Setting a higher standard
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
South Korea has lost one of its most valuable entrepreneurs, Lee Kun-hee. Influential papers like the New York Times and Financial Times paid tribute to a pioneering entrepreneur who transformed a maker of cheap TVs and microwaves sold in discount stores to a global leader in electronics.
When he succeeded to the chair of Samsung Group in 1987, Samsung Electronics was an underdog posing little threat to Japanese brands like Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba and Hitachi that dominated the global electronics stage. Samsung products were regarded as second-rate that went straight to warehouses or discount stores.
That was 30 years ago. Few would have imagined that Samsung Electronics screens would be plastered over landmark buildings in cosmopolitan cities or that its phones would be found in the hands of people in every corner of the world. What came out of South Korea, whose ancestors mostly followed Chinese traditions and later Japanese ways during the colonial period, were cheap copycats. Everything made by Japan was coveted at the time. Even a pen made in Korea was not trusted.
Lee overcame the defeatism and inferiority complex we have in regards to Japan. While politicians were all talk in their anti-Japan campaigns, he proved how Korean smarts can truly prevail over Japan. Samsung Electronics beat one Japanese company after another. The once invincible Sony is no longer even considered a competitor. Panasonic tumbled out of the electronics big league long ago.
Samsung’s dramatic leap came from founder Lee Byung-chull’s bold entry to chipmaking in 1983. But the son was even more aggressive in risk-taking. Samsung Group’s combined revenue ballooned to 386 trillion won ($340 billion) from a modest 10 trillion won in 1987 when Lee first took the helm. The market cap of Samsung Group grew from 1 trillion won to nearly 400 trillion won. Lee achieved his promise to make Samsung a global brand in his mid-40s. Samsung Electronics reigns as the world’s No. 1 in memory chips, smartphones, monitors and TVs. Over 520,000 employees work under Samsung’s name around the world, compared with 100,000 three decades ago.
Lee surpasses Japan’s corporate legend Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic, in management. Matsushita’s book of quotes is a must-read for corporate leaders around the world. Lee’s memoir could be that someday. A poll showed 84.3 percent of Koreans believe Lee had contributed greatly to Korean society. Despite political cynicism toward the Lee family-owned chaebol, most people appreciate Lee’s legacy.
He spoke for the country better than career diplomats at times. He stressed that the people, government and corporate sector had to be one to build a country. He went many extra miles to pitch for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He is respected for his entrepreneurship and his persistent pursuit of better quality. He piled up 15 billion won worth of defective cellular phones and set them ablaze in 1995 before employees. The bonfire became a turning point for Samsung Electronics to become a trend-setter in innovation instead of a copycat.
His reform spirit should seep through our society. His cool judgment about Korean standards — “politics are fourth-rate, bureaucracy third-rate and corporations second-rate” — still stings. Koreans are unrivaled in perseverance and diligence. Despite their fast ascension in corporate and social standards, our politics remain primitive. Some sneer that our politicians are not even fourth-rate. They go on fighting for themselves. The people are on their own to uphold a national dignity hard won by contributors like Lee.