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Feature: The amazing founding story of Hyundai Heavy Industries – HHI’s 50th Anniversary

01 Sep 2022

HHI founder Chung Ju-yung (1915-2001) is one of Korea’s most successful entrepreneurs in history (copyright: HHI Group)

HHI Founder Chung Ju-yung was born in 1915 in the small village of Asan, which is located in North Korea today. His father was a farmer and the family lived in poverty. As the eldest son among eight children, Ju-yung had many responsibilities from a young age. It was said that he worked twice as hard as others to overcome the financial hardship of his family.

While still a teenager, he fled the rural poverty of the North for the capital Seoul. His father caught and called him back twice. But Ju-yung’s third attempt was successful: He sold one of his father’s cows to pay for the trip – a fact that caused him to feel guilty for the rest of his life and prompted him to send 1,001 cattle to North Korea as a humanitarian gesture in 1998.

He worked hard in various jobs for years. By 1938 he had saved enough cash to set up a rice shop. Through many toils and setbacks, he eventually established the company Hyundai Construction after the end of World War II and Korea’s liberation in 1947. He was 31 years old. By the end of the 1960s he was heading an industrial empire with business units dedicated to construction, engineering, and cars.

Construction of HHI shipyard in Ulsan begins in March 1972 (copyright: HHI Group)

Ju-yung’s ambition went further. In a daring move, he accepted an order for two 260,000-tonne oil tankers from Greek magnate George Livanos without even having a shipyard yet. On 23 March 1972, ground was broken on an empty stretch of beach in Ulsan to construct what would become the world’s largest shipyard.

Before the 1970s, South Korea had built no ships larger than 10,000 tons. Constructing the shipyard and the two VLCCs in parallel, Hyundai was able to deliver the ships on time after just 27 months. This was the birth of Hyundai’s shipbuilding division, and South Korea was on track to overtake Japan as the world’s top shipbuilding nation less than three decades later.

Naming ceremony of HHI’s first delivered vessel, a VLCC to Greek shipowner Livanos, in June 1974 (copyright: HHI Group)

A decade after the first delivery, the Hyundai shipyard topped 10 million deadweight tonnage in aggregate ship production and has maintained the leading position in the world shipbuilding market ever since. This allowed the company to expand into other heavy industry areas, ultimately leading to the formation of Hyundai Heavy Industries. 

Under Ju-yung’s leadership Hyundai not only built major industrial infrastructure in South Korea, such as the Seoul-Busan expressway or Soyang Multipurpose Dam, but also manufactured the first Korean automobile based on domestic technology. 

“There are no failures, only trials,” the entrepreneur used to say. Until today, Ju-yung is seen as Korea’s most respected founder and greatest contributor to the country’s economic development. 

Today, Hyundai Heavy Industries Group and its sub-holding company Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering (KSOE) are headed by CEO Chung Ki-sun, the grandson of Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung. Along with Chung Ki-sun, current CEO Ka Sam-hyun is co-CEO, and Han Young-seok is the President and CEO of Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), the world’s largest shipbuilder.

On the occasion of HHI’s 50th anniversary, Joo Won-ho, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Technical Officer at HHI, explains how the company managed to stay in the lead as the world’s largest shipbuilder for so long and outlines some of the future strategic steps.

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