In the mid 1980s, I frequently visited a Korean company, Mando Machinery, who manufacture automotive power steering for the burgeoning Korean automotive industry. I must have visited at least ten times over a three-year period to reassure the engineers who make the capital equipment purchases that we had a high technology machine that was made for their requirements. One time, our technical meeting was brusquely interrupted by a person who spoke in rapid Korean and the meeting stopped immediately.
The leading engineer, our two agents and I were escorted out of the meeting room and wandered through a labyrinth of oak panelled offices. At the end of a long well-lit corridor, the leading engineer, knocked, paused and entered. A few seconds later we were enthusiastically invited in. It was an enormous oak panelled room with both central and spot lighting. Off to the left was a desk that could seat a whole family and sitting behind was The President of Mando Machinery Inc., Mr S. D. Park. I knew this because I could read his nameplate from across the room. No question about who was in charge.
He wore a three-piece dress suit, quite unusual, because most Korean companies favoured a uniform, a jacket with long sleeves. It would be buttoned up the front, opening at the top two buttons with lapels and sometimes with epaulets holding with some indecipherable symbol. The jacket never went below the waistline and trousers were the same colour and material. The number of pencils in the breast pocket apparently determined the status of the wearer.
Mr. Park rose and gestured for us to move to a smaller, low, 3×4 metre coffee table off to our right-hand side and we shook hands all round, intensely examined business cards, with much hum’ing and ar’ing. He then moved to one side of the table, facing the door, the favoured position of the person with most authority in any room. Quotations and industry journals were cleared to establish his power zone. He invited me to sit directly opposite, flanked by S. H. Lee and S. H. Hu, our Korea agents, S. H. In’l on a large long, well stuffed Chesterfield. The two other participants sat on chairs outside the circle around the table.
The person, his room and power were not lost on our agent. The two partners were petrified, sitting on proverbial eggshells, whilst I hopefully adopted a casual, comfortable but attentive position taught by Sales Techniques for Australian Dummies. We bowed and talked, although Mr. Park, the President, did most of the talking in very good English, including infernal joking about Australia only being an agricultural country, selling sheep and cattle, digging up coal and iron and no history of manufacturing.
This happened initially with every company that I called on an Asia. I found that counting internally to twenty, then back, again and again, helped to keep my irritation under control. Then I remembered that S.H Lee had told me that Mr. Park collected stamps and coins. In a lapse in the conversation, I dug into my right trouser pocket, and felt around to find the familiar shape of an Australian 50 cent coin. To the horror of our agents, I stood up, withdrew my right hand from my pocket and presented my closed fist down to Mr Park.
As he shrank back in his seat, I opened up my right hand and gently showed him the coin.
"Forgive me Mr. Park. This is Australia’s coat of arms." I said, showing him the reverse side. "We have an emu and a kangaroo", pointing to each one, "and neither of them can walk backwards. They can only move forward. That's what it is to be Australian."
Pausing for effect, I continued. "It's my understanding in visiting Korea and my long experience in its technology, that Mando Machinery has the same attitude."
Mr. Park enigmatically smiled and thoughtfully nodded, "Yes, Mr Bill, we have the same attitude, Korea must go forward, there is no other way to consider."
Handing over the coin, fortunately a new shiny one, he perused it keenly. When I indicated it was a gift, he gently slid it into the breast pocket of his immaculate waistcoat. I didn’t tell him that we sometimes eat the meat of those two animals!
The next hour brought Mr Park up to date with what we had offered. He would interrupt me to confirm in Korean that the company engineers understood what I had said. They always knew.
"Mr Bill, I will ask them what they think of your machine. It will be in Korean, please forgive me." The conversation was short with fast responses to Mr. Park’s sharp questions. I could feel our agents relax slightly; they had not said a word during this whole time. Then there was a nodding of the three heads and the conversation stopped when Mr Park raised his hand.
"Mr Bill", the company President said, suddenly leaning over the table and out of his comfort zone, "please show me your passport".
He admired the colourful coat of arms, flicking through every page, making note of every time I’d been in Korea. He then asked for his assistant to bring the visitor’s books for all of the time that I had visited Korea. They checked the well-kept books or diaries and determined that every times I had visited Korea, I had visited his company.
"Mr Bill, I understand from my people that you have never forced us to give you an order. Your company has always answered our many questions. You have convinced me that you can help us. Your business should be rewarded for your patience. We will make an order from you."
We had a cup of ginseng tea, and that was it, about two hours. Needless to say, I would always take 50 cent coins afterwards, when travelling through Asia; just in case.