Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Less than two weeks after the godfather of Taiwan's chip industry announced his departure, Morris Chang's South Korean nemesis has decided to join him at the retirement club.

Kwon Oh-hyun, a 32-year veteran of Samsung Electronics Co., will quit as CEO, head of its device solutions business and as a board member, the company said in a statement Friday, citing "an emotional letter sent to all employees."

It is something I had been thinking long and hard about for quite some time. It has not been an easy decision, but I feel I can no longer put it off...  As we are confronted with unprecedented crisis inside out, I believe that time has now come for the company start anew

I'll confess to being surprised. Less than two months ago I named Kwon as the best possible leader for a company beset by a scandal that ended with the Samsung heir, Jay Y. Lee, being sent to prison. His decision to step down doesn't alter my conviction.

While Kwon is one of three co-CEOs, his most important role has been to lead Samsung's biggest earnings generator, with chips accounting for 46.5 percent of operating profit last year. After a period of instability, that division just posted a fourth consecutive year of earnings growth.

Profitable
After an unstable period, Samsung's chip business posted four consecutive years of operating income growth
Source: Bloomberg

Kwon is a rather low-key leader compared with Yoon Boo-keun, chief of the consumer electronics business, and Shin Jong-kyun, who heads smartphones. It could be that Lee's incarceration, and the resulting havoc, spurred Kwon to bow out before anyone taps him for the leadership spotlight. His letter has hints of that.

It may be mere coincidence, but it's interesting that his retirement follows so closely on the heels of Chang's decision to step down from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. next year. (Kwon's announcement also came on the day of Samsung's September quarter preliminary earnings release.)

Chang and Kwon have been rivals the likes of which the chip industry hasn't seen in a decade. They've duked it out over technology, capacity, customers and even staff. Their battles have played out in the market, the media and the courts.

Samsung's entry into the custom chip foundry business gave TSMC its toughest competition in more than a decade, and arguably forced the Taiwanese leader to lift its game. 

Growth Trajectory
Samsung and TSMC have enjoyed solid growth over the past 15 years
Source: Bloomberg
Note: Samsung chip revenue also includes memory, which accounts for around 74% of the unit's sales.

In the past 15 years, Samsung's semiconductor unit -- which includes memory, logic chips and foundry business -- has grown sixfold to $44 billion in annual revenue. TSMC sales climbed almost eight times over the same period to $29 billion (a direct comparison isn't fair as the Taiwanese company doesn't make memory chips).

In announcing his departure, Chang named his successors: Mark Li as chairman and C.C. Wei as CEO. Kwon hasn't done that yet, so we wait to see who will be tasked with steering such an important part of Samsung.

Once a new leader is in place the chip business can move past the distraction of the Samsung scandal to resume one of the industry's greatest grudge matches. Game on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net