Lee Kun-hee — the controversial yet legendary business titan who led Samsung’s rise from a modest South Korean company to a multinational conglomerate — died Sunday at the age of 78.
Samsung (SSNLF) called Lee a “true visionary who transformed Samsung (SSNLF) into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse” in a statement confirming his death. Lee had been comatose since suffering a heart attack in 2014 but remained titular chairman of the company.
“All of us at Samsung will cherish his memory and are grateful for the journey we shared with him,” the company said.
Lee’s son, Lee Jae-yong, has been the company’s de facto leader since his father’s heart attack. Asked whether the vice chairman would take his father’s title as chairman, Samsung declined to comment.
Lee’s father, Lee Byung-chul, created Samsung in the 1930s as a small trading company and steadily expanded into retail, electronics and other fields.
When the elder Lee passed in 1987, Lee Kun-hee inherited the company and spent the next decade building it into a global corporation. He famously called on his employees in 1993 to “change everything but your wife and children” in the pursuit of leading the company into a new era. Two years later, he ordered a mass burning of Samsung products he considered detective, driving home his vision of a company that put quality ahead of quantity.
Lee’s efforts succeeded. The conglomerate now trades in everything from electronics and theme parks to life insurance. It is a key supplier of memory chips and display screens for manufacturers such as Apple (AAPL) and Huawei, and has been the world’s top smartphone seller for several years.
The conglomerate is now the largest in South Korea, holding 424.8 trillion won ($376 billion) in assets, according to the country’s Fair Trade Commission. It’s larger than any of South Korea’s other “chaebol,” or the giant family-run conglomerates that dominate the the country’s economy. Hyundai holds about half as many assets.
Lee “led the economic growth of South Korea by turning the semiconductor business into the country’s main industry,” wrote South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a letter to the Lee family that was made public Sunday.
Lee’s rise was not without major controversy, however. Analysts have long said that the trading of favors, bribes and political influence between politicians and businessmen is practically endemic in the country, and noted that several major executives at South Korean chaebols have been wrapped up in scandal.
Lee was convicted twice: Once in 1996 on accusations that he bribed politicians, and again in 2008 on charges of tax evasion. In both cases, he avoided prison and received presidential pardons.
In recent years, Lee’s health suffered. He beat lung cancer, but was hospitalized for pneumonia and respiratory issues. In 2014, he slipped into a coma after suffering a heart attack, and never recovered.
Lee’s son and the company’s de facto leader, who is also known as Jay Y. Lee, has faced legal troubles of his own. He was found guilty of bribery and other corruption charges in 2017 and served less than a year behind bars before an appeals court threw out some of the charges and suspended his sentence. And last month, the vice chairman was indicted over a controversial 2015 merger that helped him tighten control over the company.
It’s not clear who will eventually inherit Lee’s shares in the conglomerate. Lee owns more than 4% of Samsung Electronics, more than 20% of Samsung Life Insurance and nearly 3% of Samsung C&T, a construction and investment entity. His shares are worth billions of dollars.
The share prices of some of the publicly traded divisions of the company spiked Monday in Seoul on speculation about what Lee’s death would mean for the structure of the conglomerate. The family may be forced to sell some of Lee’s shares to pay off a massive inheritance tax, according to Eun Kyung-wan, an analyst at the securities firm Meritz.
Eun added, though, that a “full restructuring” of the conglomerate is unlikely to happen right now.
“It will only be possible once the unpredictability of Lee Jae-yong’s prosecution is dispelled,” Eun said.