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Moving mountains at LG

Company CEO S.S. Kim rates as a proverbial overnight success--35 years in the making--in more than one way.

When musing about the future of his company, LG Electronics CEO Kim Ssang Su likes to allude to a Chinese proverb about a 90-year-old grandfather named Yu Gong. One day, the old man decided to level two mountains--grain by grain, rock by rock--because they had forced him to take long detours when he traveled. His neighbors told him he was deluded, but Yu Gong remained undeterred.

"Your mind is too inflexible," he told them. "Even if I die, I have my children, my grandchildren and all their scions. My line will go on and on, but those two mountains can never get taller or bigger--what do I have to worry about?"

If Su had his druthers, he would like his employees to show the same sort of grit and determination in their daily work.

"If one steadily strives in his work, he will eventually achieve something great," he said in an interview with CNETAsia.

Kim has taken his own advice to heart. In a career at LG spanning 35 years, he has outgrown his rural beginnings to become the CEO of a top global enterprise. Some might say that in the business world, he has moved (or leveled) mountains himself.

Q: Which Asian values do you firmly believe in? How do you apply these values to your business?
A: In Korea, where Confucian ideas are prevalent, family ties, priority of community or group over the individual, enthusiasm for education and diligence are prioritized. I firmly believe in the priority of the whole over individuals, which lays an emphasis on "we," not "I."

What is the biggest challenge when expanding overseas?
Our goal is to be among the top three in electronics, information and communications by 2010.

There is a saying that goes, 'When a tiger dies, it leaves its skin. A man leaves his name.' I want mine to go down in LG history.
In order to be one of the global top three companies, we should not only be so in outward appearance but also in all areas of management. Therefore, our branding will become especially important in realizing our vision and goal.

Since I became CEO of LG Electronics, I have always emphasized making our brand a premium brand. For a while, LG Electronics was relatively unknown in the global markets. Now, however, LG Electronics has become one of the most favored brands in many countries and, in some countries, LG has been selected as one of the national brands. We still have more work ahead in securing a premium brand position.

What do you hope to be remembered for when you leave your company?
I have been with LG Electronics for the last 35 years. I first entered LG Electronics as a mechanical engineer and have spent most of my career in the field. I watched our company grow from a small Korean company to the global company that it is now, and I feel proud that I took part in it. Because I have been with LG for so long, and because I feel very much at home with LG, I truly enjoy my work and being at the forefront in the field work.

When I leave my company, I want to be remembered as a global CEO who brought LG Electronics further into the stratosphere of global brands. My agenda remains in making LG Electronics into a global top three company. There is a saying that goes, "When a tiger dies, it leaves its skin. A man leaves his name." I want (mine) to go down in LG history.

How do you motivate yourself and your employees?
I motivate myself and employees by setting high goals, such as Global Top 3 by 2010. In order to produce a winning organization, I motivate myself and employees by creating a corporate culture that continuously creates higher goals. The word "no" is not an option.

Whom do you look to for inspiration?
I admire (former General Electric Chief) Jack Welch as a CEO and Toyota as a company.

I want my company to be more like Toyota.
When we had a strategic alliance with GE, I had a chance to meet with Jack Welch, and I was very impressed with him. When we met, most of our discussion involved business. He was very business-oriented, just as a CEO of a global company should be. And we both shared a passion for working and making decisions in the field, and stretching goals.

I want my company to be more like Toyota. We want to be a great, strong company that does not stop in generating growth and one that is not susceptible to external factors. There has not been a labor strife at Toyota for the past 15 years, and we have not had one in the last 13 years. I found that we have many similarities in innovation and production strategies.

How would you describe your management style?
My management style focuses on three areas: early innovation, stretch goals and field management. Early innovation means that we should innovate in advance and put it into action earlier, thereby maximizing our performance. One such early-innovation process is TDR (tear down and redesign).

We occasionally repeat the same inefficient and unproductive processes, due to limited resources and time. TDR enables us to solve existing problems on a different level while finding innovative solutions, thus maximizing the creation of value and minimizing losses.

Stretch goals are an essential part of LG's global success. I like to tell my people that 5 percent growth is impossible but that 30 percent is possible. Using past methods, we barely achieved even a 5 percent improvement. However, if we change the approach to induce innovative ideas, 30 percent growth can be achieved. If we set a 30 percent stretch goal, we can take a fundamentally different approach to business. We should take a creative approach in order to gain results that are greater than expected.

I am also a firm believer in field management. Reports submitted by LG managers are what I refer to as taped recordings of what happened from someone else's perspective. Being actively involved in the field allows me to witness the action live and make a decision right there, on the spot.

What is your definition of the "right people," and what qualities do you look for in employees?
An ancient Chinese proverb says a foolish old man (Yu Gong) can move mountains. This implies that if one steadily strives in his work, he will eventually achieve something great. I refer to people like Yu Gong as the right people. The right people are the very people who delve into what they are assigned to do and move forward persistently to accomplish their goals.

Also, the right people will become great people when they grow mature, come up with substantial achievements and are armed with unrivalled abilities. I also believe that the right people should be assigned to the right place at the right time to realize fast growth and fast innovation, as well as substantial achievement. This also means that the company needs the right people who share the company's values, challenge themselves persistently and boldly with lofty goals, and have the passion to work.