Stella Chun from the JTL West chapter had first encountered Mr. Lee during OKTA-Vancouver Trade school in 2010, where he appeared as a keynote speaker. His lecture was over 2 hours but it was definitely worth listening to. He came to Canada with a dream and managed to succeed in this society. His lecture's main points were: "order today, deliver today" and be persistent - don't give up because you ran into an obstacle. His story was truly inspiring and she wanted to interview him for our FTL to share his story. Due to his busy schedule it was not easy getting an interview with Mr. Lee. She wrote him e-mails but never heard a response back. The moment she got discouraged, Mr. Lee came back to Vancouver to visit OKTA-Vancouver and had a chance to have dinner with him. After the dinner, she literally chased after him to ask for an interview in person. Mr. Lee said "okay, give me a call, no e-mails because I get over 100 emails a day." She followed Mr. Lee's advice - be persistent and don't give up - and managed to schedule an interview with him and our JTL East chapter.
What was your motivation for immigrating to Canada and how was your life in Canada during the beginning?
Before I moved to Canada, I was a hockey player. I grew up with skates that were tagged "made in Canada." Without much knowledge of Canada, I always had a thought of going to Canada someday. Throughout my years of playing hockey in leagues at middle and high schools, I believed that I was an excellent player and would become the best player if I improved my skills in Canada. That was how it all started. Upon reflection, it was a very foolish and reckless decision but I think being simple-minded is one of the components for success.
When you told your family that you wanted to come to Canada, how did your parents react?
My parents told me that I would die from the cold weather in Canada and opposed my will. My father was especially disappointed in me because two of my older brothers, who were attending Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell medical school, were already established in academics. I was a good student but my interest lied in playing sports.
After immigrating to Canada, you must have gone through great hardships. How did you overcome them?
These stories contain embarrassing moments of my life but I want to share with the students if they are of any help in the path to success. My first obstacle was the language barrier because I didn't speak any English. Secondly, I didn't have much money because the amount of money that I was allowed to take out of Korea was limited to $200 at the time. South Korea is an amazing country in that the amount of exports grew from $0.1 million in 1964 to $400 million in 2005, which means South Korea achieved growth of 4000 times in 40 years. During those times, dollars were very valuable in Korea and people were even asked to sign and record the serial number for every dollar they exchanged. You could afford to live approximately 17 days in Canada with $200. It was a foolish and short-term move on my part.
How did Ryerson University come into play when playing hockey was your main goal?
When I first came to Canada, no matter how hard I looked around in the city, nobody was playing hockey. Canada was not the place that I imagined would be. My home-stay host saw that I was discouraged by this and directed me several blocks down the street to the large building, which turned out to be an indoor ice rink. The cultural shock from witnessing an indoor ice link in that building was enormous for me because in Korea, I played hockey on a frozen parking lot. For the first six months, I practiced late into the night because I was so excited at playing hockey in such a nice facility. Eventually, I got into Ryerson University and joined its team. However, I got knocked down by the physically superior western players less than 2 minutes into the game and was sent to the hospital. Sadly, that was the end of my career as a hockey player.
How did you cope with the fact that your hockey career was over?
I promised my family to return home in glory and I had a strong belief that men must keep their promises no matter what. You must be responsible if you want to be successful. The pride behind my words was the strength that helped me to endure to this day. The option to return to Korea was always there, but I would have rather killed myself than to return empty handed.
At Ryerson, I couldn’t understand 99% of the lectures and I wasn't even able to finish half a page of my 12 page essay assignment. I couldn't study and didn't have any money. I was really lonely and missed Korean people. I even remember talking to a fly in Korean for 3 hours in my room. However, you can become truly strong once you experience the hardships of life. There is an old saying, "early training is more meaningful than late learning." You can learn from any experience so it is good to experience everything you can.
How was your University life?
Graduation was a miracle for me. I spent 3 hours on driving a cab and 6 hours on studying at the library every day. I had to work much more than Canadian students to keep up with the class. For example, I had to memorize everything in cultural studies because of the difference in language and culture. As a result of my efforts, I successfully finished all the courses that even Canadian students found difficult and Ryerson University still acknowledges my work to this day.
How was your life after graduation?
I took the advice from Prof. David Crombie, Mayor of Toronto at the time, and decided to work for IBM. The job paid very well and I was admired by fellow Korean people but I got fired after 3 months. The problem was again the language barrier and the cultural gap. After that, I decided to start my own business.
You could have found another employer to work for so why did you start your own business?
At this rate, I felt that it would be difficult to be a leader in the Korean society. It seemed that it would take forever to be successful by working for a company. Sometimes it is necessary to be a little foolish and reckless to be successful.
Could you share the story about your encounter with the president of Eaton mall?
At that time, I did not have an office or employees so I did everything by myself. I tried to sell products such as miniature animal toys, door-to-door. I walked all day from Bloor & Bathurst to Scarborough trying to sell products for 8 months. Over time, I learned where rich people resided from my taxi-driving job so I tried to sell products there. Despite the fact that I was sent away many times from their houses by the police, I did not give up and kept going back. Luckily, one of the people that opened the door was the president of Eaton mall. He thought highly of my spirit and I eventually made a business deal with him. There is a saying, "faith will move a mountain." This is one of the things that youngsters should always have.
