NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Samsung just may be the best tech company that you don't know much about.
The big Korean electronics firm has a fairly recognizable brand name in the United States with its TVs and DVD players. And it recently generated buzz by announcing it would sell a digital music player with the Napster name on it.
But Samsung is much more than a Sony clone. Consumer electronics is a low margin business that makes up a small portion of its overall sales.
The company's strength in its two biggest businesses, semiconductors and cell phones, are what investors need to focus on since it could create headaches for the likes of Motorola and Nokia as well as chip firms like Intel, Micron Technology and Infineon Technologies.
(Buying shares in Samsung would create headaches of its own since there are no ADRs -- shares trade only in Korea and on some European exchanges.)
Gaining ground in cell phones
Samsung has, in the space of just a few years, catapulted itself into the ranks of the top three in the worldwide cell phone market. It has 11.5 percent market share, behind Motorola (MOT: Research, Estimates) and Nokia (NOK: Research, Estimates).
|Division ||% of total sales ||Operating margin |
|Semiconductors ||42% ||28.4% |
|Telecommunications ||33% ||19.9% |
|Digital media (TVs, DVD players, etc) ||17% ||0.1% |
|Home appliances ||7% ||-6.0% |
| * for the third quarter of 2003 |
| Source: Samsung|
Wireless phone sales now account for 30 percent of Samsung's total revenue.
What's more, Samsung has done a good job selling high-end phones, which has helped its profits and hurt competitors, most notably Motorola.
And Nokia should be concerned as well, according to James Faucette, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities. "Samsung is being very aggressive in its product development," he said.
Samsung is also thriving in the chip business, dominating the market for dynamic access random memory (DRAM) chips.
Selling DRAM chips is for all intents and purposes a commodity business. But Patrick Ho, an analyst with Moors & Cabot, said Samsung has a very low cost structure, which enables it to be profitable and put the squeeze on rivals.
Memory chip maker Infineon Technologies (IFX: Research, Estimates) on Monday reported its first profit in nine quarters but cautioned investors to not get too optimistic because of continued pricing pressures. Another Samsung chip competitor, Micron Technology (MU: Research, Estimates), has lost money for the past eleven quarters.
But Samsung's chip business, which made up 40 percent of its total sales in the third quarter, also accounted for nearly two-thirds of the company's overall operating profit.
Ho said Samsung is also a serious threat to Intel (INTC: Research, Estimates) in the flash memory market. Flash memory chips are crucial components in cell phones and digital cameras. Just as in the DRAM market, a tight rein on costs as helped Samsung.
"Samsung has placed price pressure on Intel in flash memory. When Intel raised flash prices last year, Samsung was a big beneficiary," Ho said, referring to an ill-fated move by Intel that wound up causing the company to lose flash memory market share to both Samsung and AMD at the end of 2002 and earlier this year.
Unfortunately for U.S. investors, there's not an easy way to partake in Samsung's growth. Perhaps the best way to get exposure to the stock is through mutual funds that invest in Korea, such as Fidelity Advisor Korea and Matthews Korea, both of which list Samsung as their top holding, or other mutual funds that invest in Asian stocks.
Of course, it's obviously risky to invest in a fund just to get exposure to one company. But if nothing else, U.S. investors need to keep a close eye on Samsung if for no other reason than to see what impact its success will have on other well-known tech companies.