Our guest today is Chief Operating Officer for Fibernetics, Hee Kim.
Hee is a versatile and creative operational mastermind, leading all business and operational functions for Fibernetics, a globally recognized Canadian telecom company that has been providing innovative products and services for over 20 years. He regularly works in close partnership with the other leaders, leading day-to-day management of the organization and executing on the overall strategy. He’s a dynamic leader who is passionate about the overall commitment to excellence and innovation of the business. Hee also brings with him military experience gained from his service in the South Korean army. In this episode, Cameron and Hee discuss his first 90 days as CFO, working with not one, but two co-founders as co-CEOs, as well as his thoughts on reducing the company size by 30% over four years, all while maintaining a top notch company culture.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- The unusual way Hee was introduced to Fibernetics co-founder and Chief of Staff John Stix and fiber networks.
- Unlocking the communications opportunity in Canada – providing a service for French Canadian demographics.
- How Hee transitioned roles, from the Chief Financial Officer to Chief Operating Officer.
- Hee’s leadership philosophy and the principles he’s working on to better lead people.
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In this episode, let me introduce you to Hee Kim, the ultimate CFO turned COO. He’s a pro at navigating major industry shifts. He’s here to tell us about his epic journey. He’s all about putting people first, especially in the tech world. He’s going to add on his first 90 days as COO, where he used amazing active listening skills and spent time with the team to get to know them. There’s more. He also had to work with not 1 but 2 cofounders as co-CEOs. He had to whip the organization into shape to increase efficiency. Talk about a challenge.
He will even share what it was like to reduce the company size by 30% over 4 years, all while maintaining a top-notch company culture and being ranked as one of the best companies to work for. Did we mention that he also has military experience from serving in the South Korean Army? This guy is a true leader and has some incredible insights to share. Don’t miss out on this amazing episode. We’re on YouTube as well. Make sure you spread the word and share it with your friends too.
Hee, welcome to the show.
Thank you for the time and opportunity.
I’m looking forward to chatting with you. I remember meeting your CEO at an event. I’ve been a part of a number of different Masterminds over the years. We were at an event that Giovanni was putting on called Archangel Academy. Your CEO John Stix was telling me all about the business, model, and growth. He was also talking a lot about the people side and the culture side of the business. It’s very unusual for a technology company to be that obsessed about people, customer engagement, and employee engagement. Can you talk a little bit about that to get us started?
Thay’s a fair comment about the tech conversation, a technology company with a related cultural aspect. Usually, people think about technology companies as very dry or metrics-driven. That’s how I can explain John Stix and Jody, who are the two co-founders of the company. I got my job opportunity based on the purely human aspect of who John and Jody are.
Back in early 2019, I had a pretty bad life issue. At that time, I was struggling. Previous to that time, I was a CFO for one of the largest healthcare companies in Canada. I met Jody through my network. I met John Stix through Jody. At that time, while I was going through difficulties in my life and career-wise, John stood up for me. I was Jody’s friend but John didn’t know me that well.
I was surprised at how his mind was so open to helping somebody, listening to somebody, and trying to do the problem-solving together. I was very impressed. The way that he was committed to a different human being, which was me, was a crazy experience for me that I never had before. That was the time that I started thinking about who I was. I married my identification, that finding-who-I-am moment plus business opportunity.
At that time, we had a lot of chats between John and myself. John was like, “Since you already had experience as a CFO in one of the major companies previously, would you like to operate Fibernetics?” He knew that I was more into operation even though my previous experience was CFO. I was like, “Yes, that’ll be a great opportunity for me.” It was an honor to accept the job. That’s how I started.
The way that I got introduced to John and Fibernetics was very unusual. It’s almost like a movie story. I cannot go into the detail too much with the given limited time but that’s how I started here. When I started, I already knew how John and Jody are good about people. I also experienced how they usually approach. I’m not saying that it’s always black and white, straightforward, and easy to manage the culture.