You encountered some failures in your start-ups. What was the determining factor in overcoming these circumstances?
When you think that everything is closing down on you, the sky is still open. If you believe in yourself, you can overcome anything. Do not blame others. Instead, you can change yourself and think positively. The important element is having the right mindset. Let’s say that you suffered a loss of 200% in your business and there is no way out. You must not be shaken by anyone but yourself. Even a well-trained boxer loses a game when he loses his fighting spirit. Even if other people talk down to you, you cannot give up on yourself.
Networking is important in any industry. What are your tips on networking?
My know-how is that you have to listen to others, analyze, and use what they say. For example, I randomly overheard two people talking about selling fans in America being a good business at the time. As soon as I came back to Canada, I searched for fans everywhere. You should not just listen and let it go if it’s a good opportunity. You must know how to make it your own and put into action. After a bit of research, I found the biggest company in the fan business in Canada. However, it was hard closing a deal with the company because it kept rejecting me saying that it already has its own buyer, supplier, and factory. Even so, I visited them everyday telling them, “Samsung has new fans coming out, please use our product.” The president used to complain about me being there every day. Eventually, the persistency paid off and the company ordered 200,000 fans. That is not the end of it. Now, the problem turned to prices. We could only fit 350 fans in a 40 meter high container, which was to be shipped from Korea to Canada, so the shipping cost per fan turned out to be $15. The wholesale cost per fan was $12. Higher shipping cost was clearly ridiculous, but Samsung was not able to find a solution for this situation for three days. I could not afford to wait anymore. I promised the Canadian company that I would bring 200,000 fans and had no intention of lying to the company. I had to deliver whatever I promised no matter what. The solution that I came up with was to cut a fan into three different pieces. The fans still worked when they were assembled so we packaged all the fans like that. Who knew this could change my life? With the new packaging, we were able to fit 1,980 fans and the shipping cost was reduced to $2 per fan. This case made me become a honourary member of Samsung.
Networking is not everything and you should not always depend on your relationships with your clients. You still need the necessary skillset to make deals work. An example is when my professor Don Shawer, who visited Kyeong-joo, Korea in 1963, at Ryerson University wanted to have Kimchi. I did not know exactly how to make Kimchi either but we tried to make it together and through the process, we became close friends. Because I was so close to him, I did not bother studying for his course. A year later, he gave me a zero and wrote ‘sorry’ on the exam paper. This was vastly different from the Korean culture at the time, so I couldn’t understand what happened as I had a close relationship with my professor. I did not know how to separate personal and work lives until then, but he changed my life. Since then, I became very disciplined. The closer you are to a person, all the more reason to be more professional at a workplace. It took a lot of effort to change every little bit of myself in order to live in this blessed place.
Did you come up with your motto ‘Order Today, Delivery Today (OTDT)’ after your experience with fans?
OTDT is my lifetime motto and I first thought of it on my way back on the plane. As soon as I came back to Canada, I told my employees to post up ‘OTDT’ everywhere and they all thought it was ridiculous. How was this possible in Canada? It took at least three days to process the order. However, I told them that if they cannot accomplish this, they cannot go home, and if they do not like this idea, they have to resign. I also told them that if you say something, you have to be prepared to put it into action. Our company implemented this strategy and the Canadian buyers still acknowledge it to this day. It took me 40 years and now our annual sales revenue is at $100,000,000.
It sounds like OTDT can be applied to young people in general as well.
The point of this is doing things ‘right now’. Don’t be lazy and procrastinate. If you throw off a sock when you get home from work, you have to pick it up sometime anyway. So why don’t you pick it up and put it in the right place the first time? Even if it is a minor issue, the person who ignores it cannot succeed. A minor issue can build up to a major one and it will eventually explode so why don’t you resolve it when it is small and easy to take care of? Korean people usually don’t take minor issues seriously.
You must make a good environment for yourself. I had two employees who were very different. One was always tardy and had questionable work ethic. When I asked him to come to work at 9, he would show up at 10, and when I told him to go home at 5, he would disappear at 3. In addition, he did not answer my calls after 5pm. However, he made 40% of the sales. The other one was a polite and punctual employee. I could even entrust him the key to the safe. Unfortunately, he was almost useless in the growth of the company. Who should I keep if I were forced to make a decision? I would definitely have to pick the first person. That is the reality of business. His personality would be bothersome to me, but I have to know what to use for my business.
Young people should not spend too much time making definite and precise goals. Things change and will not go the way you imagine they will. You should definitely have hope and put in your best effort. If you are a student, your job is to study hard, and if you are working, then work hard. It is also important to build your network constantly. The first thing is to study because you cannot do anything without knowledge. I am here right now because of the education I obtained at Ryerson University. Secondly, network and meet the people that you want to meet.
You have made speeches all over the world. What do you think are the dominant issues among young Korean Canadians?
