August 27, 2010 / 4:10 AM / 9 years ago

Hiker CEO Kang leads KNOC on acquisition trail

SEOUL (Reuters) - KNOC chief Kang Young-won likes to quote famed Mount Everest climber George Mallory when asked why he hikes in the hills on the outskirts of Seoul.

“Because it’s there,” probably the three most famous words in mountaineering, may equally capture the South Korean chief executive’s attitude as he leads state-run Korea National Oil Corp (KNOC) in the hunt for energy resources against the likes of China’s giant CNOOC (0883.HK) and India’s ONGC (ONGC.BO).

He has been in his present job as chief executive of KNOC for two years and already done three major deals worth about $3 billion.

Last week, KNOC launched the first hostile takeover of a foreign company by a South Korean firm.

KNOC, One of the world’s smallest state oil firms, offered $2.6 billion for UK oil explorer Dana Petroleum DNX.L, which says the bid undervalues it.

Kang, 58, likes the climbing metaphor when he talks about his corporate conquests.

“We all share the same goal of reaching the top and once we get there, we cheer together for what we’ve achieved and for overcoming all the challenges and difficulties through the top,” he once told a South Korean newspaper.

Aberdeen-based Dana, which announces its results later Friday, is expected to publish a detailed defense strategy including information on the value of its assets by early September to get better pricing from KNOC.

SERIOUS ABOUT SIZE

“He (Kang) feels ashamed about KNOC being one of the smallest state oil firms, and he’s quite serious about growing the company... and I think we are lucky to have a CEO like Kang who has a very strong driving force,” a KNOC executive told Reuters. He declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

South Korea has given KNOC a $6.5 billion war chest this year to compete with energy-hungry Asian state firms looking to secure supplies for their growing economies and to cut Asia’s No. 4 economy’s almost total dependence on imported oil.

Kang, said to be a workaholic who often returns to the office on weekends, has more than doubled his country’s oil self-sufficiency to about 9 percent of its total demand.

But the clock is ticking on Kang, who gained prominence in Seoul for almost completing a $5.6 billion Myanmar gas development deal for Daewoo International (047050.KS) while serving as chief executive there.

He has a year left on his contract with KNOC and may speed up the acquisition spree.

ALL SHOOK UP

Since taking the reins of KNOC in August 2008, media-shy Kang has made a series of changes, including giving his managers BlackBerries, making it the first to use smartphones among state agencies.

He introduced a performance-based job review system and made English the main language for major conferences and work reports.

“There was a lot of resistance to what he introduced initially because people thought they don’t need change at all to a state-owned company which enjoys a monopolistic status at home,” said another KNOC official.

“But he was right and he set things into the right direction. KNOC is competing against global state oil majors and it’s got to be more competitive.”

Kang also hired two foreigners executives — former ConocoPhilips (COP.N) exploration expert Hugh Eaton Rowlett and former Lukoil (LKOH.MM) human resources manager Robert David Elliot for the same roles in KNOC— unusual for a Korean state-owned company.

Known for being very detail-oriented, Kang earned a nickname “daeri” or junior manager while working 33 years at Daewoo Group, formerly one of South Korea’s biggest business groups until its failure in the late 1990s Asian financial crisis.

Kang joined Daewoo as a fresh college graduate from the prestigious Seoul National University and worked his way up to become the chief executive of the trading firm in 2006 despite not having any connections when he first joined Daewoo.

“Kang doesn’t have a particular gene for success but he simply works hard, smart and makes right decisions and that’ll serve him well,” said a Daewoo executive who worked with Kang but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The devout Christian is likely to drive a hard bargain in his dealings with Dana and other acquisitions he targets.

“Some people say KNOC is a timid buyer for having failed in some previous deals. But we lost out to Chinese because we wanted to be disciplined on pricing and not to overpay,” said the same KNOC official.

Editing by Valerie Lee

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