Lee Min Hwa (int'l edition)
For decades, South Korea's large family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, have been the mainstays of the economy. But suddenly in the last couple of years, high-tech companies have burst onto the scene thanks to visionaries such as Lee Min Hwa. The workaholic Lee, 47, practically engineered Korea's venture business boom, pressing Seoul to enact a raft of new laws to support fledgling high-tech startups and allow venture-capital firms to flourish. As a result of Lee's efforts, Korea now has more than 7,000 such companies, the highest number in the world outside the U.S., compared with a mere 250 before Lee started the Korea Venture Business Assn. (KOVA) in 1995.
Lee Min Hwa|
Korea Venture Business Assn.
In addition, Lee's efforts helped prompt the establishment of a second, technology-oriented bourse in Korea, the Kosdaq. Back in 1995, Lee authored a report on how Kosdaq would benefit Korea's economy, and then spent three months lobbying the government to pressure the Korean Securities Assn. to set up such a bourse. The Kosdaq, which is modeled on the U.S.'s Nasdaq and started trading in 1996, has fulfilled Lee's goal of offering another way for cash-starved high-tech companies to tap into new sources of funds. ''Korea couldn't wait 50 years for the industry to develop, like it has in the U.S.,'' says Lee. ''We needed to provide some infrastructure.''
Lee's lobbying efforts have prompted the deregulation of the venture-capital industry. He himself set up one of Korea's first specialized venture-cap company, Terasource, which is now the country's third-largest. Since then, venture-capital firms have blossomed from 40 in 1996, to 151 today. The situation is improving, says Lee, but ''Korea still needs more specialized venture-capital companies.''
Lee's desire to set up the Seoul-based KOVA was born of his own frustrating experience trying to start up a company. Some 10 years earlier, while researching ultrasound machines for his PhD thesis in electronics at a local science institute, he wanted to try to manufacture his own machine. ''I couldn't persuade anyone to invest in the project,'' says Lee. So he got together six other engineers and pooled $50,000. The result was Medison Co., which set up in 1985 and began manufacturing Lee's ultrasound machine in 1987. Ten years later, Medison engineers had developed the world's first three-dimensional ultrasound. Now, Medison is Korea's largest medical-equipment manufacturer, with annual sales of $185 million. Medison competes with Siemens and Toshiba Corp. in ultrasound manufacturing and magnetic resonance Imaging. The company employs 340 people in its Seoul headquarters, and has 1,500 employees in affiliates around the world.
TWO HATS. As chairman of Medison, Lee was swamped with requests from engineers he met who wanted to start their own high-tech companies but didn't know how to come up with the funding. ''They were asking me what they should do to overcome their financial problems,'' he says. So Lee put together another group of people to pool their money--this time 17 other high-tech entrepreneurs who together contributed $100,000 and set up the KOVA. The association now boasts some 1,050 members and provides networking opportunities, as well as lobbies on behalf of small business. Lee's proudest achievement, he says, is a new law that allows professors and students to start their own companies in university labs--and hold onto the profits.
Between his two hats at Medison and the KOVA, Lee logs about 100 working hours a week. When asked about outside hobbies or interests, he answers, laughingly, ''work.'' But he does spend time with this three daughters and play the occasional game of Go. A self-described optimist who ''likes challenges,'' Lee oversees Medison's charitable donations--ultrasound equipment--to North Korea.
Lee predicts that as a result of the changes he has made in Korea's business climate, the country will have 43,000 high-tech companies by 2005, accounting for up to one-quarter of Korea's economy. With all that activity going on, he believes, the days of dominance for the lumbering chaebol will finally be numbered. ''They can't be the driving force for the New Economy,'' says Lee. ''Small companies have a definite advantage over large companies in a knowledge-based economy.'' Spoken like a true high-tech visionary.
Muhammad Yunus (int'l edition)
Muhammad Yunus, 60, first achieved acclaim with microcredit lending in Bangladesh back in the 1970s. His Grameen Bank lent money to poor villagers, and the paltry amounts were enough to let them create small businesses and generate their own income. Yunus' model has become Bangladesh's most successful export: 35 countries employ more than 100 similar programs.
