By Jeff Moag
Published May 16, 2011
Ariel Blumovich T’10 was a natural choice to work in Samsung’s Global Strategy Group (GSG), a cadre of about 80 non-Korean MBAs from all over the world that is helping the conglomerate diversify its business. The 33-year-old Israeli with Polish roots and had come to Tuck with the intention of eventually moving into a management role in business development. “I was looking around the Western world, and the United States in particular,” says Blumovich, “but when this offer came it was very hard to resist.”
Blumovich is one of a growing number of Tuck graduates who are forgoing a traditional path for MBAs—employment in U.S. or European-based multinationals—to work for companies headquartered in some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Samsung is a case in point. Six members of Tuck’s 2009 and 2010 graduating classes are now working with Samsung’s Global Strategy Group (GSG) in Seoul, and five more graduates will join the group this year, according to Jonathan Masland, director of counseling and recruiting at Tuck’s Career Development Office.
Samsung accounts for more than 20 percent of South Korea’s GDP, with most of its business in electronics and heavy industries. As South Korea shifts rapidly from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy, Samsung is aggressively diversifying its business, with emphasis in health, pharmaceuticals, financial services, and green tech. Samsung’s GSG is helping to drive the transition.
GSG employees sign two-year contracts, with a view toward transitioning out of the group into line management. The group’s relationship with Tuck has been good for the school, its graduates, and Samsung. The company offers more than a chance to work internationally; it provides a unique opportunity to work in Asia within one of the region’s most highly regarded companies. “When Samsung comes to the Tuck campus, it’s a packed room,” Masland says.
Working with Samsung in Korea is a more thorough cultural immersion than simply working for a consulting firm in Brazil or an investment bank in Hong Kong. “Our group occupies one floor of a 44-floor building. When I step into an elevator, everyone knows what floor I’m going to,” says Andrew Persson T’10, who is 6’2”. Korea is one of the most homogenous nations on earth, and though adults are far too polite to stare, kids sometimes swarm non-Koreans. English-immersion schools are common in Korea, and children are eager to try their skills with a native speaker, says Person.
Business within the GSG is conducted in English, and group employees receive four hours of Korean lessons a week. Still, the language barrier can be isolating. Though many Koreans have a rudimentary knowledge of English—when Persson holds a door for someone, they never fail to thank him in English—career advancement outside of the GSG can be limited by proficiency in Korean, a language that is notoriously difficult for speakers of European languages.
In many ways, the Korean business culture is equally opaque. The Samsung organization is more hierarchical than western companies, and relationships play an even greater role. “A few months ago I was tasked to a new project that was being run by one of the vice presidents,” says Curtis Gasser T’09. “We went to his office for a kickoff meeting and made small talk for about 15 minutes. Then he stood up; the meeting was over.” Before Gasser and his colleagues were ushered out the door, the VP invited them to a second meeting—to discuss the agenda for a third.
“We needed to build a relationship before we could actually start working together,” Gasser says. Once that relationship was established, the project moved ahead quickly. “Korea has what they call a bali-bali culture. Once an order comes down, employees will work all night to get it done.” Tuck prepares students exceptionally well for that type of environment, because they are used to working in teams. When the order comes down, it’s up to the team to make it happen, Gasser says.
The Global Strategy Group is a good example of that kind of focused effort, serving as a kind of in-house consulting team and helping to develop new businesses. The Samsung effort is part of a larger transition of the South Korean economy away from manufacturing toward a technology and service-based economy. The shift is a necessary response to Korea’s meteoric growth. When the armistice ending the Korean War was signed in 1953, Korea was one of the poorest nations on earth. Now it is among the wealthiest, with a per-capita GDP of more than $30,000 and a seat on the G-20 as the world’s 15th-largest economy. The growth, averaging more than 8 percent annually from 1962 to 1989, was fueled by heavy industry such as shipbuilding, automobiles, and armaments, as well as consumer electronics. But as Korea has become wealthier and wages have grown, the relative advantage of its industrious, welleducated workforce has declined. The answer, Samsung is betting, is in services.
The company is staking the effort on people like Blumovich and Gasser, and Persson. Their GSG colleagues come from a cross-section of potential markets: India, Italy, Germany, Brazil, the United Kingdom—Gasser and Persson both hail from the United States. The five members of Tuck’s 2011 graduating class headed to Samsung later this year hail from Argentina, France, Canada, and the United States.
The initial contract is for two years, after which employees are expected to have made the transition out of the GSG to existing or new business lines. Blumovich made the transition to Samsung’s biosimilars division last month. Persson and Gasser, like most GSG members, have left their career options open. Whether they return to the United States next year or in 15 years, the experience will have been valuable.
“Any chance to work in a well-run global company outside your culture is a great opportunity,” Masland says.
Compensation at Samsung is competitive, and sweetened with housing subsidies and certain tax advantages. And despite the cultural isolation and distance from home—Seoul is separated from the U.S. East Coast by 11 time zones—it is easier to be an expat now than perhaps ever before. Technologies like Skype make staying in touch with friends and family relatively simple.
The nature of the GSG, in which employees are all far from home and new to Korea, also fosters a sense of community. The feeling is similar to Tuck—itself a tight-knit group of likeminded people. Blumovich and Gasser, both of whom are married with small children, found a sense of community with their colleagues not unlike Sachem Village, though GSG families live all over Seoul. Still, says Gasser, “sometimes when you’re in the supermarket you have to choose between the squid and paying $12 for a box of Cheerios.”
If American expats crave a taste of home, they can find it in Seoul. The area around the GSG’s downtown offices boasts a Burger King, TGI Fridays, and an Outback Steakhouse. Dunkin Donuts is across the street, says Persson, who occasionally stops in for a coffee before his 8 a.m. Korean class. He prefers the Samsung commissary, where a traditional Korean meal costs about $2.20 and invariably includes kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage ubiquitous to Korean cuisine. There are at least 120 varieties, and sometimes Persson feels that he’s tried them all.
“To be happy here,” he says, “You have to be open to new experiences.”