samsung history

Inside Samsung’s uncertain future

With the death of its chairman and with his successor on trial for bribery and fraud, where does the South Korean technology behemoth go next?

By the late 1980s, Samsung had been a company for over fifty years. And things were getting stale. The story goes that after he took over as chairman in 1987, Lee Kun-hee, the third son of the company’s founder, gathered together his employees told them “Let’s change everything except our wives and kids”, then led the company in a mass bonfire of 150,000 mobile phone handsets.

As a statement of intent, it’s a pretty good metaphor for Lee’s desire to cast out the old way of doing things and start afresh. As a story, well, it might have picked up some embellishment along the way.

But then, we are talking about the man dubbed “the hermit king” of South Korea’s chaebols. A man twice convicted of crimes, including bribing a sitting president. A man who later received a presidential pardon (from another president) and went on to lead his country’s successful Olympic bid.

Also a man who was named the 35th most powerful man in the world by Forbes in 2014 and the most powerful Korean. A man who turned his father’s legacy into South Korea’s most successful conglomerate, and set the foundations for Samsung to post a Q3 2020 revenue of $59 billion – the company’s highest ever revenue figure.

A man who passed away on the 25th of October 2020, leaving Samsung in the uncertain hands of his son, Lee Jae-yong. A man with an even more storied career than his father.

lee kun-hee samsung
Lee Kun-hee (right)

But, to understand where Samsung is going, it’s important to see where it came from.

In 1938, aged 28, Lee Byung-chul left his landowning family behind in Uiryeong county and moved to the nearby city of Daegu. There, he founded Samsung Sanghoe, a small trading company with 40 employees selling dried fish, noodles and other groceries.

The company slowly grew until the Korean War of 1950 – ’53 forced an interlude. During the war Lee started a sugar refinery. After the war he started a woollen mill. The period inspired him to diversify Samsung’s focus, and the company rapidly expanded into insurance and retail.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s, however, that Lee – an avid art collector – pushed Samsung into electronics, starting with a black and white TV set. Further expansions into telephone and fax machine manufacturing laid the groundwork for the companies mobile phone production – to date the company has produced over 800 million handsets.

As mentioned, Lee Kun-hee entered the picture in 1987, taking over as chairman after his father’s death. The period saw the company invest heavily in research and development, opening plants across the globe to help it become a global power. Today, it’s $4 billion Austin, Texas facility remains the largest foreign investment in Texas and one of the largest in the entire US.

The dot-com bubble saw the company’s fortunes increase exponentially and by 2012 it had become the largest mobile phone producer in the world, overtaking Nokia.

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