When Wilfred Y. Horie took the helm of Korea First Bank in January, 2000, many other bankers in Seoul figured it would take years for the soft-spoken Japanese-American to make an impact. The task of reorganizing the rigidly bureaucratic, debt-ridden institution and persuading its combative unions to back change seemed overwhelming--especially for the first foreigner ever to run a Korean bank.
In less than a year, however, Horie, 55, has set the Korean banking industry abuzz. He raised a storm by flatly rejecting a government request that his bank provide fresh funds to troubled conglomerates. He also ignored threats of government retaliation. "Banks should be allowed to run independently," he says. Horie also has defied local sensitivities by bringing in other foreign managers. And he has shifted the bank's emphasis by focusing on retail customers and smaller companies rather than giant chaebol.
Horie's critics can't argue with the results. Korea First made a $243 million profit last year after a $798 million loss in 1999. Horie hopes to boost profits by a third this year, which would put Korea First two years ahead of its financial targets. Horie wants to make Korea First a bigger force in consumer finance--especially mortgages, a long-neglected field for Korean banking.
Key to Horie's success is his experience in building up a hugely successful consumer operation for Associates First Capital Corp.--now a division of Citigroup (C)--in Japan, where he lived for nearly 20 years. Horie is both calm and straightforward. Other Korea First staff say he has been able to speak bluntly to union officials and colleagues without alienating them. If Horie's approach keeps producing results, it could be widely copied in the restructuring of banks across Asia.