University of Pittsburgh

Ohjoon Kwon (ENGR ’85G)

Global steel industry giant

Portrait of Chairman Kwon

Photo Credit: Jeong Yi

At Pitt: He studied the thermo-mechanical processing of steel and earned a PhD in materials science and engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering.

In South Korea: Kwon is CEO of POSCO, the world’s fifth-largest steel-making company. He steadily rose through the ranks of research, technology, and executive governance, guiding POSCO into a role as a major contributor to South Korea’s automotive, shipbuilding, and construction sectors; led the company’s research and development center and its European Union office in Germany; and, in 2016, was named one of the nation’s top scientists by the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies.

 

Growing up in the rural South Korean city of Yeongju, Ohjoon Kwon’s responsibilities at home included caring for the family’s electrical appliances. He took pride in the work. His mother, observing her son’s skill, recommended that he study engineering in college.

Kwon liked the idea. He was born in 1950, at the very cusp of the Korean War (his family was forced to flee the violence when he was an infant). Coming of age in a postwar nation had given him the drive to pursue work that might benefit the country’s continued development. But the son of a father who owned a small lumber mill knew he would have to work hard to earn his place in a university.

Like many South Korean families hoping to give their children the best future possible, Kwon’s parents sent him to Seoul to attend high school. At age 18, after months of intensive study to pass the entrance exam, he was accepted to Seoul National University (SNU). He had ambitions of studying mechanical engineering but, after reading about the establishment of a large South Korean steel firm, the student altered his focus. He decided to study metallurgical engineering with hopes of one day working in the steel industry.

Kwon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1972. After he served his mandatory military duty, he found work in research and development for the defense industry. As a young engineer, he took a closer look at the global steel industry. He saw its continued emergence in South Korea and, wanting to learn more, set his sights on coming to the United States, then the center of the industry.

First, he earned a master’s degree in metallurgical engineering from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. Then, he applied to a doctorate program at the University of Pittsburgh, in the home city of U.S. Steel, the world’s largest steelmaker at the time.

Kwon was 32 when he arrived at Pitt with his wife and young son. While his wife, Chungsun Park (A&S ’87G), studied for a doctorate in sociology, he immersed himself in his doctoral studies in metallurgical engineering.

The engineer came to Pitt in part, he says, to study with Anthony J. DeArdo, a noted Pitt engineering professor who had expertise in both theory and practice. With the aid of DeArdo, Kwon was able to secure scholarships from the National Steel Corporation and the Brazilian company CBMM. DeArdo, Kwon says, was also able to nurture his academic and professional growth.

“Working with Professor DeArdo,” says Kwon, “I was able to broaden my perspective. I was able to present research, exchange ideas with not just fellow engineers but also with businessmen in the industry.”

Kwon was a serious and committed graduate student, often working overnight in the labs to finish his experiments. He embraced the rigorous academic and research environment at Pitt. Absorbing new theories and using sophisticated equipment made him adaptive and open to new challenges, he says. It helped form the foundation of his professional philosophy that innovation should be welcomed in the steel industry. “I learned that a strong research and development environment is critical to enabling breakthroughs,” he says.

But he also enjoyed the social elements of life at Pitt, especially attending football and baseball games. He jumped at chances to participate in academic presentations and international conferences, which he saw as opportunities to practice his English, learn new scholarship, and cultivate a professional and intellectual network. Harnessing these cross-cultural and language skills prepared him for leading in a global society, he says.

He served as president of Pitt’s Korean Student Council, which helped him to meet business leaders who visited campus. As he neared the end of his doctoral work, Kwon was connected with a high-level executive from POSCO, South Korea’s steelworks giant. The executive was impressed with the young engineer and invited him to join the company—an invitation that would change his life.

In 1986, Kwon returned to South Korea and began a career at POSCO in research. Over the years, he ascended into the company’s leadership roles, serving as assistant director and then director of POSCO’s Research Institute of Industrial Science and Technology, as well as the company’s chief technical officer. In 2014, he was named chief executive officer.

Today, he is reshaping the global conglomerate into what he calls a “smart industry,” bringing innovation to the steel industry through artificial intelligence and automation. His leadership has been noted to have increased the quality of the company’s products, improved its financial structure, and nurtured new business growth.

Kwon says that what he learned at Pitt has helped advance his ideas on research and development, benefiting POSCO and South Korea, too. “Pitt,” he says, “was truly a turning point in my life.”