Remembering Lee’s message
Thirty years back, only dust was piling up on Samsung Electronics’ products displayed on the shelves of department stores across the world. The late comer to the electronics industry has since become a household name in home appliances, semiconductors and other hi-tech fields. The dramatic transformation of Samsung owes a great deal to the late Chairman Lee Kun-hee, who passed away Sunday at age 78.
An icon of challenge and innovation, Lee changed Samsung in a revolutionary way, as epitomized by his famous declaration in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1993. “Change everything except your wife and children,” he declared. To achieve the amazing shift, he stressed “creative management” based on quality human resources. After grasping the importance of soft power, Lee accentuated the significance of software and design to Samsung employees, as evidenced by former and current Samsung executives’ recollection that the chairman was always at the center of innovation and change.
Lee overcame external changes and pressures through that spirit. Amid a colossal crisis from the Covid-19 pandemic, Korea Inc.’s woes are ever deepening in the face of China’s rapid rise in semiconductors and a lack of competitiveness with Japan’s material, parts and equipment sectors. The situation has dealt a critical blow to the export-driven Korean economy particularly after a second wave of Covid-19 cases in the United States and Europe.
Domestically, Korean companies have a hard time coping with the government’s stifling regulations on business activities through the revision of the Commercial Act, Fair Trade Act and Labor Act. But the government is still reluctant to grant more labor flexibility in defiance of global standards.
But Lee did not passively wait for the government to lift regulations on the corporate sector. When the Lee Myung-bak administration threatened to consider allowing government-controlled funds to aggressively exercise their voting rights as major shareholders in large companies, Lee Kun-hee welcomed it — a demonstration of entrepreneurship in contrast with other corporate leaders.
Samsung also faces a new type of crisis from China’s remarkable ascension in the semiconductor market. Amid uncertainties over Samsung’s next target for investment and growing public expectations for the role of the giant, the tech leviathan needs answers to the challenge. In Lee’s address to mark the 20th anniversary in 2013 of his New Management for Samsung, he proposed to tackle any challenges with innovation and creative management — an indispensable piece of advice that all Korean entrepreneurs must learn from the late chairman. Rest in peace.