Byun Dae Gyu is one big reason investors can find hope in South Korea's technology-based startups. The 41-year-old chief executive of Humax Co., a digital set-top box maker, is proving an obscure Asian startup can endure setbacks and succeed globally.
Humax' profits are the envy of executives at Old and New Economy companies. In contrast to many Korean manufacturers that are struggling just to service their debt, Humax last year earned $27 million on $113 million in sales. The reason: a 120-engineer research team and aggressive marketing. To stay flexible, Byun outsources manufacturing--a relatively new idea in Korea.
Although Byun is personally shy, he's a fierce competitor. An all-around athlete, he plays soccer every weekend with an amateur team. And as an entrepreneur, he's as relentless as they come. An engineer with a PhD in digital control and instrumentation science, he spent years learning through trial and error. In 1989, Byun and six of his friends from Seoul National University spent $40,000 setting up an engineering firm specializing in digital control systems. It went nowhere. So they switched to digital home appliances, including a video compact disc player sold in China. That didn't make any money. So, in 1996, Byun decided to focus on digital set-top boxes, which turn televisions into interactive entertainment centers.
His tenacity paid off. By 2000, Humax accounted for a third of the set-top boxes sold at retail in Europe. That's just 10% of the market, with the rest of set-top boxes sold wholesale by broadcast companies, but sales have established the Humax brand as solid value for the price. All of Humax' revenues are generated overseas, where it competes with the likes of Nokia (NOK), Philips Electronics (PHGZF), and Pace Micro Technology of Britain.
To really reach the big time, Byun is gunning to become the major supplier to broadcasting companies in Europe and America. For better recognition, Humax formed a joint venture with Samsung Electronics to produce set-top boxes for the U.S. If he is successful, Byun will teach both startups and the chaebol how a focused company can make itself a truly global player.