Succession dreams of 'nut rage' heiress go up in smoke

Succession dreams of 'nut rage' heiress go up in smoke
Ms Cho, one of three children of Korean Air chief executive Cho Yang Ho, was “parachuted” into the company in 1999 as vice-president. She was said to be vying with her brother and sister, who also hold senior positions in the airline, to succeed their father, until the “nut rage” saga erupted.

Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun Ah was spotted at a private trade event at Singapore's Fullerton Hotel about two years ago, together with her plastic surgeon husband.

"She just sat beside her husband and was very quiet, like the woman behind a successful man," said another guest at the event, who declined to be named.

That is not how one would describe Ms Cho today.

Once known as one of the youngest female billionaires in South Korea and deemed an influential figure in the airline industry, Ms Cho, also known as Heather Cho, is now more likely to be called "nut- rage woman" instead.

The label has stuck since the former executive vice-president notoriously ordered a taxiing Korean Air flight to turn back at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport last December to eject two cabin crew members for serving her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of on a plate. Ms Cho, 40, was sentenced to a year's jail for violating aviation safety in February but released last Friday - on her twin sons' second birthday - after winning an appeal.

The incident has drawn international criticism against chaebol offspring like Ms Cho, whose overbearing sense of entitlement and high-handed ways have more than once stoked public outrage.

Ms Cho, one of three children of Korean Air chief executive Cho Yang Ho, the patriarch of Hanjin Group, was "parachuted" into the company in 1999 as vice-president, and oversaw catering and in-flight sales.

Trained in hotel management, even though she had initially dreamt of becoming a professional harpist, Ms Cho rose quickly through the ranks and, along the way, introduced initiatives to improve the airline.

The Cornell University alumna was credited with overhauling the airline's image, introducing new uniforms, revamping the in-flight magazine and building Korean Air's in-flight duty-free business to "levels unseen by any other international carrier", said the travel retail magazine TRBusiness.

The airline first achieved record duty-free sales of US$158 million (S$211 million) in 2005, a figure that increased to US$190 million last year.

Ms Cho was being groomed to emerge as a new icon of the Hanjin Group, and holds stocks worth about 30 billion won (S$36 million), according to a Korea Herald report last year on rising women billionaires.

Her work earned her a place in travel retail magazine The Moodie Report's People of the Year list in 2011.

Its founder Martin Moodie was full of praise, calling Ms Cho "the most influential figure in in-flight retailing".

By her own admission, Ms Cho has high standards and is not easy to work with. "Sometimes, I actually ask for more than what brands want to do and that's why people say it's tough to work with me," she told Moodie Report.

For Mr Park Chang Jin, the chief steward who was made to kneel in front of her, then removed from the plane, "tough to work with" may be an understatement.

In February, he said in court that Ms Cho treated airline staff like "feudal slaves" and that she attacked him like "a beast that found its prey" after a stewardess in the first-class cabin served her nuts in a bag. Ms Cho, who later resigned from the airline, apologised in public, as did her father.

She was said to be vying with her brother and sister, who also hold senior positions in the airline, to succeed their father, until the "nut rage" saga erupted.

When asked by Moodie Report in a 2006 interview what it was like to work for her father, Ms Cho said she faced "more pressure" because everyone in the company knew who she was.

"So I decided to just stretch myself a little more, do my best and make the company better," she said.

Whether she is equally demanding at home is anyone's guess. Not much is known about Ms Cho's personal life, except that she married her elementary school classmate and now prominent plastic surgeon Park Jong Ju, 40, in 2010.

When the twins were born in 2013, Ms Cho drew flak for giving birth in Hawaii, apparently to give them United States citizenship that would enable them to escape mandatory military service in South Korea.

The controversy did not appear to have ruffled her feathers then, but now, after being humiliated not just in her own country but also around the world, people are expecting her to mend her ways.

As Judge Kim Sang Hwan said last Friday, she will have to live the rest of her life "with social criticism".

This article was first published on May 25, 2015.
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