Canadian Chamber of Commerce Chief Declares
Amidst a backdrop of red-painted faces and maple leaf clad hordes I have the opportunity to interview Mrs. Joan Baron at the annual Canada Day party near Itaewon. She brings an impressive resume to the table. Having first come to Korea with her husband in 1995 she did not realize at the time that eight years on she would still be here. She first arrived in Korea working with Telus International on a contract to provide IT outsourcing to Korean companies.In 1996 she became director of Telus International Korea and has headed up their operations ever since. In 1999 a joint venture between the SK Group and Telus resulted in the creation of TELSK, a company in which Mrs. Baron acts as CEO. In addition to her posts as the head of these companies she is also acting president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Korea.As we look out onto the field of party-goers, some of whom have begun spontaneous mud wrestling matches, it seems appropriate to begin questioning her about her involvement with the Canada Day party. The Chamber took it over from the Canadian Embassy in 1999. That year there were 50 people attending the low-scale gathering. Since that time its profile has gone through the roof. This year there were an estimated 1,500 guests with US$8.5 million in prizes to be given away."The embassy was forced to cut back operations at that time so we decided to take over and see what we could do with it," recalls Ms. Baron "It's grown each year and become a great social event for the Canadian community here in Korea." And judging by the different accents of English one could hear wafting through the air on Sunday, it has grown to be a great social event for the entire foreign community.A live band takes the stage and begins to urge on the now completely covered mud wrestlers as the crowd hollers encouragement, I switch topics and ask Mrs. Baron about the role that the Canadian Chamber plays here in Korea."The biggest challenges Canadian companies face is getting over here. They don't know where to start or what to do," she explains "We exist to get them in contact with the right people and help them make the necessary connections to do business successfully here.""In Canada we export such a large majority of our products to the American market. That's OK, it is a natural place for us to go, but I think we need more diversity as well, we are so dependent on the American economy that when it coughs we get sick too," she adds.Mrs. Baron is very excited about Korea and the prospects for Canadian companies to do business here. Especially the small- and medium-sized ones. It is the small companies that fuel the engine that powers the economy."And there is a tremendous opportunity for them here in Korea. In Korea you can come in and make money in three years, in say China, that's no guarantee, it may take you 10 years and you still have no profits!" she comments."And conversely, there is also opportunity for Korean companies who wish to do business in Canada. Most people don't realize it but nobody knows the American market better than Canadians," explains Mrs. Baron, "In the same way that Korea is an excellent hopping point for Canadian companies wanting to get into other Asian markets, Canada is a very good place for Korean companies to break into the North American market before moving into the United States."I ask Mrs. Baron about the biggest challenge Canadian or any foreign companies face when they do business in Korea. She said "There is a very strong dominant culture here in Korea. Unlike Canada the Korean population is very homogeneous, and therefore that culture manifests itself in several ways. It is important to learn the business culture here in Korea before you try and do business here."In this way also the Chamber is a useful resource for Canadian companies wanting to tap the Korean market. By informing them about local customs and the way that Koreans operate it makes it that much easier to close a deal or secure an important contract.In addition to being CEO of two companies and the president of a G8 nation Chamber of Commerce, Mrs. Baron somehow finds time for community involvement. Through the Chamber she is involved with organizing the annual Terry Fox run in Korea which raises money for cancer research in this country. In addition to that she is involved with a scholarship fund that enables high-achieving Korean students to go overseas and complete a masters or Ph.D. in the math and sciences. She also works to raise money and provide resources to local NGOs who give assistance to the people of North Korea.There is a flutter of activity around us and about four different people have come up to request a moment of Mrs. Baron's time throughout the course of our interview. I realize that she is a woman in high demand and that there are more important things to attend to.But perhaps some final reflections upon her time in Korea, some words of wisdom or insight gained from her time here and deep involvement with the Korean community?"My time here has really made me appreciate my own country. Korea is a wonderful and fascinating place, an exciting place to be in my opinion. However being here has given me a perspective on Canada that I never had before," she says "I now see our strengths as well as our weaknesses more clearly. I think it's important for Canadians to go abroad and expand their horizons. For me it's been a wonderful experience."
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Grant Surridge studied business at the University of Manitoba in Canada. He serves as a staff writer for The Seoul Times.
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