Heiress' new role could reshape Korea group

Heiress' new role could reshape Korea group

Like other chaebol daughters in South Korea, Chung Yu-kyung has stayed under the shadow of her elder brother Chung Yong-jin, heir apparent of the Shinsegae Group.

Leading trendy but smaller units like hotel and bakery businesses for years, the only daughter of group chairwoman Lee Myung-hee has been standing out in the succession race for a long time. A recent promotion that placed her on the top of Shinsegae's department store business, however, has quickly turned around this traditional idea.

Taking the top position at Shinsegae Inc., one of the two core businesses within the retail empire, the 44-year-old heiress has been put to the test to prove her management skills.

Industry watchers say that Chung's new role could reshape the conglomerate's controlling structure.

The decision apparently made by her mother may signal the group's future strategy to divide the empire into two -- with her brother managing the large discount store business led by E-mart and Chung taking Shinsegae Inc. which runs department store units and other affiliates.

Rumors have been spreading that the group's chairwoman and the mother of the two siblings may have given an equal opportunity to compete with each other, and to test them as to who is more suitable for the empire.

Shinsegae officials denied the rumors saying nothing has been decided yet, according to reports.

As the president of the department store business, Chung is in charge of department store chains, outlets and fashion business and also heads duty-free business -- regarded as a new cash cow for the group. Having secured a license from the government to operate a duty-free shop late last year, Shinsegae plans to open its first store in May at its Myeong-dong location.

In particular, the reopening of Shinsegae's Gangnam branch next weekend will be her debut as president, according to industry sources.

She has been leading the project to challenge Lotte's long dominance in the market. Lotte Department Store in Sogong-dong, central Seoul, has taken the top position since its opening in 1979. Last year, the branch recorded sales of 1.8 trillion won ($1.47 billion).

Through her projects including openings of new department store chains in Hanam, Gimhae and Daegu, Shinsegae plans to achieve annual sales of 2 trillion won by 2019 -- aimed at taking the No. 1 position in the market.

Despite the rosy picture, Chung faces bumpy roads ahead.

Her retail business targeting middle- and upper-class customers has been losing ground slowly to online retailers amid a market slowdown.

Unlike her brother who already experienced both success and failure with his giant E-mart business targeting mass markets inside and outside of the country, Chung seems to have a long way to prove herself as a successful entrepreneur.

In terms of revenue, E-mart Co. outpaced Shinsegae Inc., generating four to five times higher sales. Her brother has a 7.32 percent stake in each of the two business units, while Chung holds 2.51 percent. Some industry watchers say she is no threat to her brother's succession.

What differentiates her from her brother is her expertise in design and art, which could reinforce Shinsegae Inc.'s position as a fashion and lifestyle trendsetter.

Chung pursued art and design at Ewha Womans University and studied graphic design at the University of Rhode Island in the US She joined her family business in 1996 by taking an executive position in the marketing division of Chosun Hotel and served as vice president of Shinsegae Inc. from 2009 to 2015. She is married to Wharton school graduate Moon Sung-wook, who serves as vice president of Shinsegae International, the fashion unit of the group.

However, it remains to be seen how she could blend her favorable qualities with her management skills, which could, in return, further expand her presence in the group.

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