Women still rarely take the top seats at major conglomerates or chaebol in Korea’s male-dominated society.
While the number of women atop the corporate ladder is growing; chances of them staying there are significantly slim.
Some female CEOs are impressing markets despite this existing bias; but some are seemingly failing to live up to expectations.
Hanjin Shipping Chairwomen Choi Eun-young recently resigned from the post after she failed to solve the nation’s top shipper from protracted liquidity problems amid a slump in the shipping industry.
Choi took over the position in 2006 after her husband and late Hanjin Shipping Chairman Cho Soo-ho passed away.
Since then, Choi did her utmost to normalize the company.
However, her management drew a mixed response.
“Choi had some impact on the company in a positive way. But she was rather too passive in having open communication with Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Yang-ho,” a source from a Hanjin Group affiliate said.
Choi is Hanjin Group Chairman Cho’s sister-in-law.
She failed to get the company back on track. Hanjin Shipping reported 10.33 trillion won in sales last year ― but 242 billion won in operating losses. It has recorded loses for three consecutive years.
Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun is also struggling with the conglomerate’s weak finances. She took over the top seat in 2003 after her husband Chung Mong-hun killed himself.
Hyundai’s tourism business projects in Mt. Geumgang, North Korea, have been halted for several years amid conflicts between the two Koreas.
Last year, Hyundai announced a restructuring program to generate 3.3 trillion won by selling key affiliates such as securities, savings, asset management and hotel affiliates.
“In chaebol culture, owner families’ leadership is critical. If the owner does something wrong and misses the timing, everything could go wrong,” said an official of a Hyundai Group unit. “This view is personal. But I think she was not good at preparing for challenges and wasn’t acute enough to read market trends.”
One of the few successful female corporate leaders is Lee Boo-jin, the oldest daughter of Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee and Hotel Shilla CEO.
She is known for her “mission-complete” style leadership.
Under her leadership, the hotel has so far been successful in diversifying its revenue sources beyond the traditional hotel business as it increased its stakes in the duty-free business.
Hotel Shilla’s duty free business advanced to airports in Seoul and Singapore, and she significantly helped its duty free shop in the Incheon International Airport to house a Louis Vuitton store for the first time ever.
“Because the hotel has licenses to operate duty free shops outside the peninsula, our plan to become one of the global top three in the duty free business is going smoothly,” said an official.
Lee is weighing mid-end hotel businesses as part of a plan to find new growth momentum. By 2016, Hotel Shilla plans to expand the number of its “Shilla Stay” chain to 10.
Hotel Shilla reported 2.29 trillion won in revenue last year, up 58 percent from 2010. Its stock is outperforming the market.
“The role of female CEOs and chairwomen is still seen as too tough. Women are going into the job with a high chance of failure to begin with. The key point is how to get support from others and narrow differences with better communication skills.”
Women struggling to stay atop corporate ladder