Now, Yunus is enlisting technology in his war on poverty--with potentially even more successful results. Two years ago, he started lending cellular phones to rural women so they could earn income from placing calls: 1,500 villages now have them, with 100 more added every month. Yunus is upgrading the phones to give them Internet access--and installing Internet kiosks in rural areas. Soon, villagers will be running their own microcredit enterprises based on charging for Internet access. ''Microcredit is an empowering tool. Information technology is an empowering tool. I'm putting these together,'' says Yunus, a former economics professor. His first Internet kiosk, 80 miles from Dhaka, is having an impact. Students use it for research and finding information on applying to universities in the U.S. and Europe; doctors look up new studies that might not otherwise reach them. ''By adopting IT, Bangladesh can overcome poverty.'' With more people like Yunus, perhaps the whole world can, too.
ONLINE ORIGINAL: A Chat with Muhammad Yunus
Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, pioneered "microloan" seed money for grass-roots businesses. Now he is lending cellular phones to rural women and building Internet "kiosks" he believes can remedy poverty, illness, and isolation. He spoke with Asia Editor Sheri Prasso while in New York recently to address the Asia Society. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: What's the reason you're moving to incorporate technology in developing countries, lending cellphones to villagers, etc.?
A: I got very involved in information technology issues because of its influence in large advanced economies like the U.S. and Europe. The old relationships are changing in business -- like in the value chain, middlemen are eliminated. This is changing the cost structure, changing the direct link between the consumer and producer.... It's becoming a new society, not only a new economy.
In my work in Bangladesh I'm trying to use information technology to address the issue of poverty. So we created Grameen Phone. The conventional mobile-phone company will be selling mobile phones to the rich people, the well-off people. But we decided to take to the villages and to the extreme poor people.
It was convenient because we have Grameen Bank, so the financing part was easy. So we are financing the phone, and the woman sells the service of the telephone in the village and makes money. It's a win-win situation all around. She never saw a telephone in her life. She never used one. In many cases she never saw electricity. So we are bringing the brand new cellular telephone -- state-of-the-art technology with a solar panel on top to charge the battery -- to villages that don't even have electricity.
She quickly masters this technology. If you see her after three months of her work, she talks about the phone and her plans as if she has been in this business for a long time. She knows the country codes, area codes, when is a good time to call, who calls what time, time differences. She knows this very quickly. Basically she's an intelligent person. She's illiterate, but she's an intelligent person. Information technology helps her, it helps farmers check out the market prices in the cities, rather than relying on a middleman to tell them a story. They can contact the doctors, police.
Q: How quickly will you be shifting standard cellular lines to Internet-connection phones?
A: We'll be doing that as soon as those telephones are in the market. In the meantime we set up an Internet service provider company, the largest in the country, and we are bringing Internet services in the villages of Bangladesh through an Internet kiosk, so that people can use Internet facilities.
They're coming for e-mails, for browsing, Web sites. There's an easy connect between the city and the villages. We have one we set up six months ago in Madhupur, about 80 miles from Dhaka. The next will open in about two months in Jamalpur, about 100 miles from Dhaka. Grameen Communications set it up. People can come just like you come to the telegraph office, except now you send an e-mail. You go and send a message and immediately get a reply.... People are using it for e-mail accounts, students looking for information browsing the Internet, looking for admissions opportunities for colleges.... doctors looking for information about medicine, health articles and whatever.
Q: Grameen Communications runs the kiosks now. But will they be turned over to villagers, like the cellular phones?
A: Yes, that is our plan. There are 22 independent companies around Grameen Bank. They have to find and make their own financing. Grameen Cybernet is the Internet service provider. Then we have a Grameen Software involved in software development.
If we can bring Internet properly, we can address the health-care system, for doctors who can provide the services from the city via video conferencing. We have Hewlett-Packard as a business partner on this project. If it works, it opens up a new business opportunity for them. It's also a social service. Because I challenged them, I said, "You make a lot of money but you don't do anything for poor people?" And they said, "What can we do?" I said try out something like this....
