Jean-Marie Hurtiger shares his experience as CEO of Renault Samsung Motors Korea
and his insight on ways to help more French companies invest in Korea
Hailing from France, Jean-Marie Hurtiger, Honorary Ambassador of Investment Promotion for Korea,
started his career as an engineer, earning his degree from Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees. He then spent 10 years in the oil industry as an engineer before joining Groupe Renault to work in the auto industry. During his 20 years there, he was in charge of conducting various projects and international development for Renault, spending time in China, Malaysia, Russia and The South American region. He was then called back to head the Logan Project, when Renault had acquired Automobile Dacia in July 1999. Afterwards, Hurtiger was sent to Korea as CEO of Renault Samsung Motors for six years. He has now returned to Paris, advising companies mostly in the car industry who want to enter the global market. Read on to find out his experience doing business in Korea as well as his insight on ways to help more French companies invest in Korea.
How did you become interested in Korea?
Because of the nature of the activities I was involved in, I was very international and had the opportunity to be in many Asian countries in the past. Korea was a country that I had not yet been working with, and it was an interesting country from a professional and cultural point of view.
What about Korea appeals to you the most?
What's interesting with Korean culture is the fact that it belongs to a relatively small country with a smaller population, having achieved independence during the 19th century, and endowed with a unique culture within Asia-different from China, different from Japan-with very particular aspects regarding language, food, and some of its customs as well. The country is interesting from a geographical sense, too. It's quite pleasant to live in Korea because of its plentiful mountains and seashores.
You've been doing business in Korea for many years. How has Korea changed over the last decade?
Korea has definitely changed, but the changes I experience myself during my stay were part of a continuous process, dating back to the Olympic Games in the '80s, which really marked the beginning of modernization of Korea from a rather closed and controlled society, to a more open, modern and dynamic society. I was able to see how these changes were really transforming the Korean society.
It became easier and easier for companies to do business in Korea. Foreign companies were accepted before I came, but with some limitations. For instance, Renault had difficulty working with suppliers of Hyundai Group because, as you know, they didn't like to see their suppliers working with Renault. But towards the end of my stay, we could invite all the suppliers, have discussions with them, without any restrictions.
Also, during my stay, Korea joined most of the international organizations and signed a free trade agreement with Europe among many other FTAs, which brought about a huge change. So really, Korea's desire to open up to the world and join the international community was much stronger when I left then when I came.
Moreover, it showed in the increase of Korean travelers abroad-I'm not talking about the days when travelling was limited and controlled-but I could see that more Koreans were taking trips all around the world. At the same time, Koreans were starting to invest more, and Korean companies were starting to be localized in other countries, following the trend of the big chaebols (conglomerates) which were becoming bigger and more international.
How interested are French companies in investing in Korea and what kinds of sectors are they most interested in?
For the most part, every somewhat large and international French company considers Korea as an important country in Northeast Asia. Most of them will look to Korea first as a market, and see how they can leverage the performance, technology and competence of the company in Korea to work and expand in Asia.
I think most of the French companies that are already invested in Korea realize that Korean performance in industrial and logistical activities are usually outstanding, and they can see by themselves that, very often, their Korean plant of Korean operation is among the top in the world in terms of quality and performance. So that's important. Market, strategic localization, local performance-there are really the key success factors.
I would add that nowadays, I'm seeing companies interested in Korea's R&D potential, which was not something as sought after in the past. But now, companies are coming to Korean and saying, "Can we find R&D companies to invest in?" Also, in the service field, I'm witnessing more companies that are interested in, for instance, the medical sector and pharmaceuticals. Companies providing medical services are interested in Korea because the country's medical system is now at a very good level internationally with very high performance.
What advice would you give investors from your country seeking to do business in Korea?
Well, this is what I do as an honorary ambassador, and my advice is always the same. Asia is different from Europe, so you have to understand them and spend some time with them. In other words, it's not wise to think that you'll be able to do business here by coming to Seoul for two days and meeting a few people. That will get you nowhere. You need to spend more time because you need to build a relationship with the people you want to do business with to become business partners. And in Asia, that takes a little time. So please consider this.
