Kyle Choi, managing director of Coway Malaysia, sheds light on HR's role in the organisation, adapting to cultural differences, and the alternative career path he might have chosen, in this conversation with Jerene Ang.

Q In between your 15-year career in Coway, you left for a short stint with Woongjin Group before returning. What sparked the decision to return to Coway?

Coway used to be a part of Woongjin Group and it is common practice to transfer to different departments or branches with the aim for individuals to gain exposure and diversification.

Even though my time at Woongjin Group involved a variety of roles from supply chain, finance to business development, I applied to work in Coway once again. Working with Coway allows the exposure of different cultures as we have subsidiaries in various countries – something different as it stimulates a more interesting career.

Q What has been your most memorable moment with Coway?

From all my years in Coway Korea, US, Thailand, and Malaysia, the single most unforgettable moment for me was my first Health Planners Grand Conference (HPGC) in Malaysia. HPGC is the yearly award and recognitions night that celebrates the top salespersons (Health Planners).

Coway Malaysia is the biggest challenge to me so far, as it is the largest subsidiary I have managed. That night was the biggest internal event I have attended and the first speech given in front of thousands of people. I could feel the passion and anticipation of the people towards my new responsibilities. It was like seeing a whole new world ahead. I was glad I took this challenge.

Q I understand you come from a financial background, serving as Coway Malaysia’s CFO before being promoted to MD of Coway Thailand. What would you say are the transferable skills between the two roles?

The Thailand branch was in need of restructuring at that time, thus the financial knowledge I had was important for planning the whole financial position of Coway Thailand – decreasing operating costs and downsizing.

On the other hand, Coway Malaysia was more stably established thus the experience in Coway Malaysia helped save twists and turns in the process.

Understanding the detailed financial position of the company helps to make better decisions as an MD. Of course, the same advice can be obtained from a good CFO but getting to know it yourself allows you to see things in a different light.

Q As a boss, what was the toughest decision you have had to make and what did you learn from it?

The debate between balancing the company image in the long run, and maintaining a realistic profit margin proved to be one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make during the implementation of GST in Malaysia in April 2015.

I wanted to maintain the current price and absorb the GST while others in the market were increasing prices for everything. However, it was not easy to convince our headquarters (Coway Korea) for this decision as it will reduce our profit margin.

Having said that, I never regretted this decision as sales turned out great. It is not easy to make correct decisions every time but we can trust the collective voice from the team who are and have been working together.

Q Having worked across China, Thailand, Malaysia, and US, how do you adapt your leadership style according to the region or country?

I was working in Korea, developing the mentioned overseas subsidiaries from Korea. Cultural difference is one thing that really affects decision making in the business.

I was the Managing Director of Coway USA and Coway Thailand before I became the MD of Coway Malaysia. From experience, the different working cultures required me to adapt my style accordingly.

Coway USA is rather similar with Coway Korea, as the staff and customers are mostly Korean-Americans. On the other hand, staff in Coway Thailand expected instructions and authoritarian leaders. While in Malaysia, the difference is obvious. I have talked to and listened more to the voices of Malaysian staff. They are more expressive and aggressive so I tend to involve more people in discussion and decision making in Coway Malaysia.

Q What would you say is the biggest talent challenge in the STEM industry today? How has this changed over the years and can the industry tackle this challenge?

Competition for talents has always been an issue across industries, actually.

Years ago, talent retention has been all about packages we can offer and the career path as a vision. For the young generation nowadays, they have different values and priorities in life. Work culture and work life balance for ‘me time’ are something that we are constantly adapting to attract new age of talents.

Google has been a fresh graduate’s dream workplace and we are working step by step to assimilate to this culture. One of these prime examples being our recent move to a new office – an office that provides more perks and that cares for the working lifestyle of our staff with gaming areas to relax, reinvigorating corners with massage chairs, to a brighter bigger office space. We want to nurture a more inspiring and creative working environment for our staff.

Q What is your view of human resources as a business function? How closely do you work with your HR head and on what kind of issues?

In Coway Malaysia, the whole HR division is the only division managed directly by the managing director, thus you can imagine the close working relationship we have fostered. HR works as a back-end supporter in our business as it plays a crucial role of more than just the management of employees' data and payroll.

We appreciate the dedication of staff which has led us to being the number one water purifier company in Malaysia. Thus to me, retaining our contributing staff and upgrading the skills of the staff are the issues we have been actively working together on.

We are currently in the midst of restructuring our HR practices, which have been there since the inception of our company in 2006. Beyond being just an inspiring work environment, we are revising the packages to be more competitive, fair and motivating. A more exciting career path will be introduced soon too, after adapting to the latest feedback and market trends.

All of these come back to the core of talent attraction and retention.

Q Do you think the HR function has a significant impact on organisational goals? If so, why? If not, how can the function better contribute?

Definitely. Talent management is one important part towards achieving organisational goals, regardless of whether the goals are focused on a business aspect or a human aspect.

If Coway wants to grow, we need a team of strong, dedicated employees. How do we retain and re-train them to be able to walk further with us is a significant impact that only HR can manage.

Q If your HR head had to take over your position tomorrow, do you think he will be successful? Why?

As important as HR is, managing different departments at the same time may be very much different. One has to be versatile enough to stand in different shoes and see different perspectives and priorities. This is also why we have a culture of department-rotating before reaching management level.

Our HR head has rotated across a few departments already. I believe she would do well too with the support of our staff. Our staff have been supportive with the sharing of generous inputs from their experience.

Q If not this career, what alternative career path might you have chosen?

I like to be challenged and stimulated. To me, it doesn’t matter whether I am in finance or in an operational role right now as I like the process of facing new challenges, and overcoming it to see a prominent result in the company.

If not in the corporate world, I might probably run a Korean Rice Cake (Tteokbok-ki) restaurant!

Photo / provided