Samsung’s Former SEVP Talks about Korean Work Culture


There aren’t many non-Koreans who reach the upper echelons of Korean conglomerates – also known as “Chaebol.” Tom Davis was near the top of the biggest. Working for Samsung, he helped them develop their Everland and Caribbean Bay properties for the last 3 years, thoroughly enjoying his time with them – and here in Korea. We wanted to hear what he had to say before he left. By the time you read this he’ll be on a plane taking the long way around the world back to his home in the United States.

1. How long have you lived in Korea now?

I have lived in Korea for almost three years.

2. What brought you here?

Real Estate Development projects with Samsung Everland and Samsung C&T. In my time here we opened the Panda Habitat in Everland, Megastorm in Caribbean Bay, the largest water slide of its kind in the world, Thunder Falls, a new rafting adventure ride in Everland, and Magic Time Restaurant in Everland.

3. How many other non-Koreans held positions that high with Samsung?

There have been very few “Busajangs” (Senior Executive Vice Presidents) at Samsung. There were approximately four foreigners at that level while I was with the group.

4. What was it like working in such a high position within Samsung?

It was a great experience overall. I was very impressed with the level of acceptance I received in this position from all of my Korean colleagues, at every level of the organization. I think the longstanding friendship between the United States and Korea has created a true relationship of mutual respect.

5. Where do you think Samsung is headed after your departure?

Samsung has established itself as one of the world’s top brands and I like to think that my contributions will help to keep it there. All markets are highly competitive and change is always needed to stay at the forefront of any business. After spending several years at Samsung I am quite comfortable that the group will continue to be extremely successful.

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6. What cultural differences did you experience?

Koreans are known for being very hard workers and in the Korean culture that means long hours on the job. Americans are also known to be hard workers, but we also place significant value on balancing our business and social life. Going forward I think that the globalization that Korea is going through at the moment will create an improved balance in the lives of all Koreans. On the other hand it is astounding to see the deep level of teamwork that Koreans display in everything they do on the job. Americans can also be good team players, but there is room to improve on everything and there is something to be learned from Koreans in this respect.

7. How is working in development in Asia different from the US?

It is actually very similar. You have to deal with various different jurisdictions, but the differences from State to State within the U.S. are not really very different from the U.S. to Korea. Korea is an advanced society with firm laws and building codes that are easy to understand. Architects and Engineers are among the best in the world and Construction Companies like Samsung C&T are world class. The single biggest issue is communication since most Westerners (including
myself) do not speak Korean. I was able to navigate the business world here by employing Korean Americans or “returning Koreans” that had a command of both English and Korean. I believe these younger people are the future of Korea because they learn a lot in the process of
helping people like me conduct business at an international level.

8. What were the similarities and differences between the global brands you were with before and working for a Korean global brand?

I was with Hilton and Marriott before Samsung and I can honestly say that there are many more similarities than there are differences. All have large corporate structures with processes and procedures that balance risk, return and use of capital, all of them place a high value on
employees as well as customers and maintaining brand quality. There is a similar level of corporate politics to deal with of course, but in all cases employees have an immense amount of pride in who they work for.

9. What are your future plans?

My wife and I are going to travel for about six weeks to Dubai and surrounding Emirates, we will spend some time with some long lost cousins in Scotland, spend time with my sisters in San Diego and visit an old friend in Panama. We plan to get home to Orlando by April. I have been offered a partnership position with a National Development firm in the U.S. that would like to break into the international market and I have two different opportunities I am discussing with American firms doing business in Korea and other parts of Asia.

10. What sorts of things do you think you’ll miss most about Korea?

We will miss the expat life most of all. Finding yourself in a foreign country far from home naturally forces you to seek out others in the same situation. You become friends with people that you may not have had much in common with back home and this results in having a very
colorful group of friends. Then the proximity of other Asian nations to Korea allows you to travel to places like Vietnam, The Philippines, Thailand, China and so on that you would probably never travel to directly from the U.S. We had a great time in Korea and we look forward to coming back.

Tom Davis