Doing the right thing for a company isn’t always easy. That’s something Dr. Sehoon Lee knows well. As CEO of HanGlas Group, he restructured the Korean glass-making firm to allow his nationally dominant company to compete in the burgeoning Northeast Asian market. He calls the episode “the most painful of his career,” but the move proved to be a wise one. While many companies faltered in the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Lee’s company emerged from the storm even stronger than before.
After graduating with a Wharton MBA and working at Citibank, Lee returned to South Korea as finance director for HanGlas Group, which his father had co-founded amid the devastation of the Korean War. At that time, the company had annual of sales of US $35 million. By 1995, he was the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation. Although the company was profitable and diversified in all aspects of the glass business across Korea, he believed it faced considerable risk. Its debt level was high, and it was facing competition from cheaper Chinese imports.
He identified two areas—architectural glass and automotive glass—as core competences, and decided to restructure, investing internationally in those core areas, and selling off HanGlas subsidiaries that manufactured other products. The rest of the board, including his father, initially balked at his plan, which involved reducing the workforce from 7,000 employees to fewer than 2,000, but Lee persuaded them.
The restructuring was completed in September 1997, and the financial crisis hit Korea by December. With a lean operation and negative debt, the company withstood the turmoil. In 1998 Lee expanded a business association with Saint-Gobain Group, a French based glass and materials giant, into a full strategic alliance. The company is now known as Saint-Gobain HanGlas (Asia) Pte. Ltd.
Lee, co-chairman of HanGlas since 2000, has long served Wharton as a charter member of the Wharton Executive Board for Asia and as a member of Wharton’s Board of Overseers. In 1994 he received the Wharton Alumni Award for Distinguished Service. He has also been honored by the French government with the Legion d’Honneur because of his work in promoting Franco-Korean business ties.