Soon it will be active. It's not a clinic, it's more like a cyberclinic. The doctor can be in Dhaka and talk to the patients as if they are in his clinic, and see how they benefit from long-distance treatment. We'll start with two or three specific diseases so that we have specialized doctors and then expand the range of complaints.
Education could become another interesting area, where illiterate people can become literate. We have an agreement with Medialab of MIT, where we are trying to develop speech technology for our language, Bangla. The idea is that people can speak in Bangla, so even if you are illiterate you can speak in Bangla and can get the text. So we hope to address the illiteracy issue in a much more entertaining way. You don't need a teacher. The computer becomes your teacher and friend.
For a woman in Bangladesh, she often doesn't have a companion. Man-woman relationships are very distant in Bangladesh. It's not an easy, friendly relaitonship. So this way she can explore the world and be informed. She doesn't need the middleman of her husband, because he's the one who goes outside to the world.
Q: So you're saying that technology has so many more applications to help the poor than to help the well-off?
A: Fantastic opportunity, but nobody's noticing that. The reason people are not noticing that is because information technology is in the hands of businesses, pushing in that direction, for business-to-business portals. So there are all kinds of possibilities when you can access the outside world. She can learn, she can find a job, all kinds of possibilities. It doesn't matter if you are the richest person in the world or the poorest person in the world, you have the same potential.... We can create truly a world without poverty in this way. Information technology gives us tremendous possibility for doing that.
Q: You're working to establish a Center for Information Technology to Eliminate Global Poverty?
A: Yes, I've proposed setting up this center. I've talked with technology people, interested people. I've met Jim Wolfensohn at the World Bank. I've talked to President Clinton about this when he was in Bangladesh [in March]. He took tremendous interest in it. He said this is an idea whose time has come. He had a meeting in the White House right after he came back from Bangladesh. He invited Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Amartya Sen, Jim Wolfensohn. Everybody was there to talk about how to overcome this digital divide, so that we are not creating two kinds of people -- one equipped with this powerful technology, one that's deprived of this technology.
Oki Matsumoto (int'l edition)
Oki Matsumoto runs Japan's hottest online brokerage, Monex Inc. He's slashed fees and offered personalized trading in a business dominated by giants. From his launch last October, the 36-year-old ex-partner at Goldman, Sachs & Co., charged a rock-bottom $9.35 per trade. That established Monex as the low-cost leader just as stock commissions were deregulated and pushed others to lower prices as well.
Matsumoto, who graduated from the prestigious Tokyo University, first went to Goldman with his business plan. Goldman turned him down, so Matsumoto quit. After he persuaded Sony Corp. to back him, Goldman changed its tune, and, with other investors, put up $30 million. ''Most businesses will be restructured by the Internet, and those dealing with individual investors will benefit the most,'' he says.
Matsumoto, who has abandoned silk suits in favor of loafers and T-shirts, now pens a daily e-newsletter on topics ranging from cosmology to philology. The aim, he says, is to make Monex as much an intellectual salon as a financial site.
Toshiharu Kojima (int'l edition)
When Toshiharu Kojima took the reins of Nikko Salomon Smith Barney in April, 1999, few money pros in Tokyo figured the hybrid investment bank had much of a future. It seemed highly unlikely that melding the ailing and rigidly bureaucratic Nikko Securities into the gung-ho culture of Citigroup's Solly could add up to a profitable future.
Nikko Salomon Smith Barney
Yet the burly Kojima, 50, is proving that East-West alliances can work in the cutthroat world of Japanese investment banking. A graduate of Tokyo's Sophia University, Kojima knows the ins and outs of Japanese financial markets, having worked for 10 years at Nomura Securities before joining Solly as a bond trader in 1983. He is making great strides as he takes on the likes of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan. Nikko Salomon is now tops in merger advice and equity offerings, and it has even overtaken domestic powerhouse Nomura Securities in debt underwriting.
Kojima has a knack for landing trophy deals. Nikko Salomon pushed aside Daiwa Securities Group as one of three global coordinators for last fall's $15 billion equity offering by Nippon Telegraph & Telephone. The momentum has continued with the underwriting of a $500 million Samurai bond for the Mexican government and a $7.8 billion secondary offering for Oracle Japan. That's a sign of more success to come.
