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Business News/ Companies / News/  Samsung heir who can’t take chairman title reshapes chaebol

Samsung heir who can’t take chairman title reshapes chaebol

Lee Jae Yong is restructuring family holdings, making acquisitions and meeting leaders while the family patriarch is recovering from illness

A file photo of Lee JaeYong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. Photo: Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg Premium
A file photo of Lee JaeYong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. Photo: Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg

Lee Jae Yong is putting his stamp on Samsung Group even without the title of chairman.

With family patriarch Lee Kun Hee recuperating from a heart attack a year ago, his only son is restructuring family holdings, making acquisitions and meeting leaders from China’s Xi Jinping to Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook. The group’s jewel, Samsung Electronics Co., introduced Galaxy S6 smartphones to plaudits and committed $15 billion to build a semiconductor plant in South Korea.

The younger Lee, 46, has taken on responsibility for steering the nation’s largest chaebol of about 70 companies even as cultural norms keep him from being named chairman while his father is alive. The group has said little about succession, with top executives remaining in charge of their businesses while the chairman is hospitalized, yet his son is taking on a broader role and providing long-term vision.

“It looks like Lee Jae Yong is trying to deliver a message that his Samsung is different from that of his father’s," Lee Sang Hun, a Seoul-based analyst at HI Investment & Securities Co., said. “Lee Jae Yong is not the chairman of Samsung in principle, but we all know that he is in practice."

Samsung’s approach is unusual by the standards outside Korea. Most companies in the US, for instance, typically make it clear to investors immediately who is taking over when a top executive leaves or is incapacitated, and those that are not forthcoming come under pressure for more information.

Apple’s transition

When Steve Jobs suffered a sharp decline in weight in 2008, his gaunt appearance fueled speculation he was sick as analysts and media pressed for an explanation. Even though Cook had filled in on numerous occasions, the company released little information.

By 2011, the company was more open with public statements discussing Jobs’ medical leave, Cook’s appointment as interim CEO and later his formal succession.

Yet Samsung remains tight-lipped. The group hasn’t detailed how Lee Kun Hee’s power will be transferred and didn’t make any public announcement after his heart attack until the media started asking questions.

“The intricacies of succession in the chaebol are unique to South Korea," said Thomas Husson, a Paris-based analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “US firms would probably be under more financial pressure to act on a succession plan."

Existing management

Shares of Samsung Electronics fell 1% to 1,352,000 won in Seoul. The stock has risen 1.3% since Lee Kun Hee’s heart attack, compared with an 8.5% rise in the benchmark Kospi index.

In South Korea, it would be tantamount to revolution at family-run business groups for the son to take the chairman’s title from his ailing father, said Kim Sang Jo, a professor of economics at Hansung University in Seoul.

“The chairman’s title will never be handed over to Lee Jae Yong until Lee Kun Hee is deceased," said Kim. “That is a very unique chaebol culture of Korea."

That means the man also known as Jay Y. is conducting an extended audition for leadership at Samsung Group, where