There is a noticeable difference between the 1st and 2nd generations. 1st generations are less knowledgeable, but possess frontier spirit, which is their main strength. On the other hand, 2nd generations are fluent in English, smart, and live under a well-established life style. However, they do not try hard enough and just want a comfortable life. They end up losing many good opportunities this way. 2nd generations should not just pursue a comfortable life style; be ready to get your hands dirty.
What would you advise to aspiring young people in the business field?
Firstly, you have to be strong physically. Secondly, you need education and knowledge. Lastly, the ability to make good judgment is important. Sometimes, people connect you to other useful people and you may not even realize it. You have to learn to listen to what people say and turn that into an opportunity. Also, having a good memory is a must-have trait. If you meet someone you already know and ask, “who are you again?” after 10 years, it’s over. Whenever I obtain a business card, I write down what the person looks like, the date, or whatever was memorable about the person. Keep making notes.
As society changes over time, you need to know how to adjust and adapt to such changes. You have to look closely at how the middle class transforms. You need to have foresight and start preparing now. The acronym IT is most commonly known as Information Technology today. However, I use IT as, “Interest” and “Timing”. These two things are formidable variables. If you get a loan from the bank, interest builds up like a snowball. According to some credible research, the #1 reason for corporate bankruptcy is due to interest. Second variable is timing. Timing is key when you make sell products. This concept applies to life in general as well. These two factors will determine whether you succeed or fail.
Could you tell us briefly about the OKTA?
OKTA stands for World Federation of Overseas Korean Traders Associations and it was created by Korean product importing companies. Presently, there are 6000 members from 113 cities in 61 countries all over the world.
You visited North Korea for the trade mission. What was the motivation behind it?
The North Korean Prime Minister invited me and I was asked to prepare merchandise that was worth exporting. I visited North Korea by bus with 165 people from the South.
Why did you think that the visit to North Korea was important?
North Korea is so poor and we wanted to help out by opening up potential trade channels but there was nothing to import from there. There were rubber shoes, antique pianos, traditional dresses, soccer balls, etc. It was a sad realization. But aren’t they still a part of our country? We taught them how to design merchandise, write invoices, and deal with quality control before return. I am sure that it must have helped a lot.
What is your plan/ goal?
My goal is to educate/mentor young people. That is what I can do the best now.
What is “Leadership” to you?
Leadership is sacrifice. The one who can sacrifice can lead people. The one who tries to force others aren’t leaders; they are dictators.
Do it yourself
When I first made some money after being so poor, I was thinking about whether to buy a table or a bed first. I decided to get a table first and bought one for $17. Dinner tasted so much better eating on a proper table. I later bought a bed and I couldn’t sleep, as I was so overwhelmingly happy. You need to do and earn things yourself. You will appreciate everything that you have earned as a result of your own efforts.
Consider the process very important
I learned from Canadians that this society values a lot on the process. On the other hand, Korean society values more on the results. You’ve got to understand this to be successful. You must value the process. You need to experience the downfall; it is a key component to the rise to success. When a situation becomes difficult, do not avoid it; confront it and deal with it. This will allow you to build immunity to the hardships and deal with them better. If you keep avoiding it, you will get knocked down when it hits you just once.
Anecdote about a President Chung Ju-young – Founder of Hyundai Corporation
There is a story about the president of Hyundai, Chung Ju-young. In 1972, when he visited a foreign vessels manufacturing company to gain investments, he had no track record on vessel manufacturing. The owner of the foreign company was skeptical of his credibility. President Chung showed the owner of the company a $0.50 Korean bill, which had a picture of the historic turtle ship and said that his ancestors had built that amazing vessel 500 years ago. He said that he could do the job much better in the then-present era as a descendent. President Chung finally won the investment and that was how the Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. ltd. was founded. This story does not make much logical sense. But the owner of the company later said that when he looked at President Chung’s eyes, he knew Mr. Chung would not lie and could deliver on his promises. President Chung ended up returning the investment by 57 times the original amount he initially owed.
About Young-Hyun Lee
1971 Graduated from the University of Ryerson majoring in Business
1971 Established Young Lee Trading Corporation
1974 Founded the team "Hwa-Rang" (The first Korean-Canadian athletic association)
1981 Member of the National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC)
1981 The first vice-president of the World Federation of Overseas Korean Traders Association (OKTA)
1985 Recipient of the Presidential Citation for Trade (Korea)
1987 Established Sung Lee Development Corporation
1989 Established Tegra Photo Inc.
2000 Export Industry Medal recipient on the Traders' Day (Korea)
2001 1st Graduating Class of IDAS International
2002 President of the World-OKTA
2002 "Mo-Ran" Medal recipient
2004 Chairman of the Pyung-Yang OKTA Trading Council
2009 Vice-president of the Kun-kuk Council of the Republic of Korea
Interview Date : May 16, 2011
Interviewers: Jooseok Lee, Hyunwoo Lim, Sarah Yoon
Photographer: Gerald Law
Editors: Jooseok Lee, Phil Kim, Sarah Yoon
Translators: Jooseok Lee, Hyunwoo Lim, Sarah Yoon
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders' opinion.