Skip to content

Q&A with Kim Soon-jin, CEO of Nolboo NBG

Friday, June 17th, 2011
Kim Soon-jin

‘The guru of the Korean franchise business,’ or ‘A legend of success’ are examples of how people describe the CEO of Nolboo NBG, Kim Soon-Jin. From her start as an owner of a small, five square meter-sized restaurant serving bossam (meaning ‘steamed pork’ in Korean) 24 years ago, Kim now oversees a total of more than 680 Nolboo Global branches, with locations in Singapore, Beijing, and Thailand. She manages over 6,500 employees and 650 million dollars worth of sales profit. Kim is currently expanding the company throughout the world, promoting the group’s favorite menus — bossam and Nolboo hangari galbi (a cuisine of short ribs marinated in a jar) — and in doing so, supporting the globalization and standardization of Korean cuisine.

Can you tell me about the history of Nolboo NBG Group and your own background in the Korean cuisine industry?

Nolboo brand had its earliest beginnings in 1987 when I opened ‘Nolboo Bossam’ in Shillimdong, a southwestern part of Seoul. In the following year when the country was striving to present advanced culture to foreigners for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, our company also made efforts to find a scientific and systemized menu for our customers. As a result of our hard work, we found it was possible to get rid of the stereotype that Korean cuisine cannot be ‘systemized.’ We also successfully established a franchise system of our own. From 1989 our franchise business began in earnest. Behind the company’s founding our customers were always there, which became the source of the company’s motivation to operate based on customer-oriented management. In 1992, we systemized our second brand, Nolboo Budaejjigae (spicy soup with ham, ramen noodles, tofu, and other ingredients), which is currently leading the market in Korea. Along with dishes such as Nolboojib hangari galbi (grilled beef or short ribs marinated in a jar) and Nolboo yoohwang ori jinheuggui (sulfur duck roasted in mud), we are promoting a Chinese restaurant named ChaRung to build ourselves up as a total restaurant corporation.

Why was the name ‘Nolboo’ chosen for the company? What kind of brand image does your company portray?

I was searching quite a while to find the right name to represent our company. Then one day, all of a sudden the word ‘Nolboo’ appeared in my head, which is a Korean traditional character that has a fierce and covetous image. When selecting the name, I had one criterion in mind: it had to be a name that would be recognizable regardless of one’s age. Also, the name had to be recognizable even though a person hears it for the first time, and it had to correspond well with the image of Korean cuisine. I thought there would be no other perfect character in Korean folktale lore than Nolboo, since it is widely known to Koreans. On top of that, I was fascinated by the image Nolboo possessed. I thought we would garner more interest if we put up a sign stating ‘Nolboo’ instead of ‘Heungboo’ (Nolboo’s kind-hearted brother and one of the most favored character by Koreans).

How has your company modernized the concept of Korean cuisine without compromising authenticity?

The road to maintaining the slow-food spirit of Korean cuisine while modernizing and popularizing it via mass production was not easy. This entailed complicated and numerous steps. Come to think of it, I would say the process was more of ‘popularizing’ the cuisine more than ‘modernizing’ it. Bossam was tricky to commercialize because bossam is a difficult dish to cook at home. So, I made a manual for the recipe and simplified the cooking process to preserve the same unique taste in all Nolboo restaurants. With continuous trial-and-error, our company manufactured a ‘central kitchen’ to provide the same quality of food to our customers. For our customers to experience the best Korean cuisine at our restaurants, we are continuously educating our managers and operating our branches by detailed manuals in an effort to systemically supervise them.

What is the organizational structure of the Nolboo NBG? What are the different divisions of your company?

Our company has a hierarchical system to help establish our middle- and long-term strategy and goals. It is well-structured enough to be comparable with bigger corporations. Our headquarters handles strategy and marketing, foreign business operations, sales and supervision functions of the company, while our production headquarters located in the Northern Chungcheong Province manages production of all the food that is distributed to restaurants, and our distribution center administers the products and manages delivery. More specifically, we have an operations office that leads middle- and long-term plans for the company, an R&D department that creates menus and marketing strategies, a direct management office that oversees the restaurants of the company, an affiliated business office that advises all national and foreignbased franchise restaurants, an education team that instructs on-site employees, an accounting and finance team and a team managing the company’s IT system. But one of the most unique parts of Nolboo is the direct management office. It is unusual for a franchise company to specialize in direct branches while managing them. This strategy is needed because in order to expand our franchise business we have to successfully manage our model branches.

Your company runs more than 680 Nolboo restaurants in Korea, and you have received numerous awards for outstanding business management. What is the secret to successfully managing such a huge franchising business?