There are so many different variables on top of the business decision that you have to make. Also, the economic cycle that you have to go through. One thing that I can tell is John and Jody, where they came from, drove them to be able to give away all the good things for friends and family. That composed the culture here and drives the business at Fibernetics.
When you talk about people focus or people culture, what does that mean specifically?
Let’s think of it this way. Especially COO, if I try to think about people, jobs, and something else that I have to do, especially at Fibernetics, it was like, “Where do I need to start?” Let me bring it back to early 2019 when I was introduced to the new company where I had to do some problem-solving. If you have had an operator job for a while, we all know that the answer always starts with people. People know the answer. I don’t need to do the deep dive. I just need to find who knows the best and who has a great amount of knowledge in the organization here and there. That’s where we start.
The luxury that I had here was I already spent some time with John and Jody, how the culture here is, and what kind of problem I had to solve as a COO. When I came here, for the first 3 to 4 months, I didn’t do anything. I kept interviewing people and spending time with the people. That’s how I learned where I needed to focus without having people-centric culture.
If people had a fear, they wouldn’t disclose where to focus to do the problem-solving, especially for the new person. They were very open to it and cooperative. That’s the initial journey of myself. The Fibernetics went well and smoothly. All the people from there are still being carried on here. We are going into a different phase of the transformation business. That’s the exciting moment that we have.
Let’s talk about what Fibernetics is and then what you are transforming into.
Fibernetics is one of the largest privately-owned CLEC in Canada. CLEC is the telecommunication carrier license that we have to have to be able to provide the retail wholesale service and everything. That’s where we started. That’s the business that we’ve been in for decades. We’ve been contributing to providing telecommunication service coast to coast, from West to East in Canada for many different areas. We provide phone numbers for wholesale and retail businesses. That’s the infrastructure and technology that we groomed up for decades.
The biggest change that started evolving right before and after COVID kicked in is UCaaS. Unified Communications as a Service became the buzzword for the telecommunication world. As you know, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and RingCentral, those platforms are the well-known UCaaS providers that you can think about. Are we trying to compete with them? Naturally, we will be in a competitive position with them but the biggest difference is we have a very strong unfair advantage. We owned a large infrastructure nationwide as a CLEC.
Based on that, we have a very strong developers, including AI developers. We are merging AI technology into UCaaS. We try to unlock the communication opportunity for people, especially if you’re speaking the French language. That’s the area that we want to unlock the opportunity in Canada. For instance, when I used to work for the bank or healthcare industry, the common challenge was trying to provide the service for a French-Canadian demographic or the other way around.
John explained this to me briefly. When we were walking, I probably fell over. Did I understand him correctly that we’re going to be able to do video calls and voice calls but if I was speaking to you in English, you could be speaking to me in French and it would automatically transfer for us?
Correct. It’s a real-time speech translation. One thing that you need to understand is there is a different development phase that we are going into. At least at the production level, we are able to provide a pretty accurate French-Spanish translation so far. Since we are in Canada, I believe that focusing on even French is going to provide a lot of business opportunities for the Canadian population. Once we do that well, we expand the opportunity to different languages and ethnic groups pretty fast.
That transition is massive for sure. Talk a little bit about what it was like to make the transition from a CFO into a COO role. What have you had to change? How have you had to adapt?
It’s the way that I was selected as a CFO in the previous company. I was pretty big in operation for that company. The company that I served as a CFO was one of the largest wellness and healthcare providers in Canada. We had about 350 different clinic locations and the long-term care facility service location together. We probably provided millions of different healthcare transactions every year. While we are doing that, I was also a clinician by training at that time. At the same time, I was good at numbers. I was putting the system and data analytics for the company. In that, I understood how the operation was running and how to run the business as well from a single clinic to a nationwide clinic chain.
