Brock grad discovers success a world away

When Kurt de Vries began his university career at Brock in 1995, he had no idea of the long journey he was about to embark on.
de Vries, 36, is currently a business development consultant with a focus on the Korean market and conglomerates based in the Niagara Region, which may seem to be the typical success story. If you are expecting a tale of a young man who suffered through the trials of post-secondary education to then land a lucrative government position and live happily ever after – you would be mistaken.
“I enrolled here in 1995, and I came from a local high school, Notre Dame in Welland. There were three choices: U of T, Western and Brock. I got into all of them.”
de Vries’ journey began in his second year when an unexpected visitor arrived.
“In second year I was sitting in a History class and somebody from John Kaethler’s international office came in and mentioned something about exchange programs overseas, and I was very interested in that,” he said. “It kind of gave me something to shoot for. I was doing okay in school, but I didn’t really have an end game or an exit strategy.”
As there were strict stipulations to be able to qualify for the exchange program such as keeping up a high average, de Vries buckled down and worked hard.
“I decided to try to be that model student. I shot for the Keele [University] exchange and I got it,” said de Vries. “My third year was spent overseas in the UK. That opened my whole world.”
The positive experience de Vries had in England was a gateway to further travel, and in 2000 he decided the next location was to be South Korea.
“I went over [to South Korea] and was hired as an ESL teacher in a hakwan, which was a small, private institute,” he said. “In Korea, the country is full of these academic-based types of programs. When I went there, I was totally misled. I thought it would be gated like Ridley College; but it was in this tall building on the fifth floor, so I had a totally different impression.”
de Vries said that he did not have the intention to stay any longer than a year. He had his sights on a graduate program and there were some scholarships available that he was interested in, but that all changed after a fateful meeting in 2001.
“I met some guys out there that had stayed from the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and they stayed throughout the four years. I met those guys in 2001, and they had done very well for themselves,” he said. “They were in their late twenties and had done financially well. First, they started out as teachers. Some of them found themselves working for corporations and law firms, some kept teaching, some became bar owners and restaurant owners – regardless, very successful. I was so surprised.
“I had never seen anything like that here. I had never heard of anybody paying off all their student debt in a year or two and then ending up with $100,000 in the bank in four years as well as having money to play with and travel. I was just enthralled with that.”
It was the financial success these men found which led to de Vries staying in South Korea.
Although it seemed easy enough to find this success, the fact was – it was not.
“I made a lot of good contacts in academia in the legal field because of my lecturing at the University and just maintaining relationships via being a good conversationalist and whatnot. However, the business side was a lot more challenging, so I wanted to build a face,” he said.
“I didn’t have 25 years growing up in the country; I was there for only a few years, so I took an agent out for sushi. I found a good agent, which was hard enough on its own, so when I finally found one, [I jumped at the opportunity].”
“I said, ‘look, I want to get on TV and movies here. I don’t care about being a star. I have no fantasies. But, for me, I want to get my face on screen, and I want to speak.”
de Vries explained that this is one possible solution to the problem of being a new immigrant with no backing. There are a lot of challenges in South Korea that do not exist in Canada, and that the media is one way to overcome these challenges.
“I got my break shooting a drama mini-series. I did a couple of episodes as a corporate spy bad-guy. That got carried forth to a major movie called Dragon Wars: D-War, which was a b-movie here, yet it had Hollywood actors in it. It was huge for my business networking.”
With a solid foundation now being built with money coming in, de Vries was now free to establish himself as a businessman, and in 2005, he bought a school and named it Canada Holdings Korea Incorporated.
“I ended up in a city called Bundang, which is a new city made by all the rich people from Gangnam. That’s like Beverly Hills; a really rich area, the place to be,” he said. “All the rich people from that city basically made another city of about a million people to the south with green space and wonderful parks. Koreans have a saying, ‘Gangnam is the top of Korea but Bundang is next to heaven.’ So, I ended up [in Bundang] and a Canadian guy was selling a school, so I decided to buy it after some investigation.”
Several years later, having made a splash in South Korea as a successful Canadian businessman, he garnered the attention of those a World away – at home.
“I got hired by Niagara to try to bring the region to the forefront of this [wind power] consortium which consisted of Samsung, CS Wind, a few other [wind] tower manufacturers and KEPCO, and they were looking to make some significant investments,” he said.
“We had some serious success in that the Koreans were persuaded by the logistical and economic merits of the Niagara Region, but provincial politics overruled economics and Niagara was passed over. Windsor had some very serious economic growth that year because their MPs and MPPs went to bat and kept the consortium focused there.”
Politics was the driver, and since that time he has worked hard to connect with local, provincial and federal leaders for future considerations.
Recently, de Vries has been working alongside like-minded individuals in trying to promote ice and ball hockey in South Korea, which has gained considerable attention in the Canadian media.
“One thing I’m working on now is a project being led at the federal level by Senator Martin, a Canadian-Korean. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade are celebrating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with two hockey games played in Ottawa and Seoul: Hockey diplomacy with some FTA talks on the side. Anyway, it is going to be a really cool hockey game that Don Cherry is going to talk about [soon],” he said. “I own the website hockeykorea.com, and that was done with a passion because I wanted to help hockey grow. I’m obsessed with it.”
de Vries has also started a ball hockey league in South Korea which has become very popular.
“[The ball hockey league] is quite famous now. It’s got over 120 members. I have now left it in the care of a board.”
Since moving back in April 2012, de Vries has simply been re-acquainting himself with Canada.
“The last part of my year has just been getting back in shape and trying to re-acculturate. That’s a big challenge actually,” he said.
The Brock alumni is back on campus this year enrolled in a Linguistics program and cannot be more pleased with the experience.
“Being back in school is a great way to re-acculturate because school’s exciting and people are smart here. I’ve heard a lot of interesting things coming out of Toronto, but I want to be in Niagara, that’s my goal for the time being. Brock is growing and I would love to contribute to that.”
For more information on the initiative to introduce and improve hockey leagues in South Korea, visit both hockeykorea.com and cbhk.org 

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