like this. Their journey
to the top was a difficult one that was faced with a lot of challenges and situations
that seemed hopeless. It all started with a young boy born into an impoverished family in
North Korea, an ambition, and a stolen cow.
This is the story of Hyundai…
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Jung Joo-Young was the eldest son of eight
children. He belonged to a large and poor farming family that lived in
northern regions of Korea, which would eventually become
what we now know as North Korea. When Jung was born on November 25th 1915, Korea
was under strict rule by Japanese colonists.
While he was still a young boy, Jung had dreams
of becoming a school teacher. However, it became evident to him soon enough that these dreams
may never become reality. He got an education but couldn’t go further than grade school because
of how poor his family was.
After grade school, his days were spent working on his family’s farm.
Jung discovered his talent for business on the days when he would go into town to sell
wood. Soon, he got tired of the life of poverty that his family was living and made
plans to leave that life behind.
Jung had gotten fed up with the poverty he had
to live in everyday, so at the age of sixteen, he decided to run away from home.
He and a friend
trekked for miles to Kowon county which was also in the northern regions of Korea. The two friends
worked as construction workers. It was tiring work and the pay wasn’t good, but because he was
earning his money independently, Jung preferred the poor working conditions on the construction
site to having to work on his family’s farm.
Unfortunately, that didn’t last for too long.
Jung’s father soon found out where he was and he was forced to return to his home in Asan. But
at this point, Jung had gotten a taste of freedom and had discovered his love for engineering.
Not too long after, he planned another escape. He and two friends left for Seoul, but
immediately encountered some setbacks. Early on in the journey, one of the
three friends was found out by a sibling, leaving only two people to continue the escape.
The two remaining friends ran into yet another difficulty. They were offered jobs by a stranger
who ended up conning them out of all their money. Finally, their escape plan was foiled completely
when they were caught by Jung’s father. Jung was once again left with
no choice but to return home. He stayed for about a year in Asan, busy
with work on the family farm.
Jung was 18 years old when he finally managed
to escape from his father’s grip for good. He made his trip to Seoul by train and
paid for the expensive ticket by secretly selling one of his father’s cows.
Once in Seoul, Jung looked for job opportunities anywhere he could find them.
At different points
in time, he was a laborer, a construction worker, and a handyman at a factory. Eventually, he found
a job in a rice shop as a bicycle delivery guy. The job allowed him to rise through the
ranks. He worked hard and gained the favor of the customers and even the store’s owner.
In 1937, at the age of 22, Jung bought the store on credit from the owner, who had fallen sick.
The store grew and made good profits until early 1939 when Japan, in its war efforts to secure
rice supplies for the country and its military, imposed an oppressive rice-rationing system which
forced Korean businesses out of trading rice.
Jung returned to his village once his
business failed and remained there until 1940, when he decided to try again in Seoul. After
considering the reality of restrictions imposed on Koreans in certain industries by the
Japanese Occupational Government, Jung decided to enter the automobile repair business. Using
a service garage he purchased from a friend, Jung started the A-do Service Garage on
a 3,000-won loan. Within three years, the number of employees grew from 20 to 70 and
Chung was able to earn a good income. In 1943, the Japanese Government forced the garage to merge
with a steel plant as part of the war effort.
Jung went back to his village,
but he was far from giving up.
At the end of World War II, after Korea had been liberated from Japan, Jung restarted his
automobile repair business. This time, he named it Hyundai which translates to “modern” in English.
In 1947, he established Hyundai Civil Industries in anticipation of the major reconstruction that
was bound to happen because the war had ended.
With the help of one of his brothers who was
fluent in English, Jung won several lucrative contracts from the United States military
in South Korea. Unfortunately, his business was once again disrupted by the outbreak of war
between the northern and southern sides of Korea. In 1950, when the war began, Jung and his younger
brother had to abandon the business and run away as South Korea was being invaded by the north.
When the war ended in 1953, Jung returned to his company and resumed work. The company won more
and more contracts and continued to thrive. Soon, it was one of the largest construction
companies in the entire South Korea.
