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[Herald Interview] 'Soft power plays key role in green push'

Global eco-investment chief of SK Ecoplant keen on tapping deeper into burgeoning battery recycling market in US

March 8, 2023 - 18:09 By Park Han-na

Choi Eun-yeong, vice president and head of global eco-investment at SK Ecoplant, poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at the company's headquarters in Seoul, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

SK Ecoplant, the green business unit of SK Group, aims to solidify its footing into the US battery recycling market this year by working with partners to make aggressive investments, the company’s investment executive said.

The company has made a major transformation from a builder into an environment and energy company though an array of merger and acquisition deals worth over 3 trillion won ($2.3 billion) in Korea and abroad.

“This year’s biggest goal would be supporting SK Ecoplant’s successful foray into the US and to plant a flag in its battery recycling market,” Choi Eun-yeong, vice president and head of global eco-investment at SK Ecoplant, said during an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday.

Choi is in charge of forging strategic partnerships with global financial investors for environmental, social and corporate governance investing in the US and Europe.

She is also responsible for discovering and nurturing companies in the battery recycling and waste to energy fields to create a value chain in the markets.

The most successful deal she has led recently is the acquisition of US-based lithium-ion battery recycling firm Ascend Elements in September last year. The firm has effective technologies to extract rare metals individually from waste batteries; remove impurities from them; and produce precursors directly through co-precipitation.

Another achievement for Choi was becoming a board member of Ascend Elements. “It is very rare that a company gives you a board of director position to someone from its strategic investor,” she said. “Through this experience, I get to directly participate in the company’s management.”

She is working on enhancing the value of the Singapore-based electronics waste management solution provider TES Envirocorp, which SK Ecoplant took over in a $1 billion deal in February 2022. It specializes in recycling and disposing electronic components including electric vehicle batteries and data center equipment, operating 44 facilities in 22 countries.

Following successful investments into the two companies, big-name investors have been showing interest in holding talks with SK Ecoplant over making co-investments into those firms and other funds run by the Korean company. Some ten investors including Singapore's state investment firm Temasek, US investment giant BlackRock and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC have reached out to the firm in the last six months, according to Choi.

Nurturing and running green businesses cannot be done by a company alone, she said.

“Because green business is a relatively new sector and has to deal with different regulations in different countries, it’s not something a company or a nation can go alone.”

For that reason, SK Ecoplant created a fund that other investors can join to grow the pie. In this endeavor, Choi believes that her soft power qualities have helped in forging partnerships with investors and companies.

“Along with the integrity my company has about sustainable business, I think the soft power skills of female leadership has helped build rapport and trust with partners,” she said.

She said that her open and inclusive approach were also helpful in this regard.

“As many startups in the environment sector are in their early stages and not showing marketability in the short-term, you have to see them with an open mind to discover companies with potential,” she said.

Before joining SK Ecoplant in 2021, Choi worked in investment and finance sector including HSBC Bank and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.