U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens arrives Sept. 15, 2009, at Thunderbird near the end of a weeklong road show promoting free trade with South Korea. At previous stops along the tour, she has emphasized the growing importance of Asia in U.S. relations. But the ambassador skips this point at Thunderbird.
“Here at Thunderbird you all understand Asia is important,” she says. “I don’t think I need to belabor that point.”
Instead, Stephens discusses the economic, political and cultural transformation she has witnessed in Korea since she first arrived in the country as a Peace Corps worker in 1975.
Her audience includes 26 high-potential managers from Seoul-based SK Group, who are living on campus during a four-month executive education program. These managers know Korea’s success story well because their company has been a key player in the transformation.
“SK Group has been a leader in our country,” says Su Kil Lim, an SK Group team leader. “We are helping the dream of prosperity become reality in Korea and the world.”
Lim says all companies and industries rely on energy, and SK Group has provided this in Korea through development of overseas oilfields and other global operations. The conglomerate also addresses many of Korea’s communication needs.
“For a country to be independent, it needs basic infrastructure,” he says. “Our company has provided this.”
SK Group also has established itself as Korea’s second-largest exporter, with products such as clean-burning auto fuels going to Canada, Australia and other markets. Overall, SK exports climbed to a record $29.6 billion in 2008.
Korea’s economic transformation coincides with Thunderbird’s own global success story.
When SK managers first arrived in Arizona in 1990, Thunderbird Corporate Learning was a small business unit operating out of a trailer on the edge of campus. Today, Thunderbird Senior Vice President Beth Stoops oversees a multimillion dollar executive education operation with branches in Arizona and Switzerland.
Stoops says the four-month SK program operated at first like a “mini MBA,” but the conglomerate gradually outgrew this format as it expanded globally.
“They saw the value in Thunderbird, but they needed more,” Stoops says. “They needed strategy behind where they were headed. They needed market entry strategy and all kinds of things.”
That’s when she brought Thunderbird Professor Kannan Ramaswamy on board to transform the program into something geared toward high-potential managers. Alisa Giulietti also adds support at Thunderbird as the SK Group program manager.
“One of the keys to the relationship is Alisa and the Thunderbird professors,” Lim says. “They make sure everything runs smoothly.”
The program still includes intensive English instruction, but the overall emphasis has shifted toward global strategy through examination of case studies and classroom discussion.
Young Kwan Ko, an SK Group senior manager, says he appreciates the investment SK Group has made in his personal development through the Thunderbird partnership. “It’s been a nice chance to look back on my life and plan the rest of my career,” he says.
In addition to instruction from Thunderbird professors, Ramaswamy invites global leaders from other industries into the SK classroom. In October 2009, for example, two Henkel managers with Korean expertise led a roundtable discussion on ways to instill innovation in an organization.
“Knowledge sharing through these peer-to-peer discussions can lead to better understanding on both sides,” Ramaswamy says.
Participants also share knowledge with each other. Some come to the program with a background in energy. Others work in telecommunications, finance, accounting, marketing or human resource management.
“I learn many things from other participants’ experiences,” says Eunkee Jo, an SK Group general manager.
Beyond the custom program, SK Group also sends senior executives to the Thunderbird International Consortia and other high-level workshops. Thunderbird’s Advanced Management Program for Oil and Gas Industry Executives in November 2009, for example, will include SK Group executives.
Jo says Thunderbird’s long-term partnership with SK Group helps create continuity among leaders and a consistent corporate culture.
“The senior executives in our company have had the same experiences at Thunderbird that we are receiving now,” he says.
The partnership has endured over the years despite the ups and downs that have affected both organizations. Stoops says the International Monetary Fund crisis that swept through Asia in 1997 and the current global recession have created challenges, but both sides have made concessions to keep the partnership strong.
“This is all about partnership and trust,” Stoops says.
Going forward, Ramaswamy sees huge potential for SK Group as the conglomerate deepens its reach in key markets such as China and expands into new industries such as pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology and biomedicine.
“SK Group has represented Korea well,” Ramaswamy says. “They have put together a remarkable story in terms of how they have capitalized on the economic changes that have happened in Korea.”