Our History

1980s-1991

As Korea made its mark on the international stage by hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics, McKinsey started to form relationships with Korean conglomerates and was contemplating expansion.

1988 Summer Olympics in Korea

From 1986 to 1989 Korea’s average annual growth rate was more than 10 percent. The government started to implement various policies aimed at giving more freedom to the private sector, letting market principles guide the economy and freeing business from the direct involvement of the government.

In those days, the McKinsey Japan Office had started to serve a Korean conglomerate with consultants shuttling back and forth between Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, within the firm, the Asia Pacific Council—a collection of leaders from offices in Asia and individuals with a personal interest—was contemplating the idea of expansion, as it became increasingly clear that the Firm needed a bigger presence in the region.

McKinsey's first office in Korea, located on the 11th floor of the Westin Chosum Hotel in downtown Seoul.

In the end, South Korea, Taiwan, and India were identified as places where McKinsey should open new offices. In January of 1991, to serve its Korean clients better, McKinsey established a beachhead on the Korean peninsula, working from an office on the 11th floor of the Westin Chosun Hotel in downtown Seoul.

1992-1996

Korean consultants were very entrepreneurial-minded and pioneers because they were making a choice to be with McKinsey at a time McKinsey wasn’t a big name.

When the Korea office moved its operations from the Westin Chosun into new offices at the Kyobo Building near Gwanghwamun in 1992, the Korea office numbered about 30 members. A nucleus was formed to begin a journey of growth.

“The McKinsey Korea Report,” a newspaper series published by the Maeil Newspaper.

“We needed to find outstanding people. The challenge was significant because consulting was new to Korea and to the big companies here. So we had to find people with strong experience who would be well accepted by our clients,” said Jim Bemowski, a former office manager (1993–1998).

“Korean consultants were very entrepreneurial-minded and pioneers because they were making a choice to be with McKinsey at a time when McKinsey wasn’t a big name. Everybody was asking how much commitment the firm had to Korea. We tried to explain to them that we expect this to be a very substantial office with major growth and they became attracted to that mission.”

Kim Dong-jae, a professor at South Korea’s prestigious Yonsei University and a former associate (1992–1994), recalls one Maeil story that was part of a series titled “The McKinsey Korea Report” that ran with the headline, “The Rolls-Royce of the industry.” This, Kim says, reflected the mystique that surrounded the industry and McKinsey at the time. The newspaper series was a huge success and became a highly popular source of reference and study among Korea’s growing coterie of business people. The office further built its reputation through efforts such as the McKinsey Global Leadership Forum and started to engage various Korean companies in different industries who had heard of McKinsey's growing reputation.

1997-2000

A McKinsey report helped position the firm as the authority on restructuring efforts during the gravest financial crisis in Korea’s modern history.

1997 Asian financial crisis

The Asian financial crisis struck at the end of 1997, casting a dark shadow over the region, and especially South Korea. Indeed, a number of consultants were under utilized at the time, as there were fewer clients to serve.

One particular McKinsey report, however, turned this downturn into an opportunity. In early 1997, the Korea office began work on an MGI report titled “Productivity-led Growth for Korea,” which was premised on the idea that various South Korean institutions, including the banking sector, had become an obstacle to further economic growth, due to their inefficiency.

MGI report titled, “Productivity-led Growth for Korea.”

Realizing the extent of the impending crisis, the office put even more focus on the report, which naturally received a great deal of publicity in Korea. Before long, the report helped position McKinsey as the authority on restructuring efforts during the gravest financial crisis in South Korea’s modern history and provided the foundation for ongoing discussions for spurring growth. During this period the firm's reputation as the preeminent partner in overcoming business problems was cemented as the Korea office contributed to the restructuring efforts of many Korean industries.

2000-present

Apart from client work, the Korea office is committed to advancing the country’s role on the global stage.

More than 450 alumni are working in every nook and corner of various industries in Korea now, typically in leadership positions, shaping company policies and having a deep impact on the country’s business community. Meanwhile, Korean companies have also carved out their role in the global economy, and the Korea office is helping them in navigating today’s unpredictable world. Apart from client work, the Korea office is committed to advancing the country’s role on the global stage, supporting the Seoul G20 Business Summit and contributing to the world’s understanding of Korea with the publication of books such as Korea 2020.

For sure, those who have been with the Korea office for considerable time understand the challenges ahead.

The Korea office supported the Seoul G20 Business Summit.

“In order to be truly relevant to clients, one has to be able to combine practical insights into international trends with a clear understanding of how Korean businesses can make the most of them, given their very specific strengths and weaknesses," points out Dr. Roland Villinger, an active member of key government committees and former Korea office managing partner. "Since our consultants are serving industry-leading clients both internationally and locally, and our partners advise senior public officials on policy-making while at the same time working day-to-day with their private sector clients, they can provide their clients with a unique combination of sound strategic judgment and rapid impact in execution that is more critical in these volatile times than ever.”

The sentiment is echoed by others.

“It’s an advanced market that has clearly evolved and calls for expert counseling now. Clients know a lot more and they are very specific nowadays in what they want. It makes our work that much harder,” says Senior Partner Wonsik Choi. “The upside would be that we have new reference points. People have a much better understanding of what we do and although the [consulting] industry has gotten much more competitive, when it comes to the heavy lifting people will now say, ‘you should probably go to McKinsey.’”

The Korea office moved to its new building, Center 1, in January of 2011.

As Korean businesses and society ready themselves to face an increasingly complex global environment, Asia Chairman Gordon Orr stresses that the Korea office must do so as well. “I am certain that many of South Korea's leading businesses will become ever more significant global leaders in the years ahead. For the firm to remain relevant to the remarkable executives and owners driving these transformation journeys, we must develop more world-class local leaders, Koreans with global insights and connections, with world-leading industry and functional expertise.”

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