My boss gave me the opportunity to take over the CFO position because I was heavily involved in the financial aspect of the business too. By training, I’m not an accountant but I was lucky enough to have that job. I had that job for about close to two years. I was trying to do my business and then I ended up meeting Jody while I was at the bank. I got into the startup business and end up being the COO again. The point that I’m trying to tell is I was already a heavy operator and operation mindset that I already have in my business. The financial aspect of the business sense was the extra sixth sense that I had.
That’s something you brought in then. In terms of moving into a different industry, you moved from healthcare, which you knew at a very micro level and then a macro level. How long did it take you to feel comfortable in this new role at Fibernetics? Was it months or years?
I’m still learning after even four years because telecommunication is a pretty complicated business. Based on the business fundamental of the operation and being able to run and be effective at our organizational level, it was about six months.
What was it like to come in the first 90-day period? How many employees were there when you joined?
At the time, we were about 200 people.
What was it like coming into an organization that was already established? I’m sure there were some people that probably were frustrated because they wanted the COO role and you got it. Can you talk a little bit about that? What was it like coming in that first 90-day period? What was your onboarding?
Two things that I had in my mind is I didn’t want to look like a new guy who’s trying to change everything because there’s no way that I can make that in mind. Usually, people may have a misperception or misunderstanding about the intention of the new guys, especially when a new CFO or COO comes into the organization. I was very careful. I was trying not to look like that. That was the precaution that I had based on all the different business experiences that I had.
The second thing that I had is I didn’t focus on anything else but people. For the first few months, I didn’t do anything. Only interviewing people, listening to people, and then trying to understand what they like and what they don’t like. Nothing else. I made a very good friendships with many people within such a short time. I was like, “I feel like I’m going to get some traction to make some changes or trying to get some help or the changes that I had to make with other people’s help together.”
With the traction that you were getting, how long was it before you made any big people decisions, like firing somebody or hiring a key person? Was that something that came in quickly?
To get to that decision point, it took almost close to a year. As you know, when you get to the people-related decision, it’s not an easy decision to make. I have a tendency to carry people as much as I can. I don’t want to drop anybody from my platoon. The Army mentality kicked in that I don’t want to lose anybody if I can. I wanted to focus on maximizing people’s strengths, not weaknesses. I didn’t want to focus on people’s weaknesses at all. If anybody has any strengths, I wanted to maximize their opportunity.
Do you focus on that opportunity with people as well? Talk to me a little bit about what your leadership philosophy is and how you lead people.
My philosophy is that whatever business that I’ve been through or I will have to in the future, the strong core principle that I have in my mind is I cannot do anything else without people, customers, employees, or co-workers. I’m trying not to lose my patience on listening skills. I’m not a listener. I’m still trying to learn how to do the active listening better. That’s the principle that I want to maintain as much as I can.
If I can get an answer in an easier way, why do I need to struggle to find the answer? Usually, answers are sitting with all the employees at all different levels. They know what the problems are. I just need to be able to validate that with a data point, whether that is a valid point or not. Once I confirm all the recommendations, pain points, or room for improvement that employees are recommending, we need to formulate that as an execution strategy or tactics that we need to make happen fast.
How many direct reports do you have?
I have seven.
How many do the two cofounders have?
They have four.
They have a few direct reports and then you’ve got a bunch of direct reports. What’s your day-to-day, or week-to-week working with your direct reports like?
My focus in my first year was trying to contribute to changing the atmosphere a little bit as a new guy. At that time, my day-to-day was interviewing people and spending time with the people to change the dynamics and the positions here and there. I wanted to focus on maximizing people’s strengths but that was the first three years.
We are in a transformation period for technology. I’m putting 80% of my time into new technology development. I spend most of my time with my software development team. All my direct reports are so effective and are great people managers as well so usually, I insert with them about the test that I delegated to them to make sure that everything is up and running as expected.
Have you had to bring in any outside senior people over the top of the team at all? When you’ve done that, how have you navigated those minefields?
