It was 1987 when Lee took over the chairmanship of Samsung after his father's passing. When taking the job, he announced his vision of making Samsung a worldwide enterprise. No one thought this vision to be realistic at that time, especially coming from a young manager who just inherited his father's work, let alone in a mere developing country in the Far East.
To many people's surprise, Samsung under Lee's management accomplished remarkable feats. Sales went up by 34-fold, asset 70-fold, export 25-fold and market value 350-fold. Not to mention the value of Samsung brand is easily listed in the global top 10. Without doubt, people know he kept his words of making Samsung a global business, a household name not only in Korea but also around the world.
Such success could only be achieved through introduction and installation of an advanced management system Lee sought to adopt. His eagerness to bring about corporate culture of welcoming and appreciating challenges also contributed. Under Lee's leadership, Samsung grew not only externally but also internally, to become a true international enterprise.
He always feared Samsung losing out, demanding executives and employees be vigilant at all times, to push innovation forward. He was under pressure of keeping his promise to his company and employees of making Samsung the very best of the best. It was such a critical sense of danger that drove Samsung forward and kept himself and company in check of advancing in the right direction.
His appeal for innovation in June 1993, Frankfurt, had a huge ring: "Change everything except your wife and kids." Even to this day people remember the quote as a critical point in Samsung's drive for innovation and sense of danger.
He did not hesitate to use shock tactics for the benefit of the company. A good instance of Lee's progressive management style could be witnessed when he ordered burning of 150,000 defective cellphones. Changing working hours and lifestyle also became a means to persuade and induce responses within Samsung to be more desperate for innovation and change.
Success in the semiconductor and cellphone businesses required more than just hard work but precision and acute vigilance. Samsung's stance in the global electronics market could only be established through the level of awareness and desperation Lee sought to instill within Samsung.
Lee's acumen in business and management was highlighted upon his determination to buy Korea Semiconductor which was on the edge of bankruptcy. Nobody would have dared to jump into the semiconductor market which was already dominated by far-end Japanese companies.
Samsung's presence in the electronics market today was not easily imaginable upon its start. One Japanese corporate research institute even issued a report on "Why Samsung cannot pursue a business in semiconductor."
Lee's insight made the impossible possible. Far beyond the possible, actually, to the best indeed. People now all acknowledge Samsung as a household name in electronics. After establishing a ground in semiconductors, Lee shifted his interest to cellphones.
He foresaw the future of the cellphone industry in which each and every person would have a phone of their own. In August 1995, Samsung's cellphone brand Anycall dominated the cellphone market in Korea. Because of Samsung, Korea was the only country where Motorola could not reach the top position in the market.
It is undeniable that despite the successes and contributions Samsung and Lee made to the market and society, Samsung often came under criticism amid political disruptions. Now Samsung is under heavy political risk and scrutiny due to Lee's absence. Overwhelming political pressure is distracting Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong from fully concentrating on Samsung's business matters.
Truly it is a difficult and challenging time for Samsung with adverse circumstances. Room for innovation and change is little allowed, but the demands and interventions form politics are rampant. Greater leadership and insight are required to deal with this critical moment and threat. By overcoming the given obstacle Samsung should be able to prove the legacy Chairman Lee left behind ― that what he built can stand through the test and challenges of time.
Choi Sung-no is president of the Center for Free Enterprise.