Yoshiki Otake (int'l edition)
Insurance salesmen generally shun risk, not seek it--unless you're Yoshiki Otake, chairman of AFLAC Japan. A quarter-century ago, Otake ditched a stable, successful career selling insurance to set up his own franchise--selling Japan's first cancer insurance for the Columbus (Ga.) American Family Life Assurance Co. The product was an instant hit; AFLAC Japan now accounts for three-quarters of group profits worldwide, and ranks behind IBM Japan and Coca-Cola Co. as the most profitable foreign company in Japan.
Otake, 61, broke with tradition by pitching insurance straight to companies, who then offered it to their employees, eliminating the huge sales forces that weighed down other insurers. Otake, who spent two years studying in California and became a Christian there, says the importance of providing cancer coverage motivates his employees. Cancer is the No. 1 cause of death in Japan, with twice the death rate of heart disease at No. 2. ''The agents really felt like they were selling something worthwhile,'' he says, ''kind of like missionary work.''
Otake's new products, including coverage for dementia and home care for the elderly, are driving up profits--29% in 1999 to $651 million. But Otake is wary of becoming complacent. His next goal is to put his business online. ''The biggest danger for a successful company is for people to get egos,'' says Otake, a humble man in his own right.
Masaru Hayami (int'l edition)
He is one unloved central banker. Since 1998, when Masaru Hayami took over the Bank of Japan, he has been harshly criticized on both sides of the Pacific. Yet when it comes to compromise on issues that threaten the BOJ's newfound independence or economic reform in Japan, the 74-year-old won't budge. Now he's causing controversy by suggesting the time is coming for Japan to pull back from its ultra-loose monetary policy and near-zero interest rates.
Bank of Japan
A devout Christian, Hayami says his spiritual foundation gives him strength. ''We should be proud of the criticism,'' he says.
But critics can't attack his experience. He joined the BOJ in 1947 and has inside knowledge of the private sector from a stint as CEO of trading company Nissho Iwai in the '80s. In a society that's been putting off action for a decade, Hayami's willingness to make tough decisions may be just what Japan needs.
Kanwal Rekhi (int'l edition)
A life as a rich entrepreneur in Silicon Valley was not enough for Kanwal Rekhi. He had emigrated from India to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, created his own high-tech company, sold it for $210 million, and went on to become a successful venture capitalist for Indian entrepreneurs living in California. But Rekhi, 54, wanted to help his country of origin. So two years ago he started making trips to India to promote high-tech startups, meet with young up-and-comers, and become an angel investor for their ideas.
Those activities have made Rekhi a model for other wealthy Silicon Valleyites of Indian origin. Dozens are following his lead by bringing home talent, ideas, and valuable sources of capital to help power India's high-tech boom. When he's in India--about four to five months a year--Rekhi is a celebrity, mobbed by entrepreneurs who want both his advice and his financial backing. Rekhi has invested millions in Indian startups, though he won't disclose the amount.
Rekhi also spends considerable time persuading India's bureaucrats and politicians to open up the economy, so India can earn a better return on its English-speaking and technologically skilled populace. ''The country is full of smart, underachieving people,'' he says. ''I want India to have a vibrant economy in my lifetime.'' This year Rekhi finally cleared one Indian bureaucratic hurdle: He convinced the government to change the country's archaic laws and allow foreign venture capital into India to fund the technology boom. Analysts estimate the change will help bring more than $3 billion in foreign investment to India this year alone. Says Rekhi: ''My mission is to move India forward.'' And he's succeeding.
Banthoon Lamsam (int'l edition)
Although he is the scion of one of Thailand's oldest, most conservative banking families, Banthoon Lamsam's management style is downright iconoclastic. He's brought in foreign consultants to help him run Thai Farmers Bank, aggressively written off bad loans, and introduced a ''performance culture'' for his 10,000 employees, including a controversial early-retirement plan for 2,000 staff unable to keep up with new technology. ''You have to be a bad guy if you want to change anything,'' Banthoon explains.
