SEOUL: Military-style management and an unquestioning reverence for the founding Lee family have fueled Samsung’s transition from the world’s most ridiculed phonemaker to its biggest, says the author of a new book.
Today Samsung — by far South Korea’s most powerful conglomerate with more than 50 affiliates from electronics and insurance to hotels and apartments — is a larger smartphone manufacturer than Apple, and at the same time a key supplier to its great rival.
The group’s overall turnover is equivalent to a fifth of the GDP of the world’s 12th-largest economy, where citizens sometimes refer to their country as the “Republic of Samsung.”
It is a remarkable transformation from only a few years ago when Western consumers mocked it for its unreliable products.
At first fascinated by the firm, author Geoffrey Cain said: “As I got deeper, I felt like I was going down the rabbit hole.”
Its rise was tainted with corruption, he writes in “Samsung Rising,” a rare English-language detailing of the highly secretive and opaque empire, published last week in the US.
Cain interviewed around 400 people, including current and former Samsung employees, executives and politicians, he said, but many refused to be named or go on the record.
Founder Lee Byung-chul started Samsung — the name means “Three Stars” — as a vegetable and dried fish shop in 1938 and after the Korean War expanded into sugar, finance, chemicals, electronics and more.
Lee saw Samsung as more than a business, identified with the war-ravaged nation itself, and it played a key part in South Korea’s rise to become Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.
He forged close relations with military dictator Park Chung-hee, and married off his sons to daughters of governors and ministers, sealing enduring connections with political power.
Cain zeroes in on the firm’s long-running relationship with Apple, which began when a youthful Steve Jobs met Lee Byung-chul in 1983 as he sought parts to build a tablet computer — 27 years before releasing the iPad.