SEOUL — Lee Kun-hee, the man who built Samsung Electronics into a global tech giant, died on Sunday aged 78, with his family members, including his son and successor Lee Jae-yong, at his side, the company said.
The statement from Samsung did not specify the cause of his death, but the ailing leader had been incapacitated for years after his 2014 heart attack after which his son took over running the company. He was also treated for lung cancer in the late 1990s.
“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business,” the statement said Sunday.
Under Lee’s three decades of leadership, Samsung Electronics transformed from a small television maker into the world’s biggest producer of smartphones, electronic displays and memory chips. Since he inherited the company in 1987 from his father Lee Byung-chul — who founded Samsung as a small trading company — Lee Kun-hee embarked on a quality improvement drive to shed Samsung’s reputation for cheap copycat appliances.
“Change everything except for your wife and children,” Lee Kun-hee told an emergency meeting with executives to address what he saw as a “life-or-death situation,” facing the company. Sunday’s company statement commemorated his innovation-driven leadership by referring to that moment: “His 1993 declaration of ‘New Management’ was the motivating driver of the company’s vision to deliver the best technology to help advance global society.”
Samsung Electronics is the flagship of Samsung Group, a sprawling power house with dozens of affiliates that stretch into shipbuilding and life insurance. Samsung is the largest and most powerful of what are known as “chaebol,” family-controlled conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. Many chaebol tycoons, including Lee Kun-hee, were convicted of white-collar crimes but then granted pardons as the Korean government and the public sought to prevent any economic fallout from their absence.
Lee Kun-hee himself was convicted twice of bribing the country’s president and tax evasion, for both of which he got pardoned.
His passing raises questions about the succession plans for the opaque three-generation dynasty under which Samsung has operated. During the past six years Lee Kun-hee had been lying in hospital, his only son Lee Jae-yong has been serving as Samsung’s de facto chief.