Lee Kun-hee Dies: Transformative Samsung Electronics Chairman Was 78

Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of Samsung Electronics who guided the corporation to becoming the world’s biggest producer of smartphones, televisions and memory chips, has died. He was 78.

Lee died Sunday, according to a Samsung statement. He had been hospitalized since a heart attack in 2014, and was treated for lung cancer in the late 1990s.

Lee once told employees to “change everything except your wife and children” in the days when he worked to transform Samsung from a copycat appliance dealer into a technology giant. In the process, he became South Korea’s richest person, with an estimated net worth of $20.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Samsung, the biggest of South Korea’s family-run chaebol, has been led by his only son, Jay Y. Lee, since the heart attack.

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“Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business,” the company said. “His legacy will be everlasting.”

Samsung, the maker of the Galaxy line of smartphones, also supplies semiconductors for Google’s data centers and Apple Inc.’s iPhone. It is also the world technology leader in displays for TVs, computers and mobile devices.

Jay L. Lee is enmeshed in two simultaneous legal disputes with South Korean prosecutors over allegations of bribery and corruption, which he’s repeatedly denied. That clouds whether he will step into the elder Lee’s role as chairman.

The Samsung makeover started in 1993 when Lee unveiled the Frankfurt Declaration, designed to transform Samsung from a second-tier television maker into an industry leader. The company’s new mission: create high-quality products, even if it meant lower sales.

Samsung Electronics became the world’s top maker of computer memory chips in 1992, the same year it became the first to develop 64-megabyte DRAM chips, according to the company.

Lee was born on Jan. 9, 1942, in Daegu about 240 kilometers (150 miles) south of Seoul, and was raised in the nearby rural district of Uiryeong, according to the company. In 1938, his father Lee Byung-chull opened a four-story grocery store in Daegu that would later become Samsung Group.

Lee graduated with a degree in economics from Waseda University in Tokyo, and also studied business administration in the US at George Washington University in Washington.

In 1971, Lee was chosen to successor to his father. In 1974, the company moved into semiconductors when it acquired a 50% stake in unprofitable Hankook Semiconductor. The business turned profitable in 1988, helped by dynamic random-access memory chips it produced.

Samsung Electronics surpassed Tokyo-based Sony to become the top seller of flat-screen TVs in 2006, the same year its market value exceeded $100 billion.

In 2010, Samsung introduced the Galaxy-branded smartphone running Alphabet Inc.’s Android software, which helped it pass Apple as the world’s biggest smartphone maker in 2011 in terms of units sold.

The family is holding a private funeral, the company said.

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