The man who made Samsung has died

Lee Kun-hee built Samsung from a noodle trading company into a sprawling conglomerate that is among the world’s most valuable firms.

October 26, 2020

Credit: Pascal Le Segretain

Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of South Korea’s corporate giant Samsung, died yesterday at the age of 78, after dealing with health problems for the last 6 years.

With a net worth of $21B, he was South Korea’s richest man.

While he leaves behind a complicated legacy (no, not the folding screen phone), he is credited for turning the business his father founded from a noodle trading operation into one of the world’s biggest companies.

It’s hard to overstate how important Samsung is to South Korea

In 2019, Samsung Group pulled in revenue of $290B — an insane 17% of South Korea’s GDP per Reuters.

Lee’s big bet on the Galaxy phone line made Samsung the top smartphone competitor to Apple and boosted the crown jewel of the conglomerate, Samsung Electronics, to a $350B valuation.

He made similarly large bets on semiconductors and flat screen TVs while managing a sprawling business with massive insurance, construction, and shipbuilding arms.

Lee’s darker side includes convictions for bribery and tax evasion

In fact, his own son Lee Jae-yong — who’s effectively been running Samsung since 2014 — recently did a one-year stint in prison related to corrupt business dealings.

Under the younger Lee’s leadership, Samsung’s Galaxy phone line has fallen behind Apple, which built a thriving iPhone services ecosystem.

The elder Lee once coached his team to “change everything except for your wife and children” per the WSJ.

Samsung is sitting on $80B of cash. And for the son to match his father’s legacy, he’ll have to make huge bets with these resources… hopefully unrelated to folding screens.

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