Beauty with a difference

Being surrounded by women - his mother, four sisters, wife and daughters - gives him an edge in the beauty industry, says Amorepacific chairman Suh Kyung Bae. Among the beauty products pioneered by Amorepacific are a stamp ink pad-inspired cushion co
Among the beauty products pioneered by Amorepacific are a stamp ink pad-inspired cushion compact which led to Laneige's BB Cushion (above); the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask, a skin- quenching leave-on gel mask; and Sulwhasoo's First Care Activating Serum, which is formulated with traditional Korean herbs. PHOTOS: AMOREPACIFIC, LANEIGE, SULWHASOO
Being surrounded by women - his mother, four sisters, wife and daughters - gives him an edge in the beauty industry, says Amorepacific chairman Suh Kyung Bae. Among the beauty products pioneered by Amorepacific are a stamp ink pad-inspired cushion co
Being surrounded by women - his mother, four sisters, wife and daughters - gives him an edge in the beauty industry, says Amorepacific chairman Suh Kyung Bae.
Among the beauty products pioneered by Amorepacific are a stamp ink pad-inspired cushion compact which led to Laneige's BB Cushion; the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask, a skin- quenching leave-on gel mask (left); and Sulwhasoo's First Care Activating Ser
Among the beauty products pioneered by Amorepacific are a stamp ink pad-inspired cushion compact which led to Laneige's BB Cushion; the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask, a skin- quenching leave-on gel mask (left); and Sulwhasoo's First Care Activating Serum (right), which is formulated with traditional Korean herbs.

South Korean cosmetic giant Amorepacific, which is behind brands such as Laneige and Sulwhasoo, takes pride in pioneering new products for women

Over meals at the dining table, Amorepacific founder Suh Sung Whan would tell his six children: "Always be different."

The entrepreneur grew up in a once-bustling commercial city called Gaesung, which is now part of North Korea. Besides credibility, he knew that product differentiation was crucial to the success of any business.

Mr Suh Kyung Bae, youngest son of the late Mr Suh and now chairman of the corporation, recalls in Korean through a translator: "My father often repeated this old Korean adage - that even the rice cakes made by your grandmother must be tasty and of the right price for customers to open their wallet.

"To be chosen by customers, your products have to be different in some way."

Mr Suh, 52, was speaking to Life in Seoul at a media conference marking the 70th anniversary of the company. Amorepacific is South Korea's largest cosmetics manufacturer and its portfolio of 26 labels includes well-known brands Laneige, Sulwhasoo and Etude House.

Mr Suh joined the company in 1987 at the age of 24 and became its chief executive in 1997. None of his siblings are in the business.

The elder Mr Suh died, aged 80, in 2003. But his rice cake axiom continues to inform every business decision his son makes and it has taken the company far.

Amorepacific was the first to launch the cushion compact in 2008 under the premium Iope brand. Inspired by a stamp ink pad, the product is a sponge soaked in liquid foundation. Thirteen patents linked to this product have been registered.

The first of its kind, it offers a fuss-free no-spill option for on-the- go touch-ups. Today, about 13 of the Amorepacific beauty labels have at least two versions each of the cushion compact.

The company says more than 50 million units of its cushion compacts have been sold worldwide. The item has also spawned dozens of similar products by Korean competitor brands. Even the West has taken notice - French beauty brand Lancome launched its own version earlier this year. In June, French company Parfums Christian Dior signed a strategic partnership agreement with Amorepacific for the cushion technology.

But like most breakthrough inventions, the cushion product was initially sniffed at.

Mr Suh recounts: "Retailers didn't want to carry the product at first as they said it would be difficult to explain to people how it works."

So he switched tactics and turned to one of South Korea's home shopping network channels and the cushion compact became a big hit.

He adds: "We perservered and persuaded those who were not familiar with the product to take it on. As a result, we've changed the beauty routine of women the world over."

Another innovative product by Amorepacific that has opened up a whole new category within the beauty industry is the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask, a skin- quenching leave-on gel mask released in 2002. Amorepacific pioneered the concept. Previously, most masks had to be removed after 10 to 15 minutes.

These one-of-a-kind products have made Mr Suh very wealthy.

In April, Forbes listed him as the second-richest South Korean. His net worth leaped from less than US$2 billion in April 2013 to US$9.2 billion (S$13 billion) in April this year.

According to Bloomberg, AmorePacific's net income last year rose by more than 40 per cent. Bloomberg also reported that AmorePacific's stock rose by 158 per cent in Seoul trading over the past year, trumping the global beauty and personal-care segment.

Amorepacific's latest financial report shows that its net profit stands at 185.4 billion won (S$222.5 million), up 44 per cent from the previous year.

When asked how much of the company's success depended on the Hallyu - Korean wave - influence, he says: "We've been doing business in the rest of Asia for the last 25 years. So even before the K-wave, we were already in business. It is true that the K-wave helped to accelerate our business growth to a certain degree. However, we do not rely on the phenomenon to be successful.

"The real winner is the one who continues to make products of substance."

The father of two has a Master of Business Administration from Cornell University. While Mr Suh's father paved the way for the first few Amorepacific stores in the United States and China in the early years, he is responsible for expanding the company's reach throughout China, the US and South-east Asia.

He also launched some of the company's most iconic brands, including the luxury Sulwhasoo (1997) and Amorepacific (2002) labels, as well as the popular masstige brand Innisfree (2000).

Up next, the corporation aims to strengthen its presence in China (which makes up more than half of its global sales) and the South-east Asian markets, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

In Singapore, Amorepacific has 45 stores and counters spread across the Laneige, Sulwhasoo, Etude House and Innisfree brands.

The company also has plans to introduce its other fashionable domestic brands, the luxury range Hera and premium Iope to the rest of the world.

It is also working on strategies in North America, which currently represents only 4 per cent of its international sales. The corporation's upscale flagship label Amorepacific is stocked in about 200 counters in Sephora stores and premium department stores Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's.

Sulwhasoo is also sold at five counters in the Bergdorf and Neiman stores. The masstige Laneige brand is available in 749 Target stores.

In Europe, the company's focus is on France and its fragrance business. Amorepacific owns the French perfume labels Lolita Lempicka and Annick Goutal.

Expansion into the Middle East and Latin America markets is also in the works.

Mr Suh, who has firm and glowing skin and personally roadtests all Amorepacific products including skincare serums, facial cleansers and haircare products - believes that customer feedback is the other determining factor of a company's success.

He says: "We don't compete with other cosmetic companies. We compete with the hearts and minds of our customers, which we will continue to monitor and respond to. Each week, the most important part of our management meeting is where we listen to customer reviews."

The fact that he is constantly surrounded by women gives him a competitive edge in an industry that is driven by their desires.

"I have four sisters, my mother, wife and two daughters aged 20 and 24. I grew up with women and will continue to live with women."

He adds that he has "been trained to listen to women since I was young" as the origins of Amorepacific started in his grandmother's kitchen.

"Most Korean companies have patriarchal ideas. But my family was fed by my grandma who sold camellia hair oil that she hand made. So we really heed women's opinions.

"The cosmetics industry is all about the unpredictable minds of women - what they like today, they may not like tomorrow. And I see this as a dynamic opportunity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2015, with the headline 'Beauty with a difference'. Print Edition | Subscribe