ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintTitle ChevronIcon Twitter

Samsung's Lee Kun-hee: 'One genius can feed 100,000 people'

Late chairman warned of lax quality and in-house conceit in creating global giant

Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee at the groundbreaking ceremony of a new semiconductor plant in Hwaseong, South Korea, in 2010. Lee said, "Existing businesses will disappear within 10 years" as he warned against in-house conceit.

SEOUL -- Lee Kun-hee, the charismatic leader of South Korea's biggest conglomerate Samsung who died on Sunday, occasionally resorted to strong and memorable words in displaying the leadership that propelled the group into a global giant.

Here are some of Lee 's most well-known sayings.

"Change everything but your wife and children."

Lee took over the group's reins as chairman of Samsung Electronics in 1987 and kept feeling impatient and frustrated due to continuously lax quality control at the company. Gathering his executives in Frankfurt, Germany in 1993 to point out the limits of the electronics maker's business model of pursuing quantity over quality. "Change everything," he said in urging drastic reforms, excluding only the closest of family.

Stressing the importance of quality, Lee also said that inferiority in it "is a cancer that spreads across the entire body and becomes fatal in three to five years unless it is removed at an early stage." He went as far as to say, "Quantity can be sacrificed for the sake of quality."

Urging all employees across the world to recognize the importance of quality, Lee led Samsung to become a global brand.

"Creativity in the field of software will hold the key to competition in the 21st century."

Samsung surpassed Japanese companies in the market for memory chips and came to the fore as a maker of electronic devices in the mid-1990s. "Intellectual assets will determine the value of companies in the 21st century," Lee said. "An age will come when companies will sell philosophy and culture rather than products."

Lee thus shifted the business priority of Samsung to technological patents and designs. Boosting investment in research and development programs, the strategic shift paved the way for Samsung to become the world's biggest manufacturer of TVs, mobile phones, smartphones and other cutting-edge products.

"One genius can feed 100,000 people."

Lee made the remark when he talked with South Korean media in 2003. He was not an advocate of elitism although he valued people capable of achieving groundbreaking technological innovations and inventions. To find "geniuses" from a wide range of people, Lee firmly established a merit-based personnel system in place of seniority-based management.

"South Korea is a more male-centered society than other countries and is like a bicycle without one wheel. Human resources are being wasted," Lee said. In a rare move in South Korea, he pushed ahead with the promotion of women.

"Leading businesses and products at present will disappear within 10 years."

Lee made the prediction when he returned to Samsung's management in 2010 after a brief period of absence due to convictions for tax evasion and breach of trust for which he received a presidential amnesty. He continued warning against in-house conceit at Samsung as it strode the world as the biggest manufacturer of TVs, memory chips and other electronic devices.

At that time, Lee mentioned biological medicine, photovoltaic cells, electric vehicle batteries, light-emitting diodes and medical equipment as Samsung's next-generation core businesses. Samsung has flourished in the bio-pharmaceutical business with its subsidiary Samsung Biologics ranking fifth in market capitalization in South Korea. 

"We still learn from Japanese companies."

"There are many areas where South Korean and Japanese companies cooperate with each other," Lee said when he met Japanese business leaders in 2010.

Lee, like his father, studied business administration at Waseda University in Tokyo. He inherited the elder Lee's management philosophy of "leaning from Japan" and frequently visited the country every year to deepen his relations with local business leaders. The pursuit of strong ties with Japan has been continued by his oldest son Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics.


On Monday, Shares of Samsung C&T rose sharply on the expectation that the de facto holding company of Samsung Group will play a key role in the post-Lee era succession process. C&T shares jumped 13.5% in the day.

President Moon Jae-in on Sunday sent his chief of staff, Noh Young-min, to pay respects to the Lee family.

"The late Chairman Lee Kun-hee made semiconductors South Korea's top industry with innovative leadership," Moon said. "He also played the role of locomotive in leading the country's economy."

Leaders from the corporate sector also sent messages to the Lee family. Federation of Korean Industries Chairman Huh Chang-soo called Lee a perfectionist who did not compromise in product quality.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends January 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more