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'Samsung Rising': How a dried-fish shop became the face of Korea Inc.

New book shows productive clash between East and West but falls short on insider detail

Samsung has many faces. The enterprise that emerged from postwar obscurity to challenge Sony in making televisions and Apple in mobile phones. The chaebol, or family-run conglomerate, with companies that do everything from etching semiconductors to running an amusement park. The corporation with historic government ties, two of whose leaders have faced criminal charges. The global symbol of South Korea Inc.

One thing is plain in Geoffrey Cain's account of Samsung's rise from a vegetable and dried-fish shop called Samsung Sanghoe, opened by Lee Byung-chul (BC Lee) in 1938 in Daegu, the South Korean city recently hit by a coronavirus outbreak. Samsung is more than a company: It embodied and propelled the country's transformation from poverty into a global technology and design hub. Without Samsung, there would be no Korean Wave.

It did so in an extraordinary and relentless manner, as Cain makes clear. He describes it as having a "unique, almost military" management approach and compares its unrelenting energy and unforgiving view of failure with North Korea's paranoid style. It feels like a stretch until one reads of "Samsung Men" being flown around the world to be harangued for disappointing their leaders.

The cult of the leader, from BC Lee to his third son Lee Kun-hee ("Chairman Lee") to the latter's heir Lee Jae-yong (Jay Y. Lee), has always been intense. Cain recounts how one of his best South Korean sources, a former university friend of BC Lee, was thrown off a Samsung golf course mid-round when the latter died. Samsung means "three stars" and every employee has been guided by the patriarchal light.

This explains how it came to challenge Apple and Sony after BC Lee's farsighted gamble on opening a semiconductor plant in 1983 to supply U.S. and Japanese technology groups. Steve Jobs, Apple's founder, was an early visitor, and Lee found a fellow spirit in the youthful, iconoclastic entrepreneur, starting a profitable relationship between the companies until it exploded in 2011 when Apple sued Samsung for $2.5 billion for patent infringement.

But it fails to explain how Samsung managed to pivot from being a precision manufacturer into a consumer electronics giant, with the design freethinking and marketing flair this required. That transformation is the heart of Cain's story, and he narrates vividly how Samsung recruited, yet struggled to work smoothly, with U.S. executives who knew how to compete with Apple not only with technology but intangibly.

The strategy was set by Lee Kun-hee on the advice of Tameo Fukuda, a Japanese designer. It kicked off with Lee's epic "Frankfurt declaration" on the fringes of the city's auto show in 1993, followed by a demonstrative bonfire of low-quality Samsung phones. He enlisted his niece Miky Lee (Lee Mie-kyung) to form links with Hollywood, but she later separated to become a film producer -- including of "Parasite," winner of this year's Best Picture Oscar.

Cain is on solid ground telling the story of the productive culture clash between East and West, which culminated in Samsung launching the Galaxy phone and setting itself up in a "Coke versus Pepsi" style battle with Apple. He had deep access to figures such as Gordon Bruce, a West Coast designer who added California style and swagger to Samsung's disciplined engineering culture.

The book's weakness is that Cain does not get as deeply inside the black box at the heart of Samsung -- the Lee family and its web of connections with the government. South Korea's chaebol, as he notes, most closely resemble Japan's zaibatsu, the giant industrial groups broken up by the U.S. in its postwar reconstruction on the grounds that they were too powerful.

It was not for want of trying. Cain is a foreign correspondent who has lived in South Korea and covered Asian technology for publications including Time, and he dug as hard as he could. But Samsung did not cooperate and penetrating the inner sanctums of the government, against the background of Jay Y. Lee being jailed for corruption in a scandal that brought down the former president, Park Geun-hye, was impossible.

So, this cannot help ending up as a Western account of an Eastern phenomenon, although -- as often with books about the rise and fall of great companies -- it is highly illuminating on history. When these scandals fade, the Lee family's achievement in creating South Korea's paramount company will remain. It turned Made in Korea from a symbol of low quality into something fearsome.

Globalization and the rise of China pose a fresh challenge, which is little touched upon in this book. Just like Samsung passed Sony in making liquid crystal display televisions, so it faces the inexorable, equally relentless, efforts of Chinese companies to do what it did to Apple and others. They have seen how a component maker became a brand and are taking the same path.

"Samsung treats you the best. Thus, you are the best," was one of the company's early slogans to its management cadre. The worry for Samsung is that many Chinese companies will advance as fast as it did, turning in 45 years from vegetable store to semiconductor maker. If discipline, political connections and fierce self-confidence are enough to shake the world of technology, they will rise too.

"Samsung Rising: Inside the Secretive Company Conquering Tech," by Geoffrey Cain, Currency, 416 pages, $29

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