SEOUL — Lee Kun-hee, the man who built Samsung Electronics into a global tech giant, died Sunday with family members including his son and successor at his side, the company said. He was 78.
Samsung did not specify the cause of his death. The ailing leader was incapacitated for years after a 2014 heart attack; son Lee Jae-yong took over running the company. Lee Kun-hee was 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 company said in a statement.
Under Lee’s three decades of leadership, Samsung Electronics grew from a small television maker into the world’s biggest producer of smartphones, electronic displays and memory chips. He was convicted twice of white-collar crimes, but eventually pardoned in both cases.
Lee was born in 1942 in Japanese-occupied Korea. His father, Lee Byung-chul, founded Samsung as a small trading company in the southeastern city of Daegu. Lee Kun-hee inherited the company in 1987 and embarked on a quality-improvement drive to rid it of a reputation for producing cheap copycat appliances.
Lee called it a “life-or-death situation,” and advised executives: “Change everything except for your wife and children.” In its statement Sunday, the company remembered the 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.”
In 1995, he famously ordered nearly $50 million worth of cellphones and fax machines set on fire, citing low quality. The bonfire was watched by 2,000 Samsung employees who wore headbands saying “Quality first,” according to media reports at the time.
Samsung Electronics is the flagship of Samsung Group, a sprawling powerhouse with dozens of affiliates that stretch into shipbuilding and life insurance. The group is the largest and most powerful of South Korea’s chaebol, family-controlled conglomerates that dominate the 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 was convicted twice, but his jail sentences were suspended by the courts both times, a common practice that helped executives return to work.
In 2008, he stepped down from the leadership after he was convicted of managing slush funds and evading taxes to pass company shares to his children. He retook the helm two years later following a presidential pardon. His other pardon was in 1995, after he was convicted of bribing a former president.
Lee Kun-hee’s business empire was involved in a corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, who was replaced by President Moon Jae-in in 2017. Moon has vowed to end the practice of pardoning convicted corporate leaders.
His son Lee Jae-yong, Samsung’s de facto head, was sentenced to five years in prison for bribing Park and her confidant to help secure his control over Samsung. He spent a year behind bars before an appeals court reduced his sentence and released him.
Moon will send condolence flowers to the funeral, spokesman Kang Min-seok said Sunday.
Samsung has yet to announce succession plans for the opaque three-generation dynasty under which it has operated.