Building an Empire from South Korea to Louisiana One Smoothie at a Time
Building an Empire from South Korea to Louisiana One Smoothie at a Time

How Wan Kim went from overseas franchisee to Smoothie King’s CEO.

Foreign-born leaders taking American companies to the next level is not unheard of (just ask Steve Easterbrook, who was brought over from the U.K. to become president and CEO of McDonald’s earlier this year). At the same time, it’s not exactly common practice.

Wan Kim, CEO of New Orleans-based franchise Smoothie King, can attest that foreign-born business leaders bring a new perspective to American operations, one that can give brands the boost they need to succeed.

Kim wasn’t a stranger to American shores before taking the helm at Smoothie King. He had left South Korea to attend universities in both Boston and Los Angeles before returning home. It was during his time in the U.S. that the seed of an idea took hold: Why not bring smoothies back to South Korea?

“I did some research and found two smoothie brands, one of which was Smoothie King,” Kim said. “I met them both and I liked Smoothie King better.”

Kim convinced the burgeoning brand to not just expand, but grow in a market it previously had no intention of moving into, making him the first international franchisee for Smoothie King.

“It was a challenge for me and a challenge for them,” Kim said with a laugh. “I don’t think they had any idea where South Korea was.”

Kim certainly had his work cut out for him. His job was to grow a brand and concept in a country that was not familiar with either.

“There wasn’t a smoothie market,” he said. “People didn’t even know what they were. I had to create the market, and I did that by really researching Smoothie King’s history and sharing the stories I knew would charm people.”

Eventually Kim’s hard work paid off, and he realized the brand had even more stories to tell in America. With the backing of both a U.K. private equity firm and the National Pension of the Republic of Korea, Kim was able to convince Smoothie King founder Steve Kuhnau to entrust him with the brand. And like that, Kim had gone from franchisee to company CEO.

It was then that the differences between business in South Korea and America began to shine through. One Western trend Kim wanted to avoid was reliance on litigation as a first response instead of a last resort.

“It’s not really the different laws you have to worry about, it’s more peoples’ willingness to make it a legal issue instead of just talking it out and shaking hands,” Kim said. “That can be challenging, but I realized it could also be avoided by building better relationships.”

In order to encourage stronger relationships and reduce the possibility of complications with franchisees, Kim focused on improving communication channels and made visits to different franchisee cities a standard practice. Kim also instituted regular town hall-style meetings where he and other company leaders have honest conversations with franchisees.

“By doing that, there’s more transparency,” he said. “We’re showing exactly what we’re doing for franchisees and why it matters.”

Kim also realized being from South Korea was an advantage in many ways.

“I strongly believe coming from another country was a positive for me,” he said. “I’m an Asian dude, and it means sometimes I think differently from other people. I’m not saying all the differences are positive, but it creates a conversation. I can look at things in a way other people might not think to.”

Even more important, Kim’s time as a franchisee gave him unique insight into the wants and needs of his brand ambassadors.

“I know what they want because I was one of them,” he said. “Not just being Korean, but being a franchisee, it makes me try harder to figure out what our franchisees want.”

In the end, Kim’s story is a testament to the power of Smoothie King’s products.

He was so impressed with the smoothies the brand created that he decided not only to bring them back to his own country, but then purchase the company outright in order to help it grow further.

Kim doubled down on his business interest in Smoothie King, and the brand has been the better for it ever since, with more Americans discovering every day just what separates the company from its competitors.