Kyun-Bay Ahn, MBA '87, MILR '91: Negotiating the finer points of a weighty business
"Every move is different and therefore, challenging," says Ahn. When special or problematic cargo issues arise, Ahn handles things himself. For example, he personally attended the handling at the airport when that race car arrived in Korea. And he was on the ground to clear customs for a giant industrial dryer (60 tons) that was brought in by plane to dry up a building after typhoon damage.
Providing the personal touch has its perks, too. "Every family has different needs and concerns and we have to address them accordingly," he says. "There are several memorable ones. Handling the U.S. Ambassadors' personal effects are always enjoyable (we handled [moves for] Ambassador Bosworth and the current Ambassador Stevens) as it gives me an opportunity to visit the beautiful official residence."
Ahn's role includes overseas sales, so he travels extensively, an aspect of the job he relishes. "Overseas sales means visiting agents and partners and attending industry conferences," he says. "Meeting different people from different parts of the world is really fun." He travels to the U.S. two or three times each year, and also makes it to such exotic places as Aruba, Panama, Prague and Sofia (Bulgaria).
Below, Ahn addresses the issues and challenges his industry is facing, describes a couple of projects he's working on, outlines a typical day, and shares the most compelling and most frustrating aspects of his job. He also talks about why he plays an active role in the Johnson School Alumni Club of South Korea, and why his continued involvement with the Johnson School is important to him.
Q. What key issues are affecting your industry today? How is it changing?
Ahn: Like any other industry, the global financial crisis hit us... We are also feeling the damages as multinational companies are trying not to send expatriates and localize the staff. As for the freights, although Korea is one of the few countries with fast recovery, the tonnage has not yet fully recovered. As the industry is very closely related to the technological change or economic trend, you have to be constantly alert and up-to-date with the news and developments of the world.
Q. What kinds of clients does Ahjin Transportation serve? Is this the sector of your business that has been impacted the most by the global economic crisis – because of the reduced tonnage in imports and exports?
Ahn: Our clients for export and import cargoes include Kimberly Clark, Watsila, Samsung Electronics and various other importers and exporters in Korea. Due to the economic slowdown in the U.S. and Europe as well as in Korea, we saw a sharp decrease in both import and export at the beginning of the crisis. As Korea is recovering very quickly with strong exports (No. 9 in the world), we see a sign of recovery as well. However, on the import side, it hasn't been the case as the domestic consumers find the imports expensive with the weak Korean currency. Now that Korean currency is getting stronger, it will hurt exports and boost imports. We are constantly facing challenges due to the economic situation.
Q. Can you give me an example of how a recent change in technology directly affected the way you do business?
Ahn: I was one of the first Korean companies with its own Web site. When there is a new technology trend such as RFID, this is the industry where it is first applied. We have already done the paperless EDI for many years, and our high tech clients expect us to adopt whatever the new tech is out there. Of course, you need to understand what is going on in different industries to make proper sales calls as well.
Q. What is a typical day like for you?
Ahn: Unless I am on a business trip (I take 6-8 trips a year), my typical day starts with a brief sales/business development meeting. As we have three foreign staff (one American, one Swiss, one Filipina), the meeting is in English. As most of our clients are foreign nationals, it is quite important for us to have a multinational flavor with multilingual capability. Currently, we have English, German, French, Spanish, as well as Korean and Tagalog language capability. I hope to add the British language shortly: While we have English fluency, it is still helpful to have someone who can talk about cricket, rugby and football, not American football in addition to the British accent. One of the keys to success in moving is to make the clients feel comfortable, and [being able to relate to] someone with similar cultural background is a definite plus.
In the afternoon, I usually pay a visit to a job site for the VIP clients, especially those who have moved to Korea recently. It is an interesting opportunity for the client as well as myself, as we can increase mutual understanding of each other's culture and ideas. When there is a bidding (RFP or RFQ), I take full responsibility and I may have to do overtime.
Q. Could you describe a couple of projects you're currently working on?
Ahn: We are planning to add another related line of business: a relocation service. Although several big companies like Cartus are struggling following the financial crisis, which affected the real estate market severely, it may represent a good opportunity for us to be prepared for the time of recovery. As it is a natural extension from our existing line of business, we can do it at minimal cost. Although it does not give us the benefit of diversification, we hope to achieve our diversification through different directions. Another project that I am working on is writing proposals for the jobs related to the relocation of the U.S. military base from Seoul. There are several RFPs these days as the planned moving date gets nearer, and I expect to spend a lot of time writing them up.
Q. What's the most compelling aspect of your job?
Ahn: The industry is highly influenced by the overall economic situation and we have to keep finding ways to generate revenues from various sources. Furthermore, as a service industry that cannot pile up inventory, you need to find ways to meet the peaks and non-peaks of the service requirement. In addition, as it is very labor intensive, you should find ways to keep your staff satisfied and well-trained to provide a better service.
Q. What's the most frustrating aspect of your job?
Ahn: As a small company, there is no replacement staff in times of a sudden personnel change. This problem can be especially severe for us, as we are offering a lot of different services with very few staff. I try to solve the problem by making every staff a multifunctional player.
Q. What do you think makes you good at what you do?
Ahn: Actually, the job requires a lot of experience and an open mind. My education in the U.S. and the living experience there, as well as a lot of traveling, have helped me to get a very international perspective and keep me alert on various issues.
Q. I understand that you play a very active role in the Johnson School Alumni Club of South Korea. What made you decide to be such an active club member? Why is your continued involvement with the Johnson School important to you?
Ahn: I started to get active with the alumni clubs when Korea started social networking through the Internet. I love to try new things. When I joined several sites (10 years ago) for social networking and online alumni clubs, I naturally wanted to make one for Cornell. Thanks to the Internet and computers, e-mails and SMS, it was relatively easy to organize the club. With the great support from JC Lee and others, we were able to start the Johnson School Club first, and naturally we expanded to the Cornell Club. Before the Internet age, the Cornell Club [included] more [members of the] older generation with graduate degrees, but with the new technology, we recruited younger members and [alumni with undergraduate degrees]. Another reason that I became involved more with Cornell is because of my length of stay in Ithaca. After finishing my MBA, I studied more at Cornell, and therefore I know more Korean Cornellians personally, which made me a natural candidate to assume a role. Another benefit I had was that my job requirement was not over my head. Cornell and the Johnson School are still very important, as I spent a considerable time of my youth in Ithaca and I am indebted to Cornell. It is my payback to get involved in the alumni activities, and I intend to do so while I can.