From then on, he adopted “Ryan” in English classes, and later in cross-cultural settings, gaining enough comfort with American culture that he would later enroll in graduate school at the University of Illinois.
“Small triggering events eventually, without your knowledge, are deeply embedded and give you a lot of stimulus toward your potential,” said Mr. Ahn, who now runs both the Korean and Japanese practices at Aprio, the Atlanta-based accounting, tax and business advisory firm.
Entering college in Korea in the late 1980s, he encountered another culture that was shaping business across Asia and beyond: Japan. Many peers were learning Japanese, influenced by the country’s growing momentum during the heyday of its outward expansion.
While the two countries had a checkered history, Mr. Ahn started studying Japanese language and found many common values embedded in the culture.
“The more I had interaction with the Japanese and the more I learned Japanese culture, the more I felt connected,” he said.
During a decade with KPMG, Mr. Ahn was seconded to its Tokyo office, where he had a chance to work with Japanese engineers and executives, deepening his insight into motivations and trends driving Japanese expansions around the world.
He was attracted to Aprio after “a deep conversation on passions and practice” with CEO and Managing Partner Richard Kopelman a decade ago. Mr. Ahn was invited to put his experience to work developing a slate of business, largely from scratch, with Japanese and Korean subsidiaries in the U.S.
While Mr. Ahn had worked with the likes of Hyundai Motors in his former job, most of his career revolved around Japanese companies that had developed a robust middle market. Korean firms, by contrast, were mainly split between multinationals that worked with the Big Four accounting firms and mom-and-pops seeking more affordable services.
He focused first on the Japanese side, where most of his relationships stood, knowing that these firms tend to have extended planning horizons and a hierarchical management structure.
“Generally, it takes a very long time to develop a relationship with Japanese companies. That’s the challenging part; it requires a lot of time, and patience as well. But there’s a huge benefit behind the challenges: once you get over them, the long lasting relationship will definitely give you a lot of benefits. I like that mentality,” he said.
Meanwhile, Korean investment in the Southeast U.S. swelled as Hyundai and Kia arrived in the mid-to-late 2000s, helping drive the region’s foreign-investment-fueled automotive sector.
“Now I’m dealing with the second wave,” he said, referring to SK, LG Energy, Samsung and other companies involved in batteries, semiconductors and other key technologies, just as the traditional automakers build out new supply chains focused on electric vehicles. The trend has resulted in nearly $20 billion of committed investment in Georgia alone.
Many years into their U.S. journeys, Korean companies are now more keen to hire firms like Aprio, which has grown in its own right through acquisitions while retaining its personal touch and intimate knowledge of state and federal tax incentives that are increasingly driving manufacturing.
“Those companies, I feel, are looking for firms like us, so we are getting more new clients in that industry,” Mr. Ahn said.
That’s especially true with the Inflation Reduction Act, the $370 billion climate and energy bill that incentivizes domestic production of batteries, EVs and solar cells and modules. Aprio is hosting multiple events and webinars to help companies navigate the law’s complexity.
To serve its three or four new Japanese clients a year, meanwhile, Aprio continues to hire to make sure Japanese is solidly among the firm’s 40 languages spoken natively on staff.
“Hiring professionals with Japanese language capability has been extremely challenging, because the job placement ratio for college graduates in Japan is 100 percent already,” Mr. Ahn said. The firm is experimenting with remote work arrangements and other innovations to ensure its personalized service continues uninterrupted.
In the meantime, Mr. Ahn finds himself at a personal inflection point — about a decade into his tenure at Aprio, and about 11 years out from its mandatory retirement age.
“When I started at Aprio 10 years ago, I had a single goal that still hasn’t changed: I’d like to create a foundation for a Korean and Japanese practice where there is enough business to sustain three partners upon my retirement,” he said. “There are a lot of things to take care of in order to do that, so that makes me feel still energized.”
In the process, Mr. Ahn and his team remain devoted to the culturally sensitive service that has set them apart among investors from Korea, Japan and beyond.
“Growth is important, but at the same time, client satisfaction is much more important.”
Editor’s note: This sponsored article was produced on behalf of Aprio by the Global Atlanta Content Studio as part of the firm’s annual partnership with Global Atlanta.