Jung’s company won many elite projects. In
1967, the company built the Soyang dam which was completed in 1973. In 1968, Hyundai Civil
Industries began construction on the Gyeongbu Expressway which is currently the second
oldest and most heavily travelled expressway in South Korea. The construction of
this expressway was completed in 1970 and is known today as the most important
expressway in South Korea.
Jung had a mission to industrialize Korea
so that the country wouldn’t have to depend so much on foreign aid.
So, Jung also established
an automobile manufacturing plant in Ulsan, South Korea. His company grew and continued to spread.
The automobile company that Jung started was put under the control of his brother.
At its birth, the company started off building two car models for Ford Motor Company to serve
the market in South Korea. However, in 1974, the company decided to produce their own
car. They hired an engineer, George Turnbull, who went ahead to hire five other British car
engineers to work on the project with him.
Using some car parts from Mitsubishi and
some from a Ford model that the company was already building, the team drew on their
combined experience and created the first true Hyundai car – the Hyundai Pony.
This car was introduced to South Korea and the rest of the world in 1975.
The Hyundai Pony was the first mass-produced and exported car in South Korea.
As Hyundai grew fast, Jung was constantly looking for opportunities to expand and to diversify.
He was known for his nearly iron-fisted approach to business.
He worked hard, determined to
outshine other top conglomerates in South Korea such as Samsung and the Daewoo Group.
Then one day, he decided to go into the shipbuilding business. This was a bold move for
him to take, considering that he had no experience at all in the business of shipbuilding.
Undeterred by his lack of shipbuilding expertise, Jung convinced a client to
give him a contract to build a ship worth tens of millions of dollars.
He travelled to England and met with some bankers from the prestigious Barclays Bank in London. He
showed these bankers a 500-won bank currency note which had a picture of an iron ship that had been
built in Korea in 1592 [Picture], 300 years before the British built and launched their first iron
ship. He convinced them, using this currency note, that the shipbuilding industry had potential
which had been suppressed in previous times. With this, he successfully persuaded them
to give him the shipbuilding contract.
This was the beginning of Hyundai Heavy Industries (also known as HHI) which is the largest
shipbuilding industry in the world today. HHI was built in Ulsan, South Korea.
Shipyard, owned by Hyundai Heavy Industries, is now the largest shipyard in the world.
The first ship built by this company was completed in three years, which was two years
sooner than what was originally expected.
Hyundai Heavy Industries thrived and achieved its
current status as the largest builder of merchant ships in the world within 30 years of operation.
In time, Hyundai’s name was all over South Korea. Hyundai built roads, bridges, ships,
trains, cars, electronics, and more. Ulsan, which was the city where Hyundai had the
headquarters of its shipbuilding, construction, and automobile manufacturing businesses, was
informally known as Hyundai City.
Jung wasn’t satisfied with his success in just
He was interested in entering into foreign markets. So, true to his methods,
Jung went ahead and did just that. He bid for several contracts overseas and won some. In
the 1970’s he won a contract to build the Jubail Industrial Port in Saudi Arabia which was, at
the time, the largest construction project of the 20th century and is still considered one of the
largest industrial ports in the world. In 1986, Hyundai entered into the U.S. automobile market.
They provided cars that the average consumer found valuable while other automobile manufacturers were
beginning to focus their attention on building expensive, high-end vehicles.
Jung had successfully built an empire that was giving Korea’s economic
status a huge boost.
Toward the end of his life,
he used his business skills to lobby relentlessly for South Korea to
be the host of the 1988 Summer Olympics. Eventually, they won. Hosting the Summer Olympics
brought great pride to the people of South Korea.
Later in his life, Jung worked
to reunite North and South Korea. In 1992, he ran for president. Although the party
he created won 30 seats in the National Assembly, he lost the presidential race.
Jung continued trying to unite the two Koreas as a civilian. In a grand gesture, he made a trip
in 1998 across the North Korean border. He took with him 1000 cows as a gift to North Korea
to pay for the cow he stole from his father. He had plans to negotiate with the North Korean
government and to embark on projects that would reunite the two Koreas. Unfortunately, he died
before he could bring this dream into reality.
In present times, the Hyundai Conglomerate is
restructured into various groups based on the services or products delivered. Each group is
worth billions of dollars today. It’s almost hard to believe that all this started from a
young boy, an ambition, and a stolen cow.
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