Hoping for a second tete?a?tete
I had the opportunity to have a tete-a-tete with Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee. It was at a hotel in downtown Seoul on July 26, 1998. A meeting with government officials and heads of the country’s top five business conglomerates were arranged to finalize the so-called big deal, a merger or swap of businesses among chaebols, as a part of corporate restructuring in return for an international bailout following the financial crisis. Discussions were concentrated on easing superfluity and overlap in industrial capital. I had been a cub reporter on the business team. I had been snooping around the whole day near where the meeting was taking place. Then a windfall fell from the sky.
I do not remember exactly why. But tens of reporters that had been swarming around the conference room somehow ebbed and I was the only one there. The door suddenly opened and Lee stepped out of the room alone. I rushed toward him while trying my best to hide my excitement. I inquired how the meeting was going. Lee smiled and said it was going well. That was it. Leaving just one quote, he went back in. It was a godsend opportunity and I threw it away. I kicked myself for days. But later I learned that I had been lucky to enjoy even a “brief” vis-a-vis with him. I heard that Samsung executives dreaded sitting face to face with Lee. It was like being in a military training camp. He is known to be ruthlessly exacting in meetings.
He frequently called upon executives individually and in groups to his office and guest room in Hannam-dong. They needed a strong stomach to survive the meetings, which usually lasted three or four hours. It felt like being grilled in a prosecution probe or parliamentary questioning. Lee is said to surprise people with his up-to-date, in-depth and comprehensive knowledge and information. Executives must be prepared to answer unexpected questions and inquiries.
His way of thinking is as impressive as his style of running a meeting. His comment made in Frankfurt in 1993 was a wake-up call for not only Samsung employees but all Koreans. He ordered Samsung employees to change everything except for their wives and kids.
He was addressing Samsung, but the advice applied to Korea Inc. in general. Korean companies had been self-indulgent in expansion and industrialization pace and yet were without a single product they could be proud of on the global market. Lee also set the standard for recruitment with a single comment: “One genius can feed hundreds and thousands.”
A recent memorable quote was “We had multinational companies follow as our lighthouse. But now we are on our own in the vast sea.” He again hit the nail on its head in his diagnosis on the state of the Korean economy as well as Samsung. Korea has become too accustomed to chasing advanced companies, economies and roads already taken and has not endeavored to learn the skills of self-survival or attempted to carve out its own path. He was always visionary and radical. When faults were reported in wireless phones in 1994, he ordered 15 billion won worth of completed goods to be burnt and discarded. His demands for perfection put Samsung on today’s global rank.
Lee is now in the hospital. He has been hospitalized for a second time after he had a heart attack around this time last year. His condition has stabilized, but he has yet to regain consciousness. I want to believe that he is in a deep meditation trying to find a way to revive the lethargic economy. The Korean economy and corporations are in deep trouble. A visionary and reliable entrepreneur like him is needed more than ever. He epitomizes what has made Samsung today - passion, innovation, talent recruitment, world-class standards and a steady challenger to difficulties and crises.
If he gets on his feet again and I get a new opportunity for a vis-a-vis, I want to ask him how the Korean Inc. and economy can recover activity. His answer may be as brief as 17 years ago. “It won’t be easy. But it will.” I do not wish for a long lecture. If he recovers, I believe the Korean economy too can suddenly regain life.
He seems to possess such magical power, and the economy needs magic. At any rate, I sincerely wish him fast recovery.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 8, Page B8
*The author is the JoongAng Ilbo editor of industrial news.
by Pyo Jae-yong