Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee died at the age of 78. It is obvious that he made great contributions to the growth of Samsung as one of the global top-tier businesses in the 21st century after his father Lee Byung-chull, the founder of Samsung Group, made it become the ruler in the nation’s business ecosystem. In this light, it is a huge loss not only for the South Korean conglomerate but also for the national economy as a whole to suffer the death of a businessman with world-class leadership skills, who will be remembered forever in the South Korean business arena and beyond.
Chairman Lee grew to be one of the world’s greatest business leaders after taking the helm of Samsung Group in 1987. Amazingly, it coincides with the period during which South Korea supported by an array of domestic businesses rose to the top of the global market from the periphery of the mainstream economy led by the United States and Japan. For instance, while Chairman Lee was in charge, the country became the global No. 1 in the semiconductor industry for which his father laid the foundation.
The so-called Frankfurt Declaration in 1993 set a milestone on Samsung’s path to becoming the global top-tier business. “Change everything except your wife and children.” His remarks intended to call on the business to reinvent itself by shifting its focus from quantity to quality when it comes to perspective, nature, habits and systems. The basic principle of his leadership is highly acclaimed to have greatly contributed to taking South Korean corporate culture to the next level while spreading across the rest of the nation’s corporate arena.
Thanks to such a novel way of corporate management, Samsung Electronics’ operating earnings in 2018 doubled the aggregation of those by Japan’s top 10 electronics makers including Sony and Panasonic. As of last year, Samsung Electronics recorded 230.4 trillion won in sales and 27.76 trillion won in operating earnings, three times higher than those of Sony. According to the “Global Top 100 brands” issued by a global brand consultancy firm, Samsung Electronics ranked fifth to stand shoulder to shoulder with Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Domestically, Samsung Group under Chairman Lee’s leadership has created numerous jobs, paid a great deal of taxes faithfully and built an ecosystem in cooperation with suppliers and subcontractors. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine what the South Korean economy would be like without Samsung in the picture.
Chairman Lee said in 1995 on a public occasion, “South Korean businesses are second-rate. The nation’s administrative capabilities are third-rate. Its politics is only fourth-rate.” Even now, 25 years later, his lesson still gives us food for thought. While South Korean businesses with Samsung in the lead have grown to be top-tier players from being in the second tier, politics has regressed disgracefully and administrators have only been walking on eggshells around political leaders.
Samsung and the national economy are faced with serious challenges at home and abroad. While Chinese competitors are chasing right after them in the rising waves of protectionism, politicians are hell-bent on instigating anti-corporate sentiment across the nation with tight regulations being a hurdle to corporate management. Heads of businesses, who are supposed to be in the cockpit to lead their crew members, are summoned to the prosecution and court too often with their time and energy going down the drain.
Every time Chairman Lee was given a chance to speak in front of the group, he declared a state of emergency and called on it not to sit on its laurels but to innovate constantly. Things have never been easy on South Korean businesses. Risks and challenges have always been in their way. However, now is the moment that the nation hopes to see the next Lee Kun-hee.