John and Jody were very supportive. We were aligned to maximize the opportunity for people inside. We didn’t bring outsiders too much for the senior roles. As we transformed into this AI plus communication solution development together, we brought in a new VP of Software Engineer who is very experienced in AI. He also has experience in productizing the AI product in the market too. That’s the new outsider hiring that I had. I was very lucky enough to be able to have knowledgeable people being able to take the senior role inside. I didn’t have too much headache of recruiting people from outside of the organization.
What about dealing with the two co-CEOs? Have you got any lessons about working with co-CEOs? That’s not super normal. It’s maybe 10% of companies.
The two of them are very different in terms of their strengths. That’s the part where I had a question for John. It’s like, “How did you find the business and run the business for 20 years between 2 friends?” I also had other companies that I used to own that didn’t end up well. I was able to preserve the friends but in terms of the actual leadership and outcome-wise, it was not that great.
I was comparing what I went through compared to what John and Jody have been able to do for the last few decades. They’re very different. They’re very respectful to each other about what they’re good at. When I report to both of them, I don’t have duplication of the direction. That’s the amazing part that what John and Jody do well. I also spend a lot of time with John about people.
How many employees are in the company in early 2023?
We have about 140 or 130.
You said you were at 200 when you joined. You’re down to about 140. Why is that?
We look for a more effective way that we can run the business based on the number of tasks and jobs that we had. There was some cleanup process done for all the previous acquisition processes that we had to take care of a little bit lately. There was a different reason to do the cleanup here and there all at once around October 2019. I believe that all the people who stayed since then have been carrying the business well, especially during the COVID time. All the people showed great unity and skillset that we could overcome the tough time.
That’s tough to navigate that 30% reduction in force. Any lessons around executing and navigating a 30% reduction over a few years?
To be honest with you, restructuring is not fun. Once in my life, I had a job restructuring a primary business focus that I didn’t enjoy, to be honest with you. When I got to that moment and I got the new job, I was a little bit nervous too but I fully trusted what John and Jody had experienced and what they know about the company. I relied on them.
Did you know you were coming into a restructuring? Was that part of the discussion that they were having with you at the time or did that come afterwards?
It came after. When that happened, we put our heads together and then tried to come up with the best decision as much as we can. At that time, it was still early for me, even before my six months period hit. I was like, “What should I do?” I had to fully rely on John and Jody’s experience. I trusted them because I know they are good people. At least in my perspective, that’s the way that I could still maintain my peace in my mind. It went pretty well. They handled the restructuring pretty well at that time and that gave us sustainability over the period of COVID.
How do you manage the communication around those layoffs? What kind of things did you have to do with the employees and survivors? Any lessons around that?
We were just being honest. We didn’t put any lip service or do any separate conversations at all. We were very upfront, straightforward, and honest. There was a pretty good reason for selection. Everybody understood where the decision came from, why we did it, and the rationale wise. It was pretty well-supported.
When you tell people the truth and you’re very upfront with it, it always does go better. We often overthink it more too.
We didn’t overthink. That’s John’s style. John doesn’t overthink. He tried to be open as much as he could. That’s also the lesson that I had. I don’t know it before I met John. After I met John, I had a big change in my personal life and professional life. I became more upfront.
I have a feeling that John not only does not overthink but he thinks out loud. John’s thoughts are more verbal. It has to come out of his mouth for him to have a thought. How do you work with an entrepreneur who is like that, who’s a quick start, and who is probably a high D or high I? They’re often perceived as winging it or shooting from the hip and they’re not. How do you work with them in that communication style?
The unique part between John and myself is we spent a lot of personal time together. John kindly invited me to his family. I spent a lot of time with his family too. Believe it or not, for probably the first three years, every other weekend at least, I spent time with his family. That was the crazy luxury that I had. I could understand who he truly is, not just about work but about his life and his principle and the way that he lives. That resolved everything. We didn’t have to think too much about this communication. We don’t need to worry about how he’s going to take it or how that guy is going to take it, at least between the two of us. That way, I truly appreciate how much time and effort he put it together for me.
