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The story of Hyundai automobiles is one of persistence.
Chung Ju-yang founded Hyundai as a small construction firm in 1947. If his story began there—given what his company eventually developed into—it would be quite remarkable. However, what Chung ultimately achieved pales in comparison to what he went through to get to 1947.
Born in 1915, in the town of Asan in Korea’s Kangwon province under Japanese rule, Chung’s family was dirt poor—literally. His father a subsistence farmer, Chung was the oldest child in a family of six kids. His opportunities for advancement beyond that station in life were limited where he lived because of the oppressive nature of the Japanese.
However, his trips into town to sell wood showed him he could make things happen, and there were other ways to live. At the age of 16, Chung and one of his boyhood friends decided to run away to the city of Chongjin to get construction jobs. They made it and were doing pretty well when Chung’s dad found him and forced him to return home.
But Chung’s eyes had been opened.
Undaunted, Chung tried again a couple of years later. This time he made for Seoul with two friends. But they came up short when he got conned out of his money by a guy who’d promised to help the boys get there. Chung and his friends wound up at one of the boys’ grandfather’s place—where Chung’s dad found him and once again took him back to Asan.
After about a year, Chung tried again, this time alone. He sold one of his dad’s cows, used the cash to get a train ticket to Seoul. This time he made it there and enrolled in bookkeeping school. Two months later though, his father found him again and took him back to Asan.
Three times, Chung had tried.
A lot of people would have given up and accepted their lot in life.
That wasn’t him.
Chung gave it a fourth shot.
Arriving once again in Seoul, he got a job as a laborer at Incheon harbor. From there, he went on to work construction at another company. He then got a job as a handyman at a syrup factory. From the syrup factory Chung got a job doing deliveries for a rice store. Recognizing something in him, the owner of the rice store gave him an opportunity to do the accounting. This helped Chung further hone his business sense.
When the rice store’s owner fell ill, he gave the store to Chung, setting in motion the events that would ultimately create one of Korea’s largest corporations. The store did well under Chung’s leadership and prospered, until Japanese imposed trade restrictions made it an unprofitable business. So Chung used the money he’d saved to go into auto repair. This too, was a successful venture for him—until the Japanese government forced the merger of Chung’s garage with a steel plant to support Japan’s WWII efforts.
Just when it looked like he was up and running, he got set back again.
Chung returned to Asan for a fifth time—but this time with a sizeable nest egg.
When the war ended, Japan was no longer in control of Korea. Chung saw an opportunity and started Hyundai and Hyundai Civil Industries, banking on gaining reconstruction and industrialization business. It worked. He got contracts to build dams, freeways, and the largest shipyard in the world—along with a nuclear power plant—and many other projects. He experienced a mild setback during the Korean War, but regained his stride afterwards.
By the way, in the Korean language, Hyundai roughly translates to mean "modernity".
And indeed, Chung, in many ways, was responsible for the emergence of South Korea into modern times after the war. In the years between 1947 and 1967 when Hyundai Motor Company was founded, Chung diversified the Hyundai chaebol in pretty much every way imaginable. (Chaebol is a South Korean term for business conglomerate.)
By the mid-1990’s, Hyundai was active in advertising, construction, chemicals, electronics, financial services, heavy industry, logistics, shipbuilding, shipping, and automobile manufacturing, The Hyundai Motor Group is the largest automaker in Korea, the second largest in Asia (after Toyota), and fourth largest in the world. The company operates the largest automobile factory in the world at Ulsan, South Korea. The plant produces some 1.6 million vehicles annually.
Hyundai’s first car was the 1968 Hyundai Cortina, produced in co-operation with the Ford Motor Company. The first Hyundai automobiles produced from scratch were offered in 1975, as the Hyundai Pony. Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign did the styling; Mitsubishi did the powertrain. The Pony found its way to Canada in 1984, to considerable acclaim. At one point, the Hyundai Pony was the best selling car in Canada. It never came to the U.S. because the Hyundai automobile wouldn’t meet our emissions standards.
The first Hyundai cars to be offered in the United States were the 1986 Hyundai Excel models. A runaway best seller, the Excel offered crisp styling (Giugiaro again), and an incredibly reasonable base price. However, it ultimately turned out the only thing the Hyundai automobiles excelled at was breaking down. When consumers figured this out, sales plummeted. The Excel’s follow-up, the Sonata, wasn’t a whole lot better. While the numbers were down considerably, Hyundai’s still sold—but only to people who couldn’t afford anything else.
Just like its founder though, the company kept trying until it found its stride.
In 1998, the company began a concerted effort to turn its image around. Hyundai Motor Group invested heavily in the quality, design, manufacturing, and long-term durability of its vehicles. It added a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty to cars sold in the United States and launched an aggressive marketing campaign. When the economy went bad in 2007, Hyundai Motor America offered to buy its cars back from customers if they purchased a Hyundai and subsequently lost their jobs. The marketing group followed that up with giving its customers free gas for a year.
Savvy moves like those, along with a broad model range of attractive designs and expanding its product portfolio into nearly every segment of the automotive marketplace attracted a great deal of positive attention to the brand. Hyundai automobiles now finds itself considered among the most respected car companies in the world.
If there is anything to be learned from the story of Chung Ju-yang and Hyundai autos, it is this…
You haven’t failed until you stop trying.