French influence in Korea?

The recent publication of Robert Cohen’s book « Turning Around a Bank in Korea: A Business and Cultural Challenge » got me thinking. Here was a Frenchman, who after a distinguished 25-year career at the old Credit Lyonnais (now Calyon after some Executive Life troubles that got it absorbed by France’s « Green Bank », Caisse Nationale du Crédit Agricole), including 10 years as CEO of Crédit Lyonnais -Americas and a 3-year stint as vice-chairman of Republic National Bank under the late Mr. Safra took on the challenge of becoming the CEO of Korea’s largest bank, Korea First Bank with a mandate to turn it around. His slim volume is interesting on several levels: what  cultural and business challenges did he face, and how did he meet them, running a bank when you do not speak the language, a bank where women with PhD’s in economics are bank tellers ,a society in which seniority and age are possibly even more important than in Japan, a country where unions demonstrate by banging on drums for hours on end in the outer office of the CEO, a culture where his wife was expected to address him in Korean as Your Excellency ( I suspect he did not object too strenuously, when in Seoul…),a country where 15-or 30-year fixed rate mortgages were unknown because people only took out 3-to 5- year floating rate mortgages, where people spend fortunes on credit cards and do not use cheques. Such were his challenges and meet them well and truly he did. Not only was he able to turn around the bank and make a big pile for the private equity fund that had bought the basically bankrupt bank from the Korean Government after the 1997 Asian crisis by reselling the bank to Standard Chartered but he was the first to break the glass ceiling for Korean women when he promoted a woman to the post of senior vice president, something that had never been done before in Korea. Not at all a bad record for 4 years in Korea.

Was Robert Cohen the first Frenchman to exert such an influence in Korea? Important though his accomplishments may be, another Frenchman, General Legendre, blazed the trail 100 years before him. While Mr. Cohen fought with unions, General Legendre fought for the Union. Charles Legendre, born in 1830, was educated at the College Royal at Rheims and graduated from the Sorbonne. He met the daughter of a New York lawyer, Clara Mulock, married her in Brussels, moved to the United States and became a citizen. When the War Between the States started in 1861 he enlisted in the 51st NY Volunteers, Infantry. He served with distinction , was badly wounded at the battle of New Bern, North Carolina on 14 March 1862, « a ball injuring both the corner of the jaw and the spinal process. » Legendre was cited for displaying « most conspicuous courage until he fell wounded. »Later, serving under General Grant at the Second Battle of Wilderness he lost his left eye and the bridge of his nose. That did not prevent him from directing the defense of Annapolis from his hospital bed against Robert E. Lee’s last raid. He was given the title of brevet brigadier-general upon being honorably discharged and was soon appointed US consul to Amoy in China (1866-1872).

After a difference of opinions with the American minister in Beijing, Legendre resigned from the US Foreign Service to enter the Foreign Service of the Emperor of Japan. For his role in averting a war between Japan and China over Formosa, the Emperor made him the first recipient of the newly created Order of the Rising Sun. After spending 18 years in Japan, Legendre was called by the King of Korea in 1890 to become Vice President of the Home Office of Korea and adviser to the Household Department of the King. He died of apoplexy in 1899.It is hard for us today, used as we are to living and working in a global village, what it must have represented for such a man as General Legendre to go to Korea, a country about which not much was known at the time, and become one of the most influential people after the King!

Two very different destinies for two men of French origin who, 100 years apart, by happenstance, found themselves exerting a significant influence over Korean affairs. History: plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.


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