From loan sharks to drug fortunes: South Korea reaping the rewards of the virus | Health

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The founder of Celltrion Inc has seen his net worth soar to $ 10 billion as his company develops a potential treatment for coronaviruses.

Seo Jung-jin used to borrow money from loan sharks, pledging his organs to get the much-needed funds for his new drug maker. He is now the second richest person in South Korea, just behind the president of Samsung Electronics Co.

The fortune of the founder of Celltrion Inc. has reached $ 10 billion as the shares of his company, which is developing a treatment for Covid-19, nearly doubled this year.

His rise is extraordinary and represents a change in the country’s business elite. As family conglomerates touch almost every aspect of life in South Korea, more and more founders of companies making fortunes in non-traditional industries like SEO have emerged. As the coronavirus pandemic has turned people’s lives upside down, the trend has only intensified, with chaebols losing more of their luster.

“The boundaries between industries are becoming blurred,” said Park Ju-gun, chairman of Seoul’s corporate watchdog CEOScore. “Those who sit with traditional businesses don’t cope well with change. The pandemic has accelerated the trend. “

Charcoal briquettes

Born into a family that sold charcoal briquettes, Seo, 62, worked as a taxi driver to pass through Konkuk University in Seoul. After studying industrial engineering, he rose through the ranks of Daewoo Motor Co., before losing his job when the automaker went bankrupt following the Asian financial crisis. In 2000, he started a company called Nexol with former Daewoo colleagues to explore business opportunities. It eventually became what is now Celltrion’s global marketing subsidiary, Celltrion Healthcare Co.

He became interested in biosimilars – medical products similar to already approved drugs – in the early 2000s, betting that aging societies will need alternatives to expensive drugs. Celltrion, launched in 2002, ran into financial trouble in 2004 after some vaccine clinical trials failed, prompting Seo to turn to loan sharks, according to a Financial Times article in 2012 confirmed by a spokesperson. by Celltrion. The company is now a giant developing biosimilars such as the Remsima monoclonal antibody from Johnson & Johnson’s Remicade.

Like most other countries around the world, Korean tech and pharmaceutical stocks soared in 2020, with Celltrion up 75%. The stock has almost quintupled over the past five years.

Seo’s net worth is based on his holdings in Celltrion and Celltrion Healthcare. The shares he gave as collateral have been removed from the calculation. He declined an interview for this story and a company representative declined to comment on his net worth.

Last year, Seo said he would step down from management in 2020, explaining that staying president beyond retirement age would make the company a “kingdom,” according to an interview with local newspaper Hankyoreh.

Not a king

“The president is a title, not a king,” he said.

While South Korea’s richest person remains Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee, families behind some of the biggest conglomerates have fallen from their rankings in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index of the world’s 500 richest people.

Mong-Koo Chung of Hyundai Motor Group and Chey Tae-won of SK Group, as well as Suh Kyung-bae of cosmetics maker Amorepacific Group were among the top five richest people in the country five years ago. They have since lost over $ 9 billion combined.

Newcomers such as SEO and tech entrepreneurs have replaced them.

Kim Jung-ju of gamemaker Nexon Co. became Korea’s third richest person with a fortune of $ 7.8 billion, while Brian Kim, the founder of social messaging app Kakao Corp., entered in the wealth ranking for the first time this year. His company’s business encompasses ridesharing and payment services, and its shares have more than doubled from a low in March, as limited person-to-person interactions during the pandemic increased demand for its services. He has the country’s fifth fortune, $ 5.1 billion, just behind Samsung Electronics’ Lee Jae-yong.

According to CEOScore’s Park, it is only in certain sectors like biopharma and technology that the nouveau riche can thrive, as traditional industries need huge amounts of capital to break into. This is why inherited wealth will not disappear, he added.

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