Koreans shake chaebol shackles

After recession, a spurt of start-up firms offers more opportunity - and less security - for workers.

When Daniel Park interviewed for a job at Lycos Korea, it wasn't just the stock options that got him excited. It was also seeing an employee whizzing by on inline skates.

"Ah! This is a really different company!" Mr. Park remembers thinking. "This is what I've been seeking!" Like thousands of workers, he left his job at one of South Korea's conservative conglomerates to be part of the new economy.

Working for a chaebol, as the conglomerates are called, was once the singular Korean job ambition. Promotions came like clockwork, benefits were substantial, and a job for life was a tacit guarantee.

Then the Asian economic crisis hit Korea in 1997, bankrupting companies and throwing a million people out of work. The image of stable corporate life shattered. Responsible for making South Korea an economic powerhouse after the Korean War, the family-based chaebol had concentrated the economy in relatively few conglomerates that received favorable treatment from the government.

In the past two years, the old-guard chaebol have been the subject of restructuring efforts to make them more competitive and transparent. And as the chaebol lose their luster, new companies are offering a more attractive work environment.

At a typical chaebol, desks are arranged by rank. A section boss sits at a larger desk behind his subordinates, staring at the backs of their heads. "If you're a new worker, you can't have a free discussion with a senior manager," says Jane Sul, another Lycos employee. In contrast to the eight levels of hierarchy at chaebol, Lycos workers are simply divided into "teams," each with a leader, who answers to the company president. Employees sit in a democratic-looking warren of cubicles.

Like those at other start-ups - tens of thousands of new businesses are expected to be created this year - Lycos workers can often set their own hours, and women have more opportunities. They also wear what they want: In a lounge Lycos shares with a securities firm, a young Web designer reclines in her Fila sweat suit, clashing with the stock analysts in their pinstripes.

There has been "a complete transformation of the [business] culture," says Choi Ji Woo, an Internet analyst at Samsung Securities. According to recent surveys, women now prefer husbands who work at Internet or securities companies over traditional Korean professionals like doctors and lawyers.

"If you talk to any of the graduates of top universities, nobody wants to work for [top chaebol] Samsung or Hyundai anymore. They all want to start their own companies," says Ham Jae Bong, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Park's parents were not happy with his decision at first. "[They asked me] 'Is that really secure? Why are you trying to leave Samsung?' " he says. Even Park's friends - all at chaebol, wondered whether the Internet craze would last. "When I look at my father's generation," he says, "nobody really changed jobs."

After the economic crisis began, people realized "you have a lifelong career, but not a lifelong job," says Ms. Sul. Highly skilled workers at chaebol technology subsidiaries like Samsung Digital Systems started seeing the Internet's opportunities. As they left to form start-ups, they helped drive Korea's economic recovery. Both Park and Sul left Cheil Communications, Samsung's in-house advertising agency, along with 100 other workers, one-seventh of Cheil's staff.

Most remarkably, the advent of small, high-tech information technology firms here marks the first time anyone has made big money outside the chaebol system. The entrepreneurs achieved their coup by raising funding from non-traditional sources like foreign venture capitalists; today Korea has more than 100 of its own VC firms. The government has helped too, with projects like "i-Park," a Silicon Valley-based incubator for Korean ventures run by the Ministry of Information and Communications. Year-old tax incentives for small businesses continue to supply the booming Kosdaq exchange with more initial public offerings.

Young entrepreneurs have also become fantastically rich on paper. Until the Nasdaq dragged them down, the market value for companies on the tech-heavy Kosdaq was so high that they ranked among the top chaebol, which manufacture everything from steel to microchips. For young people to have obtained so much money and power is a shock to Korea's Confucian sensibilities, which emphasize age-based seniority. "I don't think this has ever happened in Korea's thousands of years of history," says Mr. Ham.

This has "had a tremendous psychological impact" on the chaebol, adds Ham. "It's just palpable." The chaebol are revamping their management practices to stanch a brain drain. Samsung Digital Systems, a diversified information-technology company, launched a crash course in modern management last March, introducing performance-based pay and eliminating levels of bureaucracy to expedite decisionmaking. The company now allows employees to wear jeans and sandals if they prefer, and work whatever hours they choose.

"The work atmosphere has changed very rapidly ... especially the restaurant," which now has several items on the menu, says Oh Yebin, a new business developer.

"It is more free and open to the young people," says Park Hwan Bum in the marketing department. "They give me a lot of opportunity to do what we want."

Despite all the hype surrounding venture businesses, the long hours and fast pace aren't for everyone. Some are making the "big U-turn" back to stable corporate life after a nerve-wracking experience at a start-up.

Yet even as Gilbert Kim groans about his morning-to-midnight, six-days-a- week schedule, he says the adventure is worth it. "I'm racing with friends to see who can be the first to [comfortably afford] an Armani suit."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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