South Africa

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Sung Yoon, Samsung’s former powerhouse in Africa, believes Korea can help solve SA’s energy crisis

Sung Yoon, Samsung’s former powerhouse in Africa, believes Korea can help solve SA’s energy crisis
Business Maverick associate editor Neesa Moodley and former CEO of Samsung Africa and author Sung Yoon. (Photos: Supplied)

The former CEO of Samsung Electronics Africa, Sung Yoon, speaks about how an unexpected hike up Mount Kilimanjaro translated into a business and life philosophy.

Sung Yoon, the former Samsung Electronics Africa CEO, spoke to Daily Maverick’s Neesa Moodley recently about his new book, The Samsung Man’s Path to Success. In the book, Yoon details his 32 years with Samsung and its growth from a small Korean electronics brand to a global giant. 

Yoon was a humanities major growing up in the Republic of Korea and landed his first job with Samsung Electronics in 1989. He moved between South Korea and Samsung Electronics America from 2000 to 2017, with three long-term stints in the US. In 2017, he was named CEO and President of Samsung Electronics Africa. 

He served in the position for three years before retiring in 2020. He remained an advisor for the company for two years and currently serves as a board member of Telkom Telecommunications.

In 1993, Samsung struggled to captivate audiences and was, as Yoon puts it, “a mediocre brand”. A switch in company philosophy helped spark exponential growth: Quality over quantity. Two particular instances of massive loss proved that Samsung cared for the customer.

“In 1999, [the Chairman] collected 150,000 brand-new phones, brought them to the factory, and smashed and burnt them because they had a 10% defective rate. That was about $15-million,” explained Yoon. 

In 2003, when about 10 IBM monitors distributed by Samsung were caught with a defect, the brand again took quick action. 

“The decision was made to replace $30-million of monitors before it gets defective. I was shocked … that’s almost $300-million now.” 

“All the financial challenges were recovered in two years. Getting trust from the customer is the key to winning the race.”

The message from Yoon was consistent throughout the webinar; face challenges head-on. This philosophy was on full display when Yoon signed up, unwittingly, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro five years ago as part of a Trek4Mandela event targeted at CEOs. Yoon, 56 years old at the time, did not realise he had signed up to hike close to 6,000 metres. But he did not turn back.

“I am a man of my word. People compare climbing a mountain to your life, and I can say, to climb the highest peak we must go together with people. One man only cannot make it at all. We need a good guide and work together.”

Communication is key to success for Yoon. His belief in a “town hall meeting” workplace structure was a signature of his leadership style. A town hall meeting is the idea of an entire company meeting, from the CEO to an entry-level position, to communicate company earnings and strategy. When Yoon was first introduced as the CEO of Samsung Africa, he found that those in lower-level positions had no idea of his hiring. So, he took a page out of the playbook of Samsung America.

“I decided to call a meeting and hold a Q&A and said I am the new CEO. One lady raised her hand and asked if I could get a toilet fixed. Everyone laughed, but I liked it because it was what people cared about. It loosened up the meeting and I answered sincerely. People asked to do it every month and so every month we held a town hall meeting.”

Today, Yoon is an avid boxer, lecturer and Telkom board member. His hope is to connect the strengths of South Korean electrical technology to help reduce load shedding in South Africa. 

“Some Korean companies, such as Samsung, are number one or two in the battery industry. South Africa is number two or three in need of renewable energy. So, between that, we can find a solution using some technology in South Korea to help with load shedding in South Africa.”

Whether from his time spent working in Johannesburg or his admiration for the Springboks, Yoon feels a strong connection to South Africa. BM

Buy The Samsung Man’s Path to Success in the Daily Maverick shop.

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