Samsung is having a moment. It’s dominant in TVs and sells a lot of washing machines, but it’s smartphones that made Samsung as recognizable a presence around the world as Walt Disney and Toyota Motor. If Samsung isn’t yet as lustrous a brand as Apple, it’s finding success as the anti-Apple—Galaxy smartphones outsell iPhones. And Samsung is probably the only other company that can throw a product introduction and have people line up around a city block, as they did in New York City on March 14 for the launch of the Galaxy S 4. That never used to happen when Samsung unveiled a refrigerator—although the kimchi-specific models made for the Korean market are really quite impressive.
Lee’s father, Lee Byung Chull, founded Samsung in 1938. The name means “three stars,” which was the company’s logo for decades. Lee took over as chairman following his father’s death in 1987. (Lee Kun Hee’s son, Lee Jae Yong, is vice chairman and heir apparent.) The company immediately prospered under Lee Kun Hee’s leadership. “Between 1988 and 1993, the company had grown two and a half times,” says Shin Tae Gyun, Samsung’s president of the Human Resources Development Center, “so executives thought things were working.” Lee, however, didn’t just want Samsung to be a successful Korean company. He wanted it to be a world player, something on the level of General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and IBM. He even set a deadline: the year 2000. “2000 was not that far away,” says Shin. “At that growth rate, could we become a world-class company in time? The answer was no.”
The first thing you notice about Gumi is the K-pop. Korean pop music seems to be everywhere outside, usually coming from outdoor speakers disguised as rocks. The music has an easy, mid-tempo style, as if you were listening to a mellow Swing Out Sister track in 1988. The music, a Samsung spokeswoman explains, is selected by a team of psychologists to help reduce stress among employees.
Besides the Great Phone Incineration of 1995, two other signal acts helped propel Samsung’s rise in smartphones. The first was in 2009, when it bet big on Android, Google’s operating system for mobile. Samsung’s first Android device was called the Galaxy. “We were not successful with our first Android phone,” says DJ Lee. “The app store was limited.” Android was still in its infancy, greatly outclassed by the iPhone’s operating system, iOS. But Android was open-source, which meant that it was available free of charge to any manufacturer that wanted it.
For the Galaxy S 4 unveiling in mid-March, Samsung rented Radio City Music Hall on a Thursday night. TV trucks were parked outside, and lines of people snaked around the block. The lobby was packed. As a point of comparison, a Motorola event in New York six months earlier was held in a party space that had sold its naming rights to Haier, the Chinese appliance company. Nokia’s event the same day was nearby at a low-profile, generic event facility.