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(Yonhap Interview) Leading S. Korean firm in Laos bets on 2012 ASEM for growth
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Oct. 17 (Yonhap) -- Kolao Group, the largest private company in Laos, is setting its sights on next year's Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) to fuel its double-digit growth in the Southeast Asian country, which seems undaunted by the ongoing global uncertainty, a company official said Monday.

   "Laos is growing at an 8 percent level despite ongoing eurozone woes. With Laos expected to host the 2012 ASEM, we believe a rush of foreign investors and new infrastructure projects will open up opportunities," Sung Sang-yong, vice president of Kolao Group, told Yonhap News Agency in an interview.

   "Our sales are likely to easily break the US$200 million level next year," Sung said. The company posted sales and net profit of $104 million and $15 million last year, continuing to achieve a growth rate of nearly 50 percent over the last two years.

   Kolao Development Co., the crown jewel of the group, which bears the names of Korea and Laos, has grown into Laos's prominent private-sector company after starting out as a car dealer and secondhand car assembler in 1997.

   Upon the success, Kolao has evolved into a multi-industry group covering energy and finance and the leading Laotian provider of cars and motorcycles with a market share of around 36 percent, according to Sung.

Kolao Holdings Co. Vice President Sung Sang-yong. (Photo Courtesy of Kolao)

"New roads will be built and existing roads will be paved for the global gathering. Demand for cars is also set to shoot up. We've been drawing up promotion plans to bank on next year's big event," Sung said.

   The company has kicked off a five-year car loan installment program in April, creating means for Laotians to purchase their own cars. Kolao is also operating a shorter three-year program.

   "The per-capita income of Laotians is trending higher, but programs like ours can help more people purchase cars affordably," Sung said, adding profits of new car sales, which account for nearly half of the company's profit, soared when the company first adopted the program in 2009.

   Meanwhile, the company plans to bolster its financial arm as one of its key business areas.

   "Only 6-7 percent of Laotians have bank deposits and their deposit amounts total a mere $5.6 billion. There is room for growth, with the new rich becoming interested in stock trading as well," said Sung.

   The company owns a bank unit, Indochina Bank Co., under its wing and hopes to tap into other areas of finance such as equities and insurance.

   "We've built up a strong big-pocket customer base at Indochina Bank and the auto installment programs are also expected to drive our financial expansion," said Sung.

   The official said a brokerage firm, jointly established with a South Korean securities firm, may set sail as early as next year.

   Sung, meanwhile, acknowledged how Korean inspirations, such as private banking centers for top-notch customers and luxurious showrooms, have helped boost sales in Laos.

   On the back of stellar growth, Kolao started trading on the Seoul main bourse in November, becoming the first overseas company established by a Korean merchant to be listed in the homeland.

   Shares of Kolao traded at 8,400 won (US$7.3) on the local exchange as of Oct. 14, nearly doubling from its initial offering price of 4,800 won.

   The company, however, has more in mind.

   "Kolao will not be limited within Laos. We hope to become one of the top 10 companies in the broader Indochinese peninsula. At this speed, six years seems enough."