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No Pausing in My Life

Posted November. 23, 2005 08:11,   


“I just like the speed of motorcycles. Even when I’m speeding at about 100 kph my entire body feels a great sensation. I don’t think I will be looking for any other entertainment for the rest of my life.”

Those were the words of Hong Wan-ki, 65-year-old chief executive of Hongjin Crown (HJC), the world’s number one motorcycle helmet manufacturer, who was put on the spotlight by a recent Washington Post article as a “successful company.”

Dong-A Ilbo met with him, who having found the company in 1971 and went on to conquer the global helmet market, on November 21, at his office in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.

When we entered the chief executive’s office, modern design helmets and celadon vases were creating an abstruse harmony. Various awards and trophies were also visible. Among the awards were the “Manager that Enhanced Korea,” “Hall of Fame for Small Business Entrepreneurs,” and “Gold Prize for the Geneva International Invention Convention.”

“I have earned money vigorously. It was more fun to work than play.”

Just then, members of the Korean Hwarang Fencing Association came to his office and critiqued a fencing helmet being made out of material used for motorcycle helmets.

Recently, he invented the “Wind Light,” a helmet accessory that lights with the power of the wind, and is currently being submitted for a patent.

The first child of seven of a mid-class farmer in Nonsan, Chungnam Province, he graduated from Kangkyung Commercial High School and became a typical self-made man. He attended Hanyang University Industrial Management Department (current Industrial Engineering Department) and earned his tuition by delivering milk and working as a construction man. He later dropped out in order to earn money.

In 1970, he founded a sewing factory and made leather pants for motorcycle riders. A year later, this factory changed into one that produced interior fillings for helmets, which later become HJC.

Starting to manufacture helmets in 1974, he advanced to the U.S. market in 1986, and in just six years, by 1992, his helmets held the largest share in the U.S. helmet market. In 2001, he held the largest share of the global market.

There were also misfortunes along the way. Ten years ago, his youngest brother died while testing helmets in the Rocky Mountains. Currently, his three other younger brothers are respectively in charge of the American, Chinese, and European branch.

Chief Executive Hong lives only with his wife in a 100 pyeong apartment in Seocho-dong, Seoul.

The Washington Post reporter visited Hong’s house and wrote, “Hong moved a few months ago to a more luxurious apartment in a Seoul high-rise, though it is still far from the opulence that American multimillionaires typically enjoy,” and on that, Chief Executive Hong commented, “Maybe in the eyes of Americans, Korean large apartments are not so much of a big deal.”

“I became rich during the foreign currency crisis. Since 98 percent of our products are exported, we had a great advantage due to the soaring exchange rate. The price of the residential housing for employees that I bought in Yongin and Bundang also increased greatly. I think that you don’t become rich by planning but simply by working hard.”

Chief Executive Hong reinvests most of his net profits, which amounts to over 10 billion won annually, in R&D. He himself is a great inventor with about 10 patents related to helmets.

Having produced helmets for 30 years, last May, he also became the chief executive for motorcycle company Hyosung Motors, where he was the second largest shareholder. His ambition is to produce large motorcycles with over 1,000 cc displacement until 2008, and make it into a world-class company. He also started developing a motorcycle that deploys supplementary wheels when going in low speeds.

“Just because I became rich, I don’t pursue luxurious food and clothes. Very often, I eat black bean noodles and remember the old hard days. The good thing about being rich is that I can make the ideas in my head into reality.”

Sun-Mi Kim kimsunmi@donga.com