That’s critical. I talk about it in my newest book called The Second in Command. I talk about the CEO and COO needing to have a date night. They need to spend time together, get out of the business, and get to know each other as humans because that builds the fabric of trust and communication. It sounds like that was powerful for you, guys.
You mentioned COVID a couple of times and the transition that COVID had hit you with. What was that? Ontario and Canada, where you’re from, were very extreme for COVID as well with the lockdowns. How did you, as a company, navigate that? Any lessons from that? Was there anything that you learned from going through that you still carry with you?
I have a very good story in terms of the good impressions that I got from the experience. When I was at the bank, my job and all the job related to our department was about business continuity. We make sure that the bank is up and running and all the processes are in place. I came from that. I have an Army experience. It’s critical to make sure that whatever business I’m in should have a good agile approach to overcome any sudden challenges.
When I came here, COVID burst. All of a sudden, we started seeing that all the small business customers that we have are panicking. They try to transition in-office environment to work-from-home within 2 to 3 weeks after the COVID lockdown started. The crazy impression that I had is our guys made all 35 business customer transitions happen within two weeks with no noise at all.
This is incredible. I’m like, “Even though I’ve been practicing building business practice for the healthcare, bank, or even other entrepreneur businesses, I never seen that this fast transition could happen with a given number of staff or that many customers. It’s almost like nothing ever happened.” I can’t even believe how we handled it so smoothly.
It’s pretty crazy how so many companies were able to go through it so smoothly and how it gave us a full re-look at our businesses. Are you going back to in-office? Are you moving more to a hybrid organization? Where have you migrated?
Most of the resources are still work-from-home except for tech support and key management people. For instance, I was 90% in the office, no matter what, whether the people are here or not. I wanted to be here while the tech support team are in the office. I wanted to share the feeling that I’m here, I’m supporting them and they’re supporting me too. Based on necessity, people come in and out so that’s where we are. All the management people started coming here at least twice a week.
You mentioned the military a couple of times. I’m intrigued by that. What was your military experience? What did you take from the military that you brought back into the for-profit sector?
I came from South Korea. As a South Korean guy, that’s the mandatory service. Every Korean has to go, the male population. For that reason, I went there. As a young kid, I went to the Army. I never had any leadership experience. Based on the nature of the environment there, you are getting into the leadership position eventually before you end your service. That was the portion that I had.
I learned how to deal with confrontation and conflict management. As a young kid, I had to make many different tough decisions at that time. I didn’t know what I learned at that time, to be honest with you. Once I got into the business later on, I started realizing, “This is what I learned from Army.” It was pretty straightforward.
The application is like, “Whatever the things that I learned from the Army, which is also very people-based, I need to make sure that I apply the same principle, maintaining the same transparency, and also applying the same standard to anybody.”At the same time, I was supposed to be flexible enough to listen to people’s different perspectives and circumstances, as much as I needed. I made a decision and then everything worked in the same way.
I got exposed to a group out of the United States called the Special Operators Transition Foundation. It takes senior operation people from the military and helps them transition into the for-profit world. It’s pretty intriguing to see the experience that you get. I’m glad you shared that. Let’s go back to the 21 or 22-year-old Hee. You need some advice. What advice would you give the 22-year-old that you know to be true now?
If I can advise myself back in time, I would encourage myself to have gratitude for my life. This is not my lip service to John Stix at all but this is truly what John Stix gave me as a friend. He changed my life. Until I met John and worked with John and Jody, I never had gratitude for my life. I was always complaining. When I was a CFO for such a short time for a nationwide organization with 1,600 people, I was not having any gratitude. I was miserable. I didn’t satisfy at all. Now, I learned how to put my gratitude into my life. If I could understand the greatness of having gratitude in my life, I could be a better person if I go back to 21.
Better and even happier than you are now, which is amazing. That’s a great lesson here. I appreciate that. Hee Kim, the COO for Fibernetics, thanks very much for sharing with us on the show.
Thank you for your time.
I appreciate it.