[Viewpoint] Samsung’s weak eye for talent

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[Viewpoint] Samsung’s weak eye for talent

Lee Byung-chull, the late founder of Samsung Group, was known to have a special eye for finding talent. When Lee was in his 70s, he met Softbank CEO Son Jung-ui, or Masayoshi Son, who was a young Korean-Japanese student in his 20s studying at the University of California, Berkeley.

Lee instructed his son-in-law, Chung Jae-eun, who was CEO of Samsung Electronics at the time, to see how Son could benefit Samsung. Chung said he met with Son but didn’t get any special feelings from him.

After Son emerged as a remarkable leader in the Internet industry, Chung realized how gifted Lee was in spotting talent.

The special tie between Samsung and Son has continued. Son sometimes plays golf with Jay Y. Lee, the current president of Samsung Electronics and grandson of founder Lee, and shares his wisdom in business management.

It appears that the DNA for finding talent has been passed down in the Samsung family. At a recent advanced technology exhibition, Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee stressed the importance of finding and hiring the “super talented genius.”

Samsung reportedly sends its private jet to recruit the super talented. Perhaps its thirst for talented workers grew fiercer after the success of Steve Jobs’ Apple.

But is Samsung really going after the super talented?

That is somewhat questionable after I read “In the Plex,” a recent best seller in the United States.

The book features the success of Google and a 2004 visit by Andy Rubin, the father of Android, to Samsung. Android is one of the two largest smartphone operating systems in the global market, and Rubin is as much of a genius as Jobs.

According to the book, Rubin spent his own money to buy a plane ticket and visited Samsung Electronics to sell his newly produced Android. He recalled the visit very vividly. Dressed in a pair of jeans, Rubin and his coworker entered an enormous conference room, where about 20 executives in navy blue suits stood along the walls.

Rubin recalled that when the division head of Samsung entered the meeting, all the executives then sat down. It appears that Korea’s peculiar corporate culture made a deep impression on Rubin.

After Rubin gave his presentation, the Samsung Electronics division head gave a big laugh.

“Your company has eight workers. We have 2,000 working in that particular field,” Rubin recalled him as saying.

It was not a compliment. Before Samsung asked about Android’s price tag, negotiations broke down.

One year later, Google took over Android at a price of $50 million. It was such a small amount of money for Google, especially considering it spent $1.65 billion to acquire YouTube.

Of course, Samsung will give every excuse it can make. Rubin was a venture developer who proposed giving a free operating system, and his proposal was three years before a smartphone was even produced. Perhaps it was a generous move for the Samsung Electronics division head to meet the kid from Silicon Valley who had only eight workers.

It is also worth wondering whether Android would still have been such a global hit under Samsung.

But it is undeniable that Google made a bold investment for the future, while Samsung simply kicked away a precious business opportunity. It is too late to regret. The eye for finding talent has made the difference between the two companies’ fates.

Today, Google’s Android swings Samsung’s fate. Whenever Samsung Electronics produces a new Galaxy phone model, Rubin gives a pat on its back.

Apple’s heart and head is Jobs. After his return, Apple’s share price increased by a multiple of 70 over 14 years. Apple once passed Exxon Mobil as the world’s most valuable company. The miracle of one genius is unfolding in front of our eyes.

Samsung’s slogan used to be “talent first” and it is now refined as “one genius feeds 100,000.”

But the case of Son and Rubin makes us wonder if Samsung’s eye for finding talent has improved over the past 30 years. Maybe the company’s desire to find talent has gone up, but its antennas might have gotten damaged.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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