Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics, who turned the South Korean company into a global tech titan, died on Sunday at the age of 78.
Under Lee’s leadership, Samsung became the world’s largest manufacturer of smartphones and memory chips, and the company’s total sales are now one-fifth of South Korea’s GDP.
Samsung’s meteoric rise helped make Lee South Korea’s richest and most powerful industrialist.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Kun-hee Lee, chairman of Samsung Electronics,” the company said in a statement.
“Chairman Lee died on October 25th with his family, including Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee by his side.
“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who turned Samsung from a local company to the world’s leading innovator and industrial powerhouse,” said the company, adding, “His legacy will last forever.”
Samsung is by far the largest of the family-run conglomerates or chaebols that dominate business in South Korea.
They drove the nation’s transformation from war-torn ruin to the 12th largest economy in the world, but today they are accused of murky political ties and the suppression of competition – Lee himself has been convicted twice of crime, in one case he bribed a president.
When Lee took over the chairmanship of the Samsung Group in 1987, which his father founded as a fish and fruit exporter, it was already the largest conglomerate in the country, with activities ranging from consumer electronics to construction.
But it was seen as a lousy producer of cheap, low quality products.
“Let’s change everything but our wives and children,” Lee said in 1993.
The company collected all 150,000 cell phones in stock and burned them to pave the way for the rebirth of the hugely successful “Anycall” cell phone.
With Lee at the helm, Samsung became a global giant: when he suffered a heart attack in 2014, Samsung was the world’s largest manufacturer of smartphones and memory chips and a major supplier of semiconductors and LCDs.
Lee rarely spoke to the media, but was watched closely when he broke his long silence, often with disastrous New Year’s company addresses.
His son, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, has been running the company since the 2014 heart attack.
Despite his immense wealth and power, Lee rarely ventured out of the high walls of his private compound in central Seoul to visit corporate headquarters and was nicknamed “Hermit King.”
Lee, the third son of Samsung group founder Lee Byung-chull, had a soft spot for dogs – developed as a child in Japan, where he went to school from the age of 11. He was also known for his love of movies, horse riding and exotic supercars.
He studied at the renowned Waseda University in Japan and earned an MBA from George Washington University in the USA.
At the age of 36, he became vice chairman of the group’s construction and commercial branch and nine years later, shortly after his father’s death, he became chairman of the group.
Lee married Hong Ra-hee – whose father was Attorney General – with whom he had a son and three daughters.
Bribery, embezzlement, tax evasion
The worlds of politics and business are intertwined in South Korea, and the connection was reflected in Lee’s career.
In 1996 he was convicted of bribing former President Roh Tae-woo to do Samsung a favor in making business decisions.
Lee was found guilty of embezzlement and tax evasion in a 2008 slush fund scandal in which he briefly retired from corporate management.
But suspended sentences meant he was never in jail and received two presidential pardons to fuel his country’s successful efforts to secure the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Several years later, he fought off lawsuits from his older brother and sister claiming they were entitled to billions of dollars worth of Samsung stock.
He had been under medical care after his heart attack, but few details about his condition were revealed, leaving him in mystery even in his final days.
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