From a poor village boy to a self-made honey mogul, Lee Sang Gap has pushed through hardship after hardship on a remarkable path to success.
Now 70 and still going strong, Lee began his journey of entrepreneurship at just 14.
Given that Lee’s company is famed for its honey-sweetened yuja tea, it’s fitting that his career path began at honey’s source: beekeeping.
Due to his family’s economic troubles, Lee was unable to attend middle school. He moved from his hometown of Imsil-gun to Seoul at the age of 14, and worked odd jobs in a restaurant, various shops, and on the streets as a vendor, until health problems forced him to return home. He decided to turn to beekeeping, starting his own business, in the hopes of recovering his health.
“Before I knew it, half a century passed,” he said. Now, he’s one of the longest standing players in Korea’s beekeeping industry, and maintains a passion for it.
“I’ve been interested in beekeeping to this very day, and have lived without regret,” he said.
Over the decades, Lee’s business grew as he did, pushing through multiple obstacles along the way.
He began by making beekeeping products, but struggled with low sales. In the 1980s, when Korea’s economy was in the midst of transitioning from largely agricultural to more industrial, he dedicated his work to optimizing those beekeeping products, and distributing them across both domestic and overseas markets. For his contributions, he was awarded Korea’s Industrial Service Medal.
Initially, Lee was also unable to sell much of the honey he produced due to low demand. But he found a clever solution: he began working with food, drink, and pharmaceutical companies, suggesting adding honey to their products, to much success.
Though Kkoh Shaem no longer produces its own honey, Lee has kept that spirit of constant innovation and growth alive, evident in the company’s newest product: VONBEE Honey Citron and Ginger Tea, an amped up version of yuja tea, traditionally made by simply adding sugar to thinly sliced yuja fruit, with additions of sweet honey and warming ginger.
Sold in jars, the tea comes in the form of a thick citrus marmalade. A spoonful of the tea base, swirled into a cup of hot or cold water, is all you need for a warming or refreshing treat.
“In Korea, there are not many products that mix yuja, honey, and ginger. It’s a product we developed recently,” Lee explained. He credits this innovative idea—along with the company’s extensive distribution and management system, from sourcing raw materials to production and distribution—with their success in having the product selected by Costco to sell at locations across the United States.
“Since we are a food company, we would have to shut the company down tomorrow if we did not try to create new products,” Lee said. “We have to keep making new products to satisfy this generation’s taste.”
That spirit has pulled the company through darker times as well, such as the devastating 1997 Asian financial crisis. “From our big distributors to small distributors, they all went bankrupt,” Lee recalled. “However, as we have done in the past, we started over, trying our best, making us who we are today.”
Throughout his career, Lee has kept himself centered in the values of honesty and respect, along with a genuine desire for relentless improvement.
He is always driven by “the idea of creating a better company, contributing to society,” he said. “That is our purpose. If we had been doing business [based on] our own personal greed, our business would not have grown like this.”
Employees can attest to that—some have been around for 40 years, Lee said.
At the beginning, when Lee had a team of only seven to eight employees, “we lived like a family,” he said. They worked hard, often getting little sleep.
“During the holidays we had to make hundreds of thousands [of gift sets], so we stayed up all night and worked,” Lee recalled.
Now, as Kkoh Shaem continues to grow, Lee is more interested in ensuring that growth than in his own personal gain. Instead of padding his own pockets, he funnels profits right back into the business, building new factories and improving facilities. “What would I do with the money?” he asked.
“I’m going to work hard until I die,” Lee said. “I just want to be honest and do our best. That’s our motto.”