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HuffPost Interviews Sung-Joo Kim, the Driving Force Behind MCM

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I sat down to coffee and breakfast at the Plaza with Sung-Joo Kim the driving force behind MCM, the luxury handbag maker. She has 500 employees, runs a multinational that does $280 million in sales and donates 10 percent of her net income to non-government institution that support global health care. Save the Children and the Red Cross are among the recipients. She's a proponent of women's rights and leadership. When I asked about her current state of mind, Ms. Kim answered "driven." Her five-year goal is to reach a billion in sales.

She was born into a strict Korean family with an energy baron for a father and three brothers. When she was accepted to Amherst, her father, sticking to an age-old custom, held her back and encouraged her to be a homemaker. The young Kim arranged a dinner of distinguished alums and the table of twelve finally convinced her father to let her go to school in the US. She later went on to gain a degree from the London School of Economics. She credits education with laying a strong foundation for personal success.

2010-04-07-mskimmain.jpg When she married an American man, her father disowned her. When he passed away, he bequeathed his all of his land, auto manufacturing holdings and energy stakes to her three brothers -- honoring generations of succession and tradition. This left her to grow her fortune in fashion on her own, eventually becoming the most successful woman in Asia. When she was in Dubai to accept an award, she was the only women in the room.

This is not to say that she didn't have some support from her father, but she needed to work for it. Proving herself good at striking deals, she helped her father negotiate. Finally he gave her $300,000 to start SungJoo Group. She went on to do the licensing for Gucci in Asia and before selling it off for $27 million when the Asian financial crisis hit to cover her operating expenses.

Her greatest achievement is paving roads. She prays in the morning and in the evening and is a devout Protestant. Sometimes she meditates. She eats lean and healthy foods, sticking to Asian cuisine, and her optimism and energy is palpable. Her favorite designer is the late Yves St. Laurent, yet at home she prefers simple jeans and a t-shirt.

She's unabashed about using the halo effect of New York to sell to consumers in Asia, the bulk of her customer base. But her trip to the US spearheads a move into the American market, which the company is still trying to understand. Some of the bags in the current collection have been designed by Joy Gryson, the former accessories director at Marc Jacobs.

MCM was prominent in the eighties, a German company that was brought to its knees by tax fraud then forgeries. Ms. Kim won the licensing deal for the brand in 1992 and soon made it a prominent player in the Korean market. Her share was so great that Sung-Joo bought the company outright in 2005, assuming ownership of a luxury brand for the first time. "Ownership just made sense," she said and snuggled on the couch, calling the brand her baby. She promptly cleaned house and is still building her team.

We took pictures in the boutique at the Plaza. She escaped the rent strike mess, since the MCM boutique does get foot traffic and is wonderfully situated at the street level. I saw people interested in bags as we took over the shop for an impromptu photo shoot. I loved watching her laugh and enjoy the leather clad MCM dogs.

She credits her devotion to transparency and sheer will as the driving force in being able to pierce the Geisha culture that permeates some Asian nations. She wants to be as public as possible about her efforts and business. I can't help wondering what compromises she's needed to make. She said she's made very few. To retain loyalty and to stick to her principles, her employees all get health care and scholarship funds for their kids. The Korean press were waiting in a banquet hall to spout out questions as I left and Ms. Kim just wanted to linger in the boutique.

I'm truly excited to have met her.

[Alex loves photography and shoots headshots]

Note on Swag: I got an MCM messenger bag and breakfast at the Plaza. According to the PR company, I'm the only blogger/journalist who was personally gifted a bag during her stay. I'm honored.