Soju, Maekju, and Empire Building

I have put off writing my first in country blog post partly because exploring Korea has been too much fun but mostly because it is difficult to capture how truly amazing this experience is.

Day 1:

On day 1 of the trip we immediately see the benefit of being a Columbia Business School student. We get to check into a 5-star hotel, VIP style, because of the generous support of the Lotte Chairmen Dongbin Shin (I’ll get back to him more later). The hotel is immaculate and our every need is taken care of. The rooms are so nice that it is almost a shame we never spend anytime in them.

We leave the hotel for our first event which is a non-verbal Korean Dance Show “Ballerina Who Loved a B-Boy”. The show is a mix of ballet and break-dancing. We are blown away by the talent of some of the dancers and generally feel like the moves we will display at the clubs later will fall far short. One of the cool things about the show is that it is interactive with the audience so of course a group of non-Koreans gets called out by the hosts. After the show we went to our first group dinner at a Korean Seafood Well-being restaurant. What that translates to is food that will test my nerve. We get everything from skate wing to tofu to uncooked crab (best described as warm fishy jelly). Once dinner was over I wish I could say we went out but the jet lag made us all pass out

Day 2:

CBS takes over the Korean news media, for good reasons. We got a private audience with the Mayor of Seoul in his personal office. I have never seen more stacks of paper in my life. The Mayor turns out to be the nicest politician I have ever met, he genuinely cares about hearing the wishes of the citizens. His office has a full wall of post it notes written by visitors to city hall with comments and suggestions. He even has a herb garden in his office to encourage others to develop urban farms. From the Mayor’s office we travel to the Blue House (Korean equivalent of the White House) to meet with the Senior Minister of Finance. The visit with the minister feels like a GEE class. He discusses total factor productivity, labor rates, and capital stock accumulation, thankfully we ask good questions and know what he is talking about. I should note that the faculty member on the trip is my econ professor so he was beaming after the talk because it reinforced his material. The main takeaway from his talk is that Korea is going to maintain GDP growth by focusing on innovation and encouraging female employment. It seems as though the current administration has a strong sense of direction and that the future is bright.

Day 3:

The best way to describe this day is to say empire building seems like a good business plan. On day 3 we got to meet Dongbin Shin and learn about his diverse Lotte business empire. We start the day off with a visit to their home shopping network tv studio. There we get the royal treatment: tv cameras, executives, presents, the works. The tv studio has the largest live studio in Korea and we got to watch a live taping, I am pretty sure viewers could hear us making a ruckus in the background. During this portion of our visit we get a presentation from Chairman Shin on the Lotte business. Lotte seems like the biggest company you have never heard of. They operate a shopping network, confectionery business, hotels, amusement parks, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, food/beverage, and petrochemicals all over Asia. From the studio we went to the Lotte confectionery company. We donned clothes covers and got to see the making of chocolate, gum, and ice cream filled with more samples then we could handle.

Lunch is at one of the hottest restaurants in Seoul, TGIF (yup you heard me right). We go to the TGIF in Lotte World Amusement park. In Korea it is considered an upscale restaurant and our tour guides from earlier in the day are super jealous that we get to go. Since this is a Lotte restaurant we have the red carpet waiting for us when we arrive. The whole staff is lined up to high five us as we walk in and I think they prepared special “American” sized portions of hamburgers for us.

After lunch we get to do one of the coolest things I have ever done. Remember that whole empire building thing I mentioned earlier, well one of the perks is that you can build skyscrapers…really really tall skyscrapers. We get to visit the under construction Lotte World Tower which will be the largest building in Korea and the largest in the OECD. This building will be taller than the World Trade Center in New York. We get to go up to the one of the highest unfinished flowers for a crazy view of the city. There is something surreal about being 46 stories up with no walls and just concrete. The tower is the final part of our visit with Lotte, a company I will be keeping my eye on in the future.

You would think that all of this would be enough for one day but of course this is Chazen and we do not get a break. From Lotte we go straight to AmorePacific, the largest skincare company in Korea and a leader in skincare globally. We get a tower of their offices and design studio. As we learn more about Korean skincare products, I think all of us are subconsciously thinking about how inadequate our skincare routines are. Fun fact: on average French women have 6-7 skincare products in their house, Koreans average about 20. They are serious about flawless skin. No tour of a skincare company would be complete without a visit to one of their company stores where we run to try on product. There is something pretty funny about watching guys in suits all rubbing cream into their cheeks.

This ends the business visit portion of the day. All this means is that we can finally take off our suits and put on our party clothes. When in Korea the only way to party is to get a Karaoke room. All of us jammed into our own private room for hours of hits and beers in Gangnam, and of course we did sing Gangname style. I would love to tell you more about the evening but needless to say it was a blur.

Until next time,

Slava Druker reporting from Seoul, Korea ‘2015