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Samsung chairman and man behind its rise, Lee Kun-Hee dies aged 78

Suban Abdulla
·3-min read

Watch: Samsung group chairman Lee Kun-hee dies

Samsung Electronics (BC94.L) chairman, Lee Kun-hee, who transformed the South Korean company into a global household name, has died aged 78.

A second-generation leader, he helped his father turn his small trading business into a global economic powerhouse, diversifying the brand into areas such as shipping and insurance.

He was the third son of Lee Byung-chul, who founded Samsung Group in 1938, inheriting the chairmanship in 1987 following his father's death. Lee joined the family firm in 1968.

Lee grew Samsung, which specialises in smartphones, semiconductors and televisions, into the country’s largest conglomerate. His father originally planned to deal in fish, fruit and noodles.

Under Lee’s leadership Samsung became the world’s largest producer of smartphones and memory chips, with overall turnover equivalent to a fifth of South Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Conglomerates, or chaebols have been a driving force of South Korea's economic transformation after World War II, but have been accused of murky political and business dealings.

Samsung Group affiliates’ 326.7tn won ($289.6bn, £222bn) in 2019 revenue was worth 17% of South Korea’s GDP, according to Fair Trade Commission data and Reuters.

Embracing globalisation and changes helped make Lee South Korea’s richest man since at least 2007, he had a net worth of $20.9bn (£16bn), according to Forbes.

The firm said that he died on Sunday with family by his side, but did not specify a cause of death. He suffered a heart attack in 2014, which left him living in care.

"All of us at Samsung will cherish his memory and are grateful for the journey we shared with him."

“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business,” a company statement said.

Lee Kun-Hee, chairman of South Korea's largest group Samsung. He became chairman of the company in 1987 after first joining the family firm in 1968.  Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images
Lee Kun-Hee, chairman of South Korea's largest group Samsung during a press conference in 2008. He became chairman of the company in 1987 after first joining the family firm in 1968. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

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“The hermit king,” known for his private and reclusive lifestyle, he was most famous for a 1993 meeting, in which he told staff: "Let's change everything except our wives and kids."

The meeting was a catalyst that helped Samsung become a world-leading manufacturer of smartphones, smart TVs and memory chips, after the firm burned its entire mobile phone stock, consisting of 150,000 handsets.

Lee was convicted twice of criminal offences, including the bribing of former President Roh Tae-woo. In 2008 he was charged with tax evasion and embezzlement.

While Lee was handed a three-year suspended jail sentence, he was given a presidential pardon in 2009 going on to play a lead role in securing South Korea's successful bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

His son, Lee Jae-yong and the Samsung Electronics vice-chairman has been at the helm of the company since his father’s heart attack in 2014.

Jae-yong was jailed for five-years in 2017 after being found guilty of a bribery scandal that triggered the impeachment of then-President Park Geun-hye. The case, being retried on appeal, is scheduled to resume on Monday.

Lee is survived by his 75-year-old wife, Hong Ra-hee, his son and his two daughters, Lee Boo-jin and Lee Seo-hyun who have also been involved in the business, each of the family members are also individual billionaires.

Watch: Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee's Legacy