Oct. 25 (UPI) — Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Group, who grew the Korean company into a leader in the global tech industry, died Sunday at age 78 in a Seoul hospital.
“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business,” Samsung said in a statement.
Lee was South Korea’s richest resident, according to a Forbes list of Korean billionaires, with total stock holdings valued at $15.6 billion.
Lee suffered a heart attack in 2014 and had been in a coma since then. His son, Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, has served as head of the company.
The older Lee inherited the reins of Samsung at age 45 in 1987 as the third son of a Korean mercantilist, Lee Byung-Chull, who started Samsung as a small local trading company 80 years ago.
Lee’s business skills and willingness to reinvent the company culture led to his telling executives in 1993 to “change everything except your wives and children.”
Samsung competed with Japanese tech manufacturers, eventually overtaking Sony in 2006 as the leader in the global television market.
In 2011, Samsung’s Galaxy cellphone line surpassed Apple as the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer. Samsung is also the world’s largest memory chipmaker and the company also runs subsidiaries in the insurance and hotel businesses.
Samsung occupies a large place in the Korean economy, accounting for 20% of South Korea’s exports, according to the Korea Times.
“[Lee] was the biggest star in South Korea’s corporate history,” Kim Kyung-won, vice president of Sejong University in Seoul told Nikkei Asia. “His New Management declaration stimulated other Korean conglomerates to follow in his steps. That has helped them to catch up to Japan in semiconductors, electronics, home appliances and shipbuilding.”
Lee faced legal challenges during his career. In 2007 he was accused of hiding money in slush funds to bribe government officials and other influential people. He stepped down from company leadership in 2008 and was convicted of tax evasion in 2009.
But Lee was brought back to leadership at Samsung after being pardoned by then-President Lee Myung-bak and asked to help Korea win the bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Lee was reinstated as chairman of Samsung in 2010 until his heart attack in May, 2014.
Lee is survived by his wife Hong Ra-hee, his son and daughters Lee Boo-jin who runs the company’s hotel businesses and Lee Seo-hyun, who leads the Samsung Welfare Foundation. A third daughter predeceased him.