How a tale of unrequited love inspired a business empire

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

“They are loaded – the clock strikes twelve. I say amen. Charlotte, Charlotte! Farewell, farewell!”

 A neighbour saw the flash, and heard the report of the pistol; but, as everything remained quiet, he thought no more of it.

 In the morning, at six o’clock, the servant went into Werther’s room with a candle. He found his master stretched upon the floor, weltering in his blood, and the pistols at his side. He called, he took him in his arms, but received no answer. Life was not yet quite extinct. The servant ran for a surgeon, and then went to fetch Albert. Charlotte heard the ringing of the bell: a cold shudder seized her. She wakened her husband, and they both rose. The servant bathed in tears faltered forth the dreadful news. Charlotte fell senseless at Albert’s feet. – Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When Goethe published his early semi-autobiographical work Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in 1774 it earned an almost instant cult following. Readers were entranced by Goethe’s romantic hero whose intense passion ultimately leads to self-destruction and among the most famous suicides in literature.

The Guardian relates how public fascination gave rise to a fanatical copycat culture, in which men dressed in Werther’s signature outfit, women wore ‘Eau de Werther’, and at least one person committed suicide with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther in her pocket.

Chairman Shin’s foreword to Lotte Duty Free’s 30th anniversary book in 2010: “Korea’s travel retail industry has grown into a leading driver of national tourism development thanks to Lotte Duty Free”

The plot sees the young artist, Werther, escape from an inappropriate romantic relationship by finding rural solitude. He also finds Lotte (Charlotte), the daughter of a land steward, and falls passionately in love. Alas, she is pledged to another and rejects his affection, plunging him into deep torment that culminates with him taking his own life.

Hs fame guaranteed, Goethe went on to lead a movement in German literature known as Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’), which predated the romanticism that would follow.

I tell this story about a story as my introduction to the sad passing of Lotte Group founder and honorary Chairman Shin Kyuk-ho on Sunday at the age of 97. When he died, the business empire that he built was worth an estimated US$100 billion. Yet 78 years earlier when he stowed away on a ship to Japan from his native Korea (then a colony of Japan), all the young Shin had to his name was 83 Japanese Yen and a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

The subject of young Werther’s unrequited love gave rise to Shin’s choice of name for the nascent company he formed in Japan in 1948. What began as a small enterprise selling chewing gum grew into a sprawling conglomerate that spanned a range of enterprises from cinemas to construction to retail, including, of course, what is now the world’s number two travel retailer, Lotte Duty Free.

Chairman Shin in his younger days

There has been plenty of Sturm und Drang along the way for Lotte Group, with no shortage of controversy. Like all Korean chaebols (conglomerates), Lotte’s interests in the country known, sometimes perversely, as the land of the morning calm, have often proved contentious and the dealings of Chairman Shin no less so. But it is his business achievements that should be saluted here, for he was the man with the vision and determination to create a duty free business in 1980 that would become a spearhead of Korea’s then fledgling tourism sector. It also introduced numerous international brands (and, later, a wonderful array of local products) to an entranced public, first of Koreans and then Japanese and Chinese travellers.

The Lotte Group is mourning the loss of that man and their sorrows run every bit as deep as those of young Werther.

The obituary on Lotte Group’s website tells of the sad passing of Chairman Shin at 98. It says that his philosophy of the company giving back to the country will be upheld in the future.

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