(Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book, and Frank and I met in person.)
Hyundai Motor, of South Korea, is the world's fourth largest automobile manufacturer by the number of vehicles manufactured. The foregoing sentence is simultaneously mundane and incredible. Mundane, because it is such an obvious fact of life that is clearly visible to us. Hyundai and Kia cars are a common sight no matter where you live in the world--Asia, Europe, North America, South America, or Africa.
Yet it is also incredible, when you consider the history of the companies with which Hyundai rubs its shoulders. Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 in the United States, which was then already the world's foremost economy by a wide margin. Renault was founded in 1899 in France. Fiat, also in 1899 in Italy. Hyundai, in contrast, was founded in 1963, when South Korea's per capita GDP was less than $150. Yet today, Hyundai outsells all of Ford, Fiat and Renault. In fact, Hyundai manufactures more cars than Fiat and Renault combined.
The story of Hyundai's growth is commonly told in tandem with the account of the marvelous growth that South Korea experienced post-Korean War. But the less frequently told part of the story is that, actually, the story has two stages. South Korea and its stalwart corporations reached middle-income by mid-1990s. The country was prosperous, but was not exactly world-leading. For much the 1990s, South Korea was one of the mass of countries that did not attract much attention--not poor and starving enough to arouse humanitarian concerns, and not rich or glamorous enough to inspire admiration.
But since the late 1990s, South Korea's corporations--at least those that survived the painful adjustment occasioned by the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1997--went to another level. Rather than being stuck at the "middle income trap," South Korea hit escape velocity. Its foremost corporations rose to the level reserved for the world's very best. Today, Samsung Electronics is the only meaningful challenger to Apple's iPhone juggernaut, and Hyundai only trails Toyota and Volkswagen in the number of cars manufactured per year. (Hyundai also trails General Motors if you include the production by SAIC, GM's Chinese joint venture.)
This part of South Korea's story deserves to be told more. Marginal improvement always gets progressively more difficult. Seeing from the ground level, the gap between "rudimentary" and "pretty good" may seem greater than the same between "pretty good" and "among the best." The differential in skill between hoopers at the local playground and a bench warmer for an NBA team is much greater than the differential between the bench warmer and an NBA starter, and much, much greater than that between an NBA starter and the likes of Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. But the effort it takes to go from an NBA starter to an MVP-caliber player is no less than the effort it takes for a regular person to become an NBA bench warmer. In fact, "effort" might not even be the right word, for it implies the continuation of the same path, only with more intensity. Often, it requires a complete re-definition of self for a player to make the leap and reach the next level.
Same is true with Hyundai. Hyundai Motor could have been another Skoda Auto or Tata Motors--a solid carmaker that does well enough domestically or within its region--and it still would have been considered a success. But Hyundai did much better. How? Frank Ahrens answers that question in his book Seoul Man, which makes it a unique read among books about Korea in English.
(More after the jump.)
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