It was only five years ago that Goldstar Co. was in deep trouble. The largest South Korean maker of electrical appliances and consumer electronics had seen its market share slip at home and overseas, as product quality plummeted. Losses piled up, margins fell, and costs rose. "If we continue like this, we'll go bankrupt," wrote an impatient worker in the company's bulletin.
Today, the company is healthy and vibrant. Goldstar is selling more in the rapidly growing Korean market while taking advantage of the strong yen to undercut Japanese competitors internationally. It has regained its No.1 position in Korea for color TVs, refrigerators, and washing machines. Globally, Goldstar has emerged as a powerful challenger in the fields of semiconductors and liquid-crystal displays. And it has new alliances with such companies as Zenith Electronics and GE Appliances that will give it a boost in the U.S. and Europe.
The central figure in this transformation is Lee Hun-Jo, 62, who was appointed chief executive in February, 1989. The turnaround is typical of the metamorphosis many Korean companies are attempting. They are grafting more Western management techniques onto sometimes rigid Confucian-style hierarchies. And above all, they are attempting to move up the ladder from labor-intensive industries to battle the industrialized world's best technology companies. "We want to compete upward toward heaven," jokes Lee. "To compete downward is hell."
To do that, Goldstar was forced to shift its management from founding-family autocrats to professionals such as Lee, a 27-year veteran of the Lucky Goldstar group, the larger chaebol to which Goldstar belongs. Lee won near-complete control in 1991 when Chairman Koo Cha-Kyung made a guarantee of autonomy in writing and handed it to Lee before hundreds of employees. Under the arrangement, Lee reports to Koo only twice a year on the company's performance. "I'm free to run the company the way I want," he says.
BRIGHTER NECKTIES. Lee has accomplished his transformation of Goldstar--whose annual sales are expected to reach $6 billion this year--in part thanks to recommendations made by McKinsey & Co. But Lee, who speaks both English and Japanese, is also benchmarking his company against the likes of General Electric Co. and Motorola Inc. to learn about greater flexibility and customer orientation. All these changes have helped improve the company's quality record in the U.S., where a poor image has hurt its sales.
To challenge Goldstar's hierarchical culture, Lee sometimes resorts to almost missionary-like zeal. "You have to transform human beings," he says. "If you can't change your people, you can't change your organization. If you can't do that, you can't reach your goal." Lee's desk looks like a librarian's--piled with books in Japanese and English, including Tom Peters' Liberation Management.
Reflecting his thirst for change, Lee has broken with the tradition of conservative neckties and wears more brightly colored ones. He also refuses to sit in a designated seat of honor at meetings, just to throw managers off balance.
Goldstar under Lee has come a long way since the summer of 1989. Labor disputes were spreading in all four of its Korean plants, inflicting $600 million in losses. Rather than taking union leaders on as antagonists, Lee sought to close the communication gap by revealing as much financial information about the company as he could. He gave union leaders the unprecedented right to visit him at any time. Even rivals acknowledge how well Lee managed relations with the unions. "What is remarkable is that Lee, who rose to the top under the traditional top-down, owner-driven management, was able to wipe out whole layers of management between himself and the factory workers," says one executive at Samsung Electronics Co.
COOL CABBAGE. Having won workers' confidence, Lee was able to carry out his restructuring. With McKinsey's help, he reorganized Goldstar in late 1992 into nine strategic business units that include 29 operational groups. Each of these smaller divisions has a multidisciplinary team of designers, engineers, factory workers, and marketing people. The idea is to decentralize management as far down as possible, encouraging line managers, workers, and salespeople to open up the lines of communication among themselves.
Another challenge was to shake up the product-development process. In the past, in a bid to catch up with the Japanese, Goldstar once concentrated on bringing in a foreign product and reverse-engineering it. Although it allowed for some technology gains, it also kept the company permanently behind the cutting edge.
So Lee took what was seen as a radical approach: He let the engineers out of the laboratories and into the market to see for themselves what customers wanted. That resulted in a refrigerator that can keep Korea's national dish--kimchi, fermented pickled cabbage or radishes--fresh and odorless for a long time. The fridge became an instant hit, helping Goldstar regain a No.1 position in the domestic market, which it had lost to Samsung in the late 1980s.
Now that Goldstar has regained its lead at home, it is sharpening its focus overseas. It is shifting as much production as possible of low-end and midrange products to countries such as China and Vietnam. Goldstar now operates 14 overseas plants, including three new joint ventures in China. The company plans to increase the share of overseas production from the current 10% of sales to about 25% by 1997, a level comparable to that of Japanese companies.
In North America, the company has made strides both in driving down manufacturing costs and in improving quality--by shifting TV assembly from Huntsville, Ala., to Mexicali, Mexico, near San Diego. The combination 13-inch TV and VCR made there, called a TVCR, is one of the company's hottest-selling items in the U.S., where it retails for about $329. Another new product winning good reviews is a VH8 playback deck, which allows fans of 8mm video to edit and transfer their home movies to a VHS format.
Overall, the company's U.S. consumer-electronic sales of about $1 billion in 1993 are growing at a torrid 17% clip this year, says Jeffrey P. Mullarkey, vice-president for marketing at Goldstar U.S. Inc. in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Lee's reforms back home have had a "cascading effect" by persuading Goldstar factories in Korea and elsewhere in Asia to work more closely with U.S. design and sales units, says Mullarkey.
In high-technology fields, the company is relying on new alliances to increase market share. In 1991, it took 5% equity in Zenith Electronics Corp., creating a technology-development partnership. Suh Yoon-Won, general manager for Goldstar's alliance coordination team, says the companies are developing high-definition TV and advanced picture tubes, engaging in a two-way flow of parts and technology.
Similarly, Goldstar has invested $10 million in 3DO to work on the next generation of game hardware, and it's working with Oracle Corp. to develop video-on-demand set-top boxes. Goldstar is also tied up with bigger U.S. companies: It's producing and marketing white goods with GE Appliances and developing new operating software with IBM. In all these alliances, Lee says Goldstar is trying to move beyond being merely a source of cheap production to becoming a full technology partner.
Of course, Goldstar still faces big challenges. The biggest single risk is its effort to develop thin-film transistor (TFT) liquid-crystal displays, the next generation of the displays used in laptop computers and many electronic devices. The company plans to spend $620 million to build a plant in Korea for making these 10-inch color LCDs. By 1997, the company says, its output will reach 1 million units a year, making Goldstar a player in a market now 90% dominated by Sharp Corp. and other Japanese makers.
NATIONAL PRIORITY. Goldstar has one important advantage over Japanese competitors: The Korean government is behind its push into thin-film displays. Although a majority of the funding would come from its more lucrative white goods, the company can count on financial support from the government, which considers the new technology a national priority. "They are just as capable of mastering this as anyone else," says Joseph Osha of Baring Securities (Japan) Ltd.
While its LCD effort hasn't yet paid off, Goldstar has succeeded against heavy odds in semiconductors. Goldstar Electron Co., of which Goldstar owns 62%, is the world's 10th-largest manufacturer of dynamic random-access memory chips. Goldstar joined hands with Japan's Hitachi to develop and market 1- and 4-megabyte DRAM chips. Today, the semiconductor company has a 5% share in the world memory-chip market and expects net profits to nearly double in the next two years, boosting Goldstar's earnings as well.
It's all a far cry from the dark days of 1989. Although Goldstar hasn't established itself as the equal of Sony or Motorola, it has made enormous strides. And even if Lee achieves only a fraction of his global aspirations, it's clear that Goldstar will be competing upward toward heaven for many years to come.