Thai Farmers Bank
As a result, the 47-year-old graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School is the first in Thailand to engineer a turnaround at an ailing bank. Banthoon, who built his gleaming headquarters in accordance with the dictates of Chinese feng shui, says the Asia crisis helped him dismantle the old banking order he inherited. It allowed him to redefine traditional client relationships and apply more rigorous standards. He persuaded the family to dilute its holdings to 6% from 17% so the bank could be recapitalized. As a result, Banthoon wrote off nonperforming loans one year ahead of the central bank's December 2000 deadline. The payoff is in the bank's bottom line: a first-quarter profit of $8 million.
ONLINE ORIGINAL: A Chat with Banthoon Lamsam
Banthoon Lamsam is president of Thai Farmers Bank, which rode out the tough years of the Asian financial crisis. This year's first-quarter results make it the first Thai bank to report a profit in three years. He recently spoke with Frederik Balfour, Business Week Asia correspondent. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: What have these past three years been like for you?
A: We were beaten up a lot by the events, as was everybody. The crisis has taken a toll on those who are still around. We're exhausted, but there is work still ahead.
Q: Other banks are still dealing with heavy, nonperforming loans, and some companies are still in denial. How were you able to turn the bank around while others are still flailing?
A: We were not a lender in TPI [Thai Petrochemical Industries, the biggest corporate defaulter in Thailand]. We put the facts on the table, so we knew where the bottom was and how much we had to fill in. We were also lucky to tap capital markets in 1998, tapped into small windows, raising more than 100 billion baht. That enabled us to approach bad assets more aggressively.
Q: But you also transferred bad debts to asset-management companies.
A: Transfering to AMCs is not aggressive -- getting somebody to work on them is. Goldman was the underwriter for first equity offering, that was a breakthrough after the crisis.
Q: How's their recovery rate been?
A: It's too early to say if it's successful or not successful, the system is there and the team is working on them.
Q: What about small and medium-size companies? Are they getting the loans they need?
A: The problem is they got stuck in the middle of the crisis. The crux of the problem is that these companies don't have the capital to begin with, which makes them almost unbankable. This issue hasn't been fully addressed by the government.
Q: So what does it take for Thai banks to start lending again?
A: The government thought if you recapitalize the banks, they will lend. But the system is stuck with a huge amount of liquidity and risk aversion.
Q: What are banks doing with the excess liquidity?
A: They are putting it in money markets and overseas, but they are making a loss or just breaking even.
Q: Aside from recapitalizing, what else have you done at the bank?
A: It was reorganized into a more clarified structure. We brought in Mc Kinsey, Oliver Wyatt, Anderson Consulting -- everybody! We also introduced an early-retirement program to make the organization less fat.
Q: Wasn't that hugely unpopular?
A: Yes. Without the crisis, it would be difficult to defend this drastic change of mindset. Early retirement is a voluntary program, but we want to encourage those who cannot compete in the new environment. Some cannot accept new technology, and this is a hard reality. They can't fit into the new business model. In times of crisis, you have to squeeze out performance. You have to be a bad guy if you want to change anything. You end up encroaching on everybody's interests.
Q: What's new about your management style?
A: The idea of performance measurement is still ad hoc but has to be done through training and testing. The first thing to attack is a very old and blatant cronyism and nepotism, which is normal in Thai organization. I also need to implement to a high degree the performance culture. People need to accept the inevitability of being measured, the idea of reward and punishment. There's a generational change, people who ran the bank during prosperous times are in their mid-60s and tired. I took over in 1992.
Q: Do you ever consider anything other than banking? You're the fourth generation right?
A: I never even considered anything else. I never had the choice.
Q: What else are you doing to improve efficiency?
A: New products have to be introduced, and they have to be backed up by a complete overhaul of information technology systems. Marketing and operations are taking a drastic change.
Q: What about your traditional clients?
A: Relationships have to be looked at with respect to risk ratings. This puts things in a very different light. When the economy was growing double digits, nothing was risky. It came as a shock to everybody that everything collapsed.
