|Chuck Hong is the face of the modern Pacific Rim entrepreneur. Born and raised in Seoul, he has three college degrees, lives in Newport Coast and piles up frequent flier miles faster than a Korean Air pilot. He is founder and CEO of Irvine-based Netlist, a technology firm not yet 10 years old. He runs sales and marketing from his Irvine Spectrum headquarters, and he has a manufacturing plant near Shanghai in China. In an ever-shrinking business world, he connects the dots – Irvine, China and his native Seoul – with a stealth honed by years of working on both sides of the Pacific. What makes Hong compelling is who he is, one of many who are leveraging multiple cultures to carve out an accelerating business career that transcends time zones.
The son of a Korean journalist, Hong is smart and committed. Failure is not an option for this high-tech executive and his generation of Koreans. For much of the 20th century, Korea struggled under oppressive Japanese rule, then civil war in the early 1950s and eventually military rule for almost 40 years. Democracy and free elections in this nation of 48 million didn’t arrive until the late 1990s. Now stable and hungry to compete, Korea has moved at hyper-speed to become the 13th-largest economy in the world and America’s seventh-largest trading partner. Half of the world’s oil tankers and 60 percent of all cruise ships are built here. Four out of every 10 computers are manufactured in Korea, which ranks ninth in global innovation. Seoul-based Samsung has surpassed Sony as the world’s biggest seller of flat-screen TVs.
Korea isn’t just an economic wannabe. The nation has arrived at the big-boy table. China is bigger and Japan more prominent. But Korea is the hot new kid on the economic block here in north Asia. And, if you don’t pay attention, Korea just might own that block and everything on it. What’s most impressive is how quickly Korea has ascended into world-class economic status.
“Give Koreans a task or a target, and nobody is better right now at hitting that mark,” said Hong on a 90-minute bus ride from Seoul to Incheon. “What sets Korea apart is the speed at which they get things done. Japan, for example, may be more creative and more methodical when it comes to business. But nobody can touch the Koreans for the speed output.”
It explains, in part, Korea’s transformation almost overnight as an industrialized nation. Being competitive comes naturally to Koreans, said Hong, who has degrees from three American universities, including MBAs from George Washington and Pepperdine. Hong is part of the new Korea. He worked 15 years in Korea and San Jose for LG Electronics, and then was recruited to run the semiconductor business for Viking Components in Orange County before starting Netlist in 2000. A $150 million company at its peak, he took Netlist public in 2006.
“The difference between Koreans and others is the willingness to work 24/7,” Hong said, staring out at the endless clusters of high-rise apartments that crowd the landscape between Seoul and the mega-port city of Incheon. A light snow was falling, adding a winter look to the bumper-to-bumper traffic. “Koreans work hard to survive. They are willing to do almost anything to get ahead. They even sell their farms or businesses to put their kids through school. When you live in a country of abundant natural resources, you tend not to work as hard. Koreans have had to work for everything.”
When they succeed, they like to show it. Koreans drive bigger cars than the Japanese, the dress is more fashion forward and the lifestyle faster. China and Japan are bound by tradition. Korea is about the “now,” and so is Hong.
Chuck Hong, CEO of Irvine-based Netlist,
dines with Chris Lynch, vice president of Irvine
Chamber (left) and Michelle Grettenberg and
Emma Green of Irvine city staff.
Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, John Yoon, vice president and
general counsel of Kia Motors America (left), and Chuck Hong,
CEO of Netlist, pause in downtown Seoul.