“Samsung Rising: The Inside Story of the South Korean Giant That Set Out to Beat Apple and Conquer Tech” by Geoffrey Cain

Samsung Rising: The Inside Story of the South Korean Giant That Set Out to Beat Apple and Conquer Tech, Geoffrey Cain (Currency, March 2020) Samsung Rising: The Inside Story of the South Korean Giant That Set Out to Beat Apple and Conquer Tech, Geoffrey Cain (Currency, March 2020)

Although today Samsung stands astride the global consumer electronics markets, as well as some others, it was not all that long ago that the idea that a Korean company could deploy a brand with global reach and dominance would have seemed unlikely, except perhaps among regional experts (or partisans).

It’s not that Samsung, Korea’s largest chaebol hasn’t been written about before. Jaeyong Song and others The Samsung Way is six years old, Chunho Kim’s Samsung Media Empire and Family: A Power Web, is five years old, Sea-Jin Chang’s Sony vs Samsung—and my own, Samsung Electronics and the Struggle for Leadership of the Electronics Industry, are now a decade-old, a subject decidedly due for an upgrade in such a fast-moving industry. It’s time for a new corporate biography: Geoffrey Cain’s Samsung Rising is, like the others, unauthorized; it is the outsider’s perspective that shapes the view. Cain, as a journalist, spends as much on mistakes as achievements.

Cain opens his account of the rise of South Korea’s largest chaebol, with a long chapter one of the largest of these mistakes. This chapter, best called “Samsung stumbles”, but actually called “Galaxy Death Star”, covers the exploding Galaxy Note 7s of 2015. This moment at the end of the reign of Chairman Keun Hee Lee or Lee II shows the company in a relatively poor light compared  with the celebrated destruction of handphones at the Gumi plant by the Chairman to demand better quality at the beginning of the 1990s. The epilogue deals with the retrial of JY Lee (Lee III) over the bribery allegations surrounding the impeachment of President Park Keun-hye, the first instalment of which forms the final full chapter (29) “My kingdom for a horse”.

At the end of the book, will the reader understand how Samsung Electronics ticks, and how it became the world’s twelfth largest corporation (2018) and sixth most valuable brand (2019) or 30% of the market capitalization of the Korean Stock Market (2020)? Probably not, for much of the book is about Samsung’s or the Lee family’s stumbles, and of really important differences between smart Americans and stupidly bureaucratic Koreans. We are left struggling to understand how, between the mistakes, Samsung succeeded so brilliantly. As the chapter heading titles suggest, this book is about smartphones, and not the semiconductors and components on which Samsung’s profitability and competence mainly rests, and which it continued to supply to Apple in large quantities, even at the height of the rivalry between the two companies.

 

Cain is at his best when his interviews with Americans went well, as in “Cola Pepsi Redux” (Chapter 20) on how Samsung moved from its questionable brand status of techno-quality, but cold brand personality, which is where my book left off about 2009, to overtaking Apple’s iPhones, the creation of Next Big Thing adverts in 2012 and becoming totally cool. There are moments when Cain’s early interviews with Koreans were informative, and we get at least an insight into the Samsung corporate mind. But, as everyone knows, Samsung is an information fortress where little escapes of the internal workings, except complaints of frustrated highly- paid white collar workers.  Cain therefore relied on “over 400” unofficial interviews to build his account.

Notwithstanding the chronological vertigo from Cain’s jumps backwards and forwards during decades especially the crucial 1990s and 2000s, the book made me reconsider the character and achievements of Lee Keun-hee, described, here warts and all, reflecting on what I knew about Chairman Lee, and what my Korean friends had told me about him, and wanting to revisit those discussions of how the shy and retiring figure described by Cain could take Samsung from being a large, but mediocre, fast- follower to a world leader. I am left thinking that we should write less about the King and more about his followers, the senior management of Samsung who turned the hints and whims of the family into reality, but who also wrestled with one another.

While I am not particularly a fan of an introductory dramatis personae at the start of business books, I wish Samsung Rising had added more important figures to this list, and a few more sentences on each. My personal favorite, Vice Chairman Yun Jong-yong, voted the world’s No 2 most successful CEO by Harvard Business Review in 2009, who guided Samsung Electronics from 1999 to 2007 through the Sony challenge, gets only four mentions in the book, but he was the man who protected the first generation of Samsung USA executives that helped win the marketing side of the Sony Wars (told here in Chapter 14), while bringing up the engineering excellence through programmes like the Value Innovation Project. Yun was forced into retirement when Chairman Lee through the legal challenge of 2007-8, was no longer there to protect him, and Samsung floundered until the Apple Challenge was well established (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, Chapter 18).

The penultimate chapter, “Vulture Man” , departs from Samsung Electronics, the company at the center of the book, to look at Samsung C&T and its merger with Cheil in 2015, whichcontrols the half of the Samsung empire outside of electronics, and a core part of the Lee succession story, but gets hardly a mention in the book. This merger is still, in 2020, the matter of legal investigations, and a state vs investor case from Elliott Associates.

 

Anyone interested in Korea, or Samsung will want to read this book, because Cain kicks over so many piles of dirt, devoting a chapter, “The Emperor has no clothes”, to the allegations of Kim Yong-chul, a former Samsung lawyer who claimed that Samsung paid annual “donations” to almost everyone who was anybody in Korea in the 2000s.

They will also want to read and ponder the 90 pages of discursive footnotes with which Cain supports his 288 pages of text, and consider who out of the “over” 400 interviews left their mark. These form a mine for future researchers on the evolution of Samsung, and also a guide to what the author has left out in telling his story. The book is to be shelved as evidence supporting the legitimacy of title of Daniel Tudor’s Korea: The Impossible Country.


Tony Michell is a business consultant and visiting Professor at KDI School of Policy and Management in Korea and formerly taught Economic History in the UK.