Lee Kun-hee vs. Steve Jobs
By Oh Young-jin
Assistant Managing Editor
Steve Jobs is everywhere.
The American information technology hero has given the world iPods and iPhones. Before that, the 55-year-old born to a Syrian-born father and adopted by American parents was one of the pioneers opening up the age of personal computing in the 1970s.
Not just an impressive display of icons greet users when turning on Apple's i-fancy gadget (a half million iPhones have been sold in Korea since its debut four months ago) but the unlimited number of potential applications that they promise is nothing less than a triumph of human ingenuity.
Jobs' presence is made more conspicuous by the semi-retirement of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, who is now a corporate philanthropist. His absence is turning his innovation-oriented firm into one with the mentality of the smokestack industry under the helm of Steve Ballmer.
Google, highly touted as the new leader in the IT industry, lacks the personal magic of Jobs.
The question now moves to Korea, often dubbed ``the world's wired country.'' Do we have a Steve Jobs among us?
We used to have some wannabes. Seven former Samsung employees, who founded i-River MP3 players in 1999, were on their way to beating Jobs to become the world's premier personal entertainment gadget maker but their reign was crushed by the introduction of the now primitive looking original iPod.
Ahn Cheol-soo, a Seoul National University medical school graduate, was destined to make it big in the area of online security but fell short. The 48-year-old is still the chairman of his anti-virus software firm, Ahnlab, but apparently has lost his zeal for long hours spent in front of computers. He now teaches at the premier KAIST science college and sits on the board of a big firm.
Are we, then, cursed by fate by which we will never have somebody like Jobs?
Maybe, but perhaps we just don't want to recognize them, partially through our own fault and partially through that of those who have talent.
Off the cuff, I think that Lee Kun-hee is one candidate we can turn into a Jobs in Korea.
The two are as similar as they are different.
Before he became an innovator, Jobs spent days searching for his purpose in life, sometimes trying LSD and visiting India for enlightenment as others of his generation would do. He is a Buddhist. Later in his business life, he faced criticism for being an erratic, egocentric manager and was toppled from Apple in a boardroom rebellion by John Scully, a man he scouted from Pepsi, asking him whether or not he wanted to spend the rest of his life ``selling sugar water or change the world.''
His triumphal moment came when he made a comeback as a white knight to reclaim his old company after his Pixar success. Now, Jobs' annual salary is set at a symbolic one dollar (Don't worry, he has plenty of stocks).
Lee was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, his father being the late Lee Byung-chull, one of Korea's first-generation business tycoons. He was not the first son but the third, implying that his succession was an aberration from Korea's primogeniture tradition. According to many accounts, his succession involved a complicated power struggle. Lee's early life is often described as a constant battle by a precocious adolescent to grapple with life.
The two also struggled with illness ― Lee with cancer and Jobs with liver problems.
Basically, Jobs is an entertainer, while Lee is a recluse.
Jobs loves the stage with his attire of black turtlenecks and a snug pair of jeans at the Macworld Conference being as much of his trademark as the iPhone. He talks at length but his audience rarely gets bored. Gates, the tech geek, has a lot to learn from Jobs on this.
Lee is a strategic corporate leader, who shies away from attention and often looks fidgety when in public. But his critical mind is a proven quality. First, he played a key role in changing his corporate portfolio from consumer goods to semiconductors. Samsung's consumer businesses have now been spun off into CJ and Shinsegae Group.
Once, he challenged his executives to change everything except ``your wives.''
Most recently, after he came back from an 11-month forced retirement due to legal troubles over slush funds, he said that Korea still has a lot more to learn from Japan during his meeting with Japanese business leaders.
It is an open question how much of his public appearance was stage-managed but his reference to Japan came at a time when Toyota, the leader of Japan Inc., is in deep trouble and ahead of the announcement of stellar performances by Samsung Electronics. Of course, its bottom line, in a broad stroke, didn't show what everybody knows ― the iPhone shock that has strained Samsung's smartphone sales.
But simply put, his message seems intended not just to publicize his comeback but as a warning that his employees should not be conceited and they should brace for the serious challenges to come.
He also talked in public about the ill preparedness of his children to take over from him. However cloistered a life he may have led, this observation also reflects the prevailing public sentiment and his meritocratic sensibility. In other words, Jae-yong may be an heir apparent but he has to prove his right to inherit.
By now, some readers may think that this piece is a suck-up, feel-good article but it is not.
The reasons for this disclaimer are identical to those that Korea should overcome to move up in the global pecking order in terms of industrial power and political leadership.
First, Samsung is a typical family-oriented conglomerate or chaebol whose rise has pushed Korea Inc. forward since its early industrialization period. Thus, opening up any chaebol's closet is bound to turn up some unsavory secrets. Any illegalities should be dealt with legally and the government has a key role to play as a watchdog. The government has not played that role well, with the cases of politico-business collusion being plentiful. Now, it takes the two ― chaebol and the government ― as well as non-governmental organizations to clean up the mess, if there is any left.
It is a matter of course that Samsung has a lot to do to raise its standards higher. Any wrongdoing found in the process should be ferreted out and any wrongdoers be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Having said that, we Koreans (not all, but myself included) should no longer cast a suspicious eye on those who are rich. Certainly we have reason to do so but it is time to give that habit up and respect them for their toil in the process of obtaining wealth.
I think that this is a psychological barrier we Koreans should overcome before becoming an advanced country in its truest meaning. It is time to empower ourselves as a stakeholder in Samsung and other big businesses, not just as a critic.
Logic goes that if those big businesses earn more, there will be more tax to levy, more jobs to go around and better incomes to earn. So let's make them work harder by giving an encouraging pat on the back. Only when we can do that, will we be able to have Jobs to show the world. In other words, Lee can't make himself into a Jobs but it is we that can turn him into one or better.