The food service business has a critical connection with health. In this sense, building trust with customers is important above all. So I try to keep the same faith and determination I had when I started this business. Over the past 24 years, ‘credibility’ became Nolboo’s deep-rooted culture and philosophy. We tried to approach our customers and to sell credibility and quality not only with regard to our products. As trust is an important factor in human relationships, any food service business that has effects on the health of its customers also relies heavily on building trust and interpersonal relationships. Each member of our company is working hard with the responsibility to establish a trust-based relationship with our customers. At Nolboo we have two main types of customers: the affiliated franchise restaurants and the customers that visit these restaurants. Our mission is to make the customer who visits our branches happy while also providing the means of a joyful working relationship to our franchise owners. Globalizing this relationship is our larger vision. To make this happen, we are building trust with our affiliate branches and pursuing a win-win management strategy. This kind of partnership base we have built will be the foundation upon which we will establish Nolboo as an international brand in the coming future.

What sets your company apart from other Korean restaurant franchises within Korea?

In the franchise business, supervision is more important than anything. One of our strong points is the ‘supervising’ system that manages affiliated branches and provides the bridge for smooth communication between our franchise owners and headquarters. By visiting our branches regularly we check the sanitation status and monitor the overall management situation. If a flaw is noticed we discuss how to tackle this problem together. The idealistic supervising system that I have in mind is one that also provides sympathetic support on top of the system we have now. One of the many secrets to our group’s long period of success is supervising. We start our day by listening to each and every owner of the branches and customers. The advice and opinions of our customers is the base energy that makes our company operate.

Nolboo participates in a variety of charitable endeavors. What are some of these projects? Why are they important?

The Nolboo scholarship committee was created in 1991, when I was thinking how I might use the lecture fees I was receiving at that time in a meaningful way. After some consideration, I decided to help children who were lacking resources to study, which was the same situation I went through when I was growing up. For more than 20 years the scholarship committee has been providing change in the lives of many students. Every year on our company’s anniversary, we give out scholarships to students such as children of the model branch owners, students from abroad and talented Korean students. Also, at the end of the year, our entire staff participates in events helping the disabled.

I believe the role of a corporation is to fulfill its duty as a social enterprise while creating profit. Today, the social responsibility of a corporation is not a choice but rather a necessity. Our company’s fundamental philosophy is to provide dishes that can also contribute to the wellness of our customers. I hope more corporations and business people will participate to give back some of the profit they have received to the public, thereby contributing to the ‘culture of donation.’

After Nolboo’s establishment, how did the Korean food service industry change? What are some of your company’s strategies to cope with these changes?

As the number of franchises of Korean cuisine increases, the competition in the food service industry becomes keener than ever. New items in the food service industry have been encouraging companies and affiliated branches to influence the current consumption trend. It is a good thing that the market is growing bigger, but the instability of the supply and demand of raw materials is a serious problem. Since the market is moving towards a high production cost system, in order to secure our quality and marketing competitiveness, a lot of money has to be invested in products and brands.

How do you think the Korean food service industry will unfold in the future? What role do you think globalization of the Korean cuisine will play in the Korean food service industry?

Recently, the Korean government selected the food service industry as a value-added business in the New Growth Engine Project. At this point, I think this is a golden opportunity for us, and businesses in this industry should work together. Also, I think the convenience food market will expand due to rising prices of commodity goods, since people are tending to eat more at home instead of dining out. Also, the purchasing trends of singles and working couples have contributed an increase to the sales of ‘convenience foods.’ Our company is planning to supply fresh and trustworthy ingredients in our convenience food products so that our customers can enjoy the same dishes at home without visiting our restaurants.

Globalization of Korean cuisine will certainly offer an opportunity to foster the growth of the franchise industry. For the industry to grow, a system has to first become established. Thus the government’s effort to encourage the franchise industry will have a positive effect on fortifying the competitiveness of small and medium-sized businesses. As they gain competitiveness in their brands, the franchise industry will be more active.

Does Nolboo plan on expanding into markets outside of Korea? What kind of plans have been put in place for Nolboo to enter into these markets?

Our group has foreign-based branches in Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, and we are currently localizing our foreign businesses. When a certain product is loved for a long period, it becomes a trend, and if this trend is maintained long enough, it becomes part of the culture. I think about globalization of Korean cuisine in the same way. Like a farmer sowing seeds, I am planning to spread my love of Korean cuisine so it can continue to develop as part of a greater, worldwide culture.

What are some other short-term and long-term goals for your company?

Nolboo NBG claims to be a cultural business that sends happiness though our food, and individually, I am claiming it to be a cultural missionary. Since the world has become a single market, competition has grown more severe, and the trend is changing towards respecting ‘value and individuality.’ I became more interested in our culture, because I naturally realized the value of the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors that is contained in our traditional food.

One of our company goals is to create a vision of Korean food culture that connects the past and future. To become a global cuisine brand, Nolboo needs to gain more competitiveness in the global market. This, I believe, is the role of a cultural missionary. I hope that one day our Korean food will become one of the most favored foods in the world, and that our company will be widely recognized when people think about Korea.

Login or register to tag items

Open source newspaper and magazine cms software