Call Kim Ssang Su a man of the people. On a chilly night in the picturesque mountains south of Seoul, Kim, CEO of LG Electronics Inc., holds aloft a paper cup filled to the rim with soju, a clear, sweet potato--based Korean alcohol with a vicious bite. Surrounding him are a dozen of the 300 LG suppliers' managers whom Kim has spent the day lecturing and rallying. They have also been hiking up a snow-covered mountainside--necessary training, he says, for the grand plans he has for South Korea's second largest electronics firm. At the end of the day, he treats a group of LG Electronics employees to an outdoor barbecue of grilled pork and bowls of fiery red kimchi. "Great people! Great company!" he barks. "Great company! Great company!" they chant back, pumping their fists in perfect unison. Kim downs the soju in one gulp, then marches off to another table for another round of soju and another cheer. Then another, and another.
Eight tables and countless cups later, he is red faced, still screaming chants and bear hugging an unfortunate reporter. When dancing girls in short skirts and blond wigs start jiggling to ear-numbing Korean pop music, the tireless Kim, 59, cavorts in a mosh pit of drunken workers near a makeshift stage. Later he ascends the stage himself, microphone in hand, to croon out a popular oldie called Nui (Sister). "We love our CEO," says Kim Young Kee, an LG executive V.P. "He shows us a good time."
CEOs rarely stoop to carouse with the common man in an Asia dominated by secretive business clans and elite old-boy networks. But Kim is no ordinary Asian boss. He began his career 35 years ago as a nondescript engineer at an LG refrigerator factory, climbed the ranks and claimed the CEO post in October. Now he aims to duplicate the same feat with LG--lifting a consumer-electronics company little known outside Asia into the stratosphere of global brands with Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. "I want to go down in LG history," says Kim. "After death, a tiger leaves its skin. A man leaves his name."
LG seems well on its way. While most of the electronics industry, including Sony, suffered sagging growth and profits in recent years, LG's market presence surged. Revenues jumped 18% last year, to $17 billion, and net profits rose 33%, to $556 million. LG has the electronics world bracketed. At the commodity end, low-cost plants in China make the firm a power in developing markets. At the big-bucks, high-tech end, LG's home in broadband-rich South Korea has fostered a focus at LG on design and function that capitalizes on the digital home. Last year LG was the world's largest seller of mobile phones operating on the CDMA standard, which allows more people to use a network at the same time. It makes dazzling flat-screen TVs and other leading-edge gadgets. LG.Philips LCD, a joint venture formed in 1999 with Royal Philips Electronics, became the world's biggest maker of the LCD panels used in flat-screen TVs and monitors in 2003, with 22% of the global market. The unit's operating profit soared 307% last year, to $935 million.