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(News Focus) Lee leads Samsung's bold, nimble moves
SEOUL, March 23 (Yonhap) -- Lee Kun-hee's return to the chairmanship of Samsung Electronics Co. a year ago was a grim reminder to its employees and observers that the tech giant was faced again with a crisis though it was on track to post record earnings.

   Upon taking the helm at South Korea's most valuable company by market capitalization, Lee said, "Now is a real crisis. Global companies are collapsing. In the next decade, most of Samsung's main businesses and products will be gone."

   During the past one year at the top of Samsung Electronics, Lee has been widely credited with guiding the tech titan's stellar performance as well as its nimble and bold moves to invest trillions of won in new businesses and acquisitions.

   On Thursday, the 69-year-old reclusive leader marks the first anniversary of his return to the chairmanship of the company, the flagship of Samsung Group, South Korea's largest family-controlled conglomerate.

   Lee, South Korea's wealthiest man and a son of the Samsung Group founder, stepped down from management in mid-2008 after being indicted in a tax evasion and a breach of trust case.

   One month after Lee's return, Samsung Electronics announced that it would invest 23 trillion won (US$21 billion) over the next 10 years to seek and foster new business areas, including medical and health care.

   A week later, the world's top memory-chip manufacturer said it had earmarked 26 trillion won for its mainstay semiconductors and liquid crystal display (LCD) panels, its record spending in the areas.

   "Determining the size and the right timing for a big investment is most important in company management. The chairman is making these big decisions that professional managers cannot," Choi Gee-sung, vice chairman and chief executive officer at Samsung Electronics, said in September 2010.

   Samsung Electronics was aggressive in buying new companies and setting up new ventures in the past year. It announced plans to acquire a local medical firm for $300 million in December and to establish a biomedical joint venture with U.S. drugmaker Quintiles Transnational Corp. capitalized at $266 million.

Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. (Yonhap)

With Lee's return, his family tightened grip on Samsung Group and heralded the start of third-generation management at the conglomerate, which has about 60 affiliates under its wing and hires some 270,000 workers.

   In December, Lee's only son, Jae-yong, became a president of Samsung Electronics, where he also holds the chief operating officer position.

   Lee's eldest daughter, Boo-jin, was appointed chief executive officer and president of affiliate Hotel Shilla Co., and her younger sister, Seo-hyun, was promoted to vice president at another Samsung affiliate, Cheil Industries Inc.

   Market watchers said the coming years will be critical in proving their managerial acumen and capabilities.

   Even though Samsung Electronics just finished its best year with record revenues and profits in 2010, the sense of a crisis lingers among its employees.

   Recently asked about his first year of returning to the top post at Samsung Electronics, Lee continued his rhetoric of a crisis.

   "We have no time to think and should quickly put current undertakings back on track," Lee told reporters earlier this month. "We should make greater efforts to launch high-quality products globally and make them top-selling brands."

   The company frets about narrowing its gap with Apple Inc. in smartphones and tablet computers and building its computer and mobile software power.

   Having the U.S. maker of the iPhone and the iPad as its top client for its flagship semiconductor division, Samsung Electronics quietly bore the brunt of public derision made by Apple CEO Steve Jobs that it is a copycat making unpopular products.

   In the flat-screen TV area where Samsung Electronics retained a lead in the global market for five years, it has to fend off mounting competition from Chinese electronics makers while fueling a broader adoption of its latest item, smart TVs, which has made little splash in the consumer electronics market.

   "Some people say that we are constantly in crisis mode," one Samsung employee said recently. "We are, and we have to be. Even the comment that we are a fast follower (in the market) is taken as a pep talk to do better."