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Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan

August 15, 2016

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Frank Ahrens gives takes readers on an often hilarious, and always insightful and impeccably written tour through his time working at Hyundai Motor Company.

Frank Ahrens was a bachelor newspaperman in his mid-forties when he fell in love with a colleague at the Washington Post. Theirs could have been a story similar to so many others, a Washington couple with a comfortable life in the beltway. But his wife, Rebekah, wasn't interested in a story similar to so many others. She wanted to be (wait for it) a spy… but settled for the Foreign Service when the CIA didn't call. Rebekah's desire to serve led to a posting in Korea, and Frank's desire to be close to Rebekah took him out of the newsroom and dropped into the corporate culture of Hyundai Headquarters in Seoul, where he had landed a job as the director of global PR. For the first time in his life, with a future family to think of, he was thinking beyond the news cycle and the next story at work, and attempting to become successful in business. That journey is documented in his new book, Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.

There were a few bumps along the way, the first of which was:

 

It turns out, spending two decades in a newspaper newsroom not only does not prepare you for corporate life—it is probably the worst training for it, this side of a Marxist summer camp.

 

And Ahrens was not transitioning to just any corporate environment, but one of the world's most very formal, built around Korea's Confucianist cultural values. Like any trained and accomplished journalist, though, he is a quick study. So you'll learn a lot about Korea, it's history and its culture and its relationship to its neighbors, in these pages. And it is also, in parts, an accounting of automobile industry history in the region (and, to an extent, the world).

With his nose for detail and explanation, he dives into Korean culture, into Korean business life, and learning the ropes of corporate life. For the first time in his professional life, he is out of his element in a place he doesn't yet understand and a job he doesn't quite yet know how to do. What he soon comes to realize is:

 

I wasn't just the only American in the Hyundai lobby on my first morning. I was the only American at Hyundai headquarters, full stop. Of the few thousand employees who worked there, fewer than a dozen were non-Koreans. So I already stood out. At six foot two, white, and XL size, even more so.

 

But, as much as it felt that way at the moment, I was not alone. When I arrived in Korea and at Hyundai, all three of us—the country, the company, and I—were heading into uncharted territory: our midlife crisis.

 

Like any crisis, all three were filled with enormous potential for change, growth, and reinvention—and that, largely, is the tale Ahrens weaves. His time in Seoul came as Hyundai was making a prodigious corporate effort to move upmarket, to improve its reputation for quality and become known as a premium brand. It also came at a critical point in South Korean economic history, as it attempts to open up and instill a more entrepreneurial spirit in the country to avoid the economic malaise Japan has been mired in for decades. And it came at a point when Ahrens and his wife were beginning a family, which forced him to look anew at his time here on Earth and what he wanted to do with it. Because of that confluence, it is filled with instructional insights on the automobile industry, and on East Asian work culture and business life, but It is a brilliant report on the current life and history of Korea. And it is a great examination of Ahrens' own inner life and identity. He speaks openly and eloquently about his Christian faith, his decision to leave journalism for a career in PR ("what we now like to call communications"), the new feelings of mortality that arose in him when his daughter was born, the difficulties of living away from his wife and daughter when his wife was assigned to Indonesia while he stayed in Seoul, how their overseas adventures ended and what he learned and gained, almost by osmosis, along the way.

You'll see it all through his eyes, learn from his mistakes and many cultural faux pas (and his eventual understanding and success), and be inspired by his example. First and foremost, it is wonderfully written and entertaining, which you would expect from someone who covered both business and the entertainment industry for the Washington Post for 18 years. It is also educational for those that would wish to do business in East Asia, or who would like to know more about the auto industry in that part of the world. But it is also deeply personal, emotionally engaging, and insightful. Seoul Man is a multifaceted book—not only about business and making a living, but about making a life.

We have 20 copies available.

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