Maggie Kim’s KOL Group is in the business of building bridges between nations through travel, investment and face-to-face communication. So to say the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenging time for the Sydney-based entrepreneur is something of an understatement.
“I have 13 offices in China and my head office is in Beijing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were all shut. My people were all working from home and I was here in Australia,” she says. “But health has to come first. I lost a couple of friends and my parents lost their friends, so it was important to me to prioritise the health of my team. Otherwise, it was all for nothing.”
While many businesses suffered during the associated lockdowns and social distancing, KOL Group not only survived, but thrived, thanks to a canny investment made by Kim at the dawn of the pandemic.
“I’ve long encouraged women in business, I’ve tried to help and mentor them whenever possible.”
“I bought a small mask manufacturing factory in Guangzhou,” she says. “We were producing masks just for my family and my employees – I didn’t know how bad the pandemic would become.”
When things got worse, KOL Group suddenly found itself inundated with PPE orders from all over China and Europe.
“From that, I was able to pay my staff a basic salary, and most of my employees and core management are still with me as a result,” Kim says.
A shift in priorities
As unfortunate as the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic was, Kim says it was an opportunity to reassess her priorities.
“Firstly, I wanted to look after my health and my family better. We don’t know what could happen tomorrow, so it’s best to be prepared.”
The next lesson she learned was a better way to achieve success.
“A decade ago, my goal was to make a certain amount of money each year,” she admits. “The pandemic completely changed my view. Now, I just want to make enough money. So this year, for example, we’ll finish four projects and that’ll be enough. It means I’m more relaxed, I’m happier and I’m more effective.”
That said, KOL Group’s 2023 projects are impressive by anyone’s standards. Among Kim’s to-do list is managing the Group’s triumphant return to China after almost three years.
“For the past eight months, I’ve been reconnecting with my clients and stakeholders in China, trying to motivate people and pick up where we left off,” she says. “It’s still my biggest market.”
And that means a healthy amount of attention. In April, Kim will return to the mainland and go on a three-month road trip to visit every KOL Group office as well as existing clients.
“We work closely with our clients,” she says. “Our business model – if they invest 50 percent in a project, we invest the other 50 percent – means we take risks together. We have to communicate, and doing that by email just isn’t ideal.”
An eye on the Middle East
The return of the face-to-face meeting is a turning point for KOL Group’s ongoing success, particularly when it comes to new clients. And Kim has quite a newcomer waiting in the wings.
“The Middle East market is booming,” she enthuses. “Last year, I visited Dubai, and we discovered so many opportunities to create working links between the Middle East and Australia. It’s still underway, but I believe I’m the first Asian Australian ever to bring Saudi government funding to Australia.”
The breakthrough reflects what Kim believes are changing attitudes in Saudi Arabia, particularly with regards to women.
“I’ve long encouraged women in business, I’ve tried to help and mentor them whenever possible,” she notes. “And when I visited Dubai, they had a women’s initiative program underway, encouraging women to do business and even to drive.”
The program was a success, and began to influence women in neighboring Saudi Arabia. “The world is changing, and it’s crucial to be a part of that change,” Kim acknowledges.
“The world is changing, and it’s crucial to be a part of that change.”
Over the next 18 months, KOL Group will balance its investment projects in China and the Middle East with its presence in Australia, which, while smaller, is a crucial link in the chain. For Korean-born Kim, who moved to Australia when she was 15, the country has a deeper meaning.
“It’s my third home, and now it’s my son’s home,” she says. “It’s a much smaller market than China or the Middle East, but there’s still such huge potential in Australia’s ties with those countries. And that’s where I come in. I have opportunities here, I have opportunities there. I have to work to join them together.”
With COVID restrictions a thing of the past, Kim is relishing being able to go back to what she does best: building bridges and forming links between worlds.
“When I started this company, I never would have imagined I’d open 13 offices in China, or branch out into the United States, the United Kingdom or the Middle East,” she says. “But when you’re doing well, people recognize your work and reach out to you, or refer you to other successful businesses. It’s all about mutual benefits.”
And that collaborative nature is at the heart of the kind of success Kim wants to achieve. “We are so much stronger if we all work together to maximize the opportunities in front of us and build a successful future.”