Second of all, you have to be quick. It seems contradictory to say on one end, you have to patient, but on the other end you have to be quick. If you find a company or a business partner in Korea that seems interested in your business proposal, they will very often ask you for answers to their proposals or for suggestions. You have to be quick in your answers with that because otherwise, they will feel you're not interested or serious, because Koreans like "pali-pali," they like to be fast. So, please make sure to give them answers quickly and on time.
Third, you will realize that, most of the time, you will need a Korean partner, because it's very difficult to do everything by yourself. You have to choose a good partner-a good partner, meaning somebody serious, but also someone you work with well, and get along with well. Again, you have to be patient and careful in your selection of a partner.
For such investors from France, what can the Korean government do to make the business environment better for them?
I've been working very closely with KOTRA, so I'm aware that the Korean government is doing a lot to facilitate the work of foreign investors. I think usually, there is good communication here compared to many other countries. KOTRA and the Korean government are providing clear and complete information about what you need to do to invest in Korea, whether it may be concerning incentives or the contract channels for you to use to invest in Korea. I think this already exists.
Now, in spite of that, the Korean legal system as well as various regulations, without being extraordinarily complex, are still difficult to grasp, because it is a big country. Companies often realize that they can't figure it out all by themselves, and the options in Korea today are limited. We have to help companies understand that fact and give them advice and support. KOTRA is actually providing these kinds of services to some extent. However, with these services being free, they're somewhat limited.
Companies do have the options of going to the national chambers of commerce in Korea if they exist-there's good one for the French, for the Germans, AMCHAM is doing their job, as well as the British Chamber of Commerce-but for the rest of the world, there's no chamber of commerce with services for companies. Then, there's the European Chamber of Commerce, but it is more focused on lobbying, although they do provide some services.
When companies come here and are in the process of investing-looking for sites, looking for partners-very often than not, they feel the need for support. And the only solution for them is to rely on big law firms and lawyers which have experience with foreign companies; they're limited in number and are quite expensive. There are also a couple of foreign companies with offices in Korea that can offer this support, but there are very few. This is the main problem for investing companies. We usually spend the most time explaining this to them.
I don't exactly know what the solution is. For large companies, this is not a problem because they have enough money and resources to purchase the services they need. For smaller companies, however, it may pose some issues.
Also, the Ombudsman is very useful in helping foreign companies in Korea resolve any grievances they may have while doing business here.
What are the main goals you want to accomplish as Honorary Ambassador of Foreign Investment Promotion for Korea?
I've been honorary ambassador now for a couple of years and enjoy what I'm doing, and I want to continue. I've realized that when we talk to the major French companies, they do explain to us the little problems they have-everyone has little problems-but those little problems, they're able to address by themselves. They can make investment decisions by themselves, and very often, those companies already have international structures, which means that they have a regional headquarters somewhere in Asia, mostly in Hong Kong, Japan, or Singapore. In that sense, they don't really need us much.
So, I'm trying to address more of the medium-sized companies in France which are already doing business internationally and can possibly expand to Korea. Along with KOTRA-Paris, we've started to talk to those companies, with some good results, because we find good companies that are already interested in Korea, and they're the ones we can push to actually make their way over here. When they start to really consider it, they may hesitate if they're unsure, so we come in at the right time to tell them, "Yes, you can go," "Yes, we can help you," and "We can answer the questions you may have." I think this is critical, because we've discovered there are a lot of medium-sized companies in France that are already very international, are world leaders in their niche products, and have potential to do well in Korea.
What are your hopes for future relations between Korea and France?
Well, we always like to say France and Korea have a unique relationship. In some ways, it's true; it is true that France has been one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Korea; France participated in the Korean War; Koreans usually appreciate France culture, food and wine; and the French appreciate Korean culture as well. So, there's a strong cultural relationship between the two countries. In that context, I think France could contribute to supporting Korea's desire to play a bigger role as a developed nation, which it is now.
I also think more French companies could be based in Korea. Like many developed countries, you have a lot of companies whose management is close to retirement age, or even past retirement age. So, that means that those companies have to change hands. This is true in France, and this is true in Korea. So, this brings lots of opportunities of cross investment between the two countries, more than there are today.
Finally, I believe that the special relationship between France and Korea will give us a role in supporting peaceful development on the peninsula. We should contribute as much as we can to establish a settlement of the inter-Korean situation and by doing so, we would promote growth in both North and South Korea, ultimately bringing more business opportunities for everybody.
By Grace Park (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Executive Consultant / Invest Korea