Q: What is the bank doing to embrace the New Economy?
A: We are setting up a separate unit, with the help of consultants. In Thailand, it's still in the infant stage. We are moving to centralization of back offices, and more electronic delivery, too. But Thais in general are not into personal computers. The first interface will be ATMs, and the second will be mobile phones.
Q: What's the bank's outlook for the rest of the year?
A: We made about $8 million in the first quarter. Unless the economy collapses, we should have a reasonable start. We have fully allocated for loan losses, hopefully that will stay that way.
Q: People are now starting to worry about recurring nonperforming loans.
A: Relapsed NPLS are very much an issue in the Thai system. Some loans have been restructured and returned, and there are some new NPLS. Maybe in those parts, the economy not doing so well. Then there are also cases of those who just don't pay.
Q: What is the likelihood of more corporate bond issues in 2000?
A: There are very few names good enough to sell to institutions. Thai Farmers bank is a bigger player in underwriting bonds, but there is a very narrow window of risk. Depositers have nowhere else to go, while interest rates are low.
Q: Do you think the government has managed the recovery well?
A: Foreign investors are concerned that the management of the country is questionable, more questionable than two years ago when the world thought Thailand had a dream team. There's no other dream team in sight.
Q: You have a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on your office wall.
A: Yes. I was 10 years in the States as a student, preschool, Princeton, and Harvard. I bought Abraham Lincoln because he persevered so much.
Yoshihiko Miyauchi (int'l edition)
Yoshihiko Miyauchi entered Japan's corporate world in 1958 by way of a freighter to Seattle, where he earned an MBA at the University of Washington. In the four decades since, Miyauchi, 64, has navigated his way to the top of Japan's largest and most innovative leasing company, Orix Corp. And he has become Japan's loudest and most prominent corporate reformer: He chairs a government-advisory panel, the Regulatory Reform Committee, which reports directly to the Prime Minister. ''I'm driven by the belief that the Japanese economy will only develop if markets are liberalized and market forces dictate the efficient allocation of resources,'' he says with evangelical zeal.
Miyauchi is precocious by Japanese standards. He joined Orix when it was founded in 1964 and, after stints overseas, rose to director when he was just 45. In his two decades as Chairman, Miyauchi transformed Orix from a lessor of office equipment and industrial machinery into a financial supermarket that dabbles in insurance, consumer finance, and stock brokering--and now e-commerce, too.
Kenichi Ohmae (int'l edition)
Kenichi Ohmae has kept busy since he achieved fame as the head of McKinsey & Co. in Japan in the 1970s and '80s. He has written nearly 100 books, including the respected economic essays The End of the Nation State and The Borderless World. He ran for governor of Tokyo in 1995 but lost. That's when two of his campaign staffers urged him to launch a business school for entrepreneurs. ''Before you kick the bucket, what you know about business should be imparted to our generation,'' Ohmae recalls them telling him.
Attacker's Business School
So Ohmae, 58, set up night and weekend classes in central Tokyo and called it Attacker's Business School. Five years later, 5,000 students have attended. They don't earn a diploma, but would-be entrepreneurs do get pep talks and a place to schmooze. Mostly midcareer executives in their 30s, they are keeping their day jobs while investigating how to break out of the grind.
Already, graduates have launched 148 companies. Others have signed up to work for Ohmae's own ventures in software development, electronic commerce, and satellite television programming for business executives.
Ohmae, who holds a PhD in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he's trying to address the big knowledge gap that he sees in students coming out of even the most prestigious Japanese schools. Unless the students go abroad for an MBA, he says, ''it's hard for them to even use a spreadsheet and develop a real feel for finance.''
Ohmae's thick Rolodex and contacts from his 23 years at McKinsey come in handy. He regularly invites corporate chieftains to address Attacker's seminars.
Ohmae says he sees signs of hope that Japan's economy is finally turning around. In the meantime, Ohmae--when he's not writing books, practicing martial arts, scuba diving, or riding motorcycles, to name a few of his spare-time interests--will continue to impart his vision to up-and-coming Japanese executives.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
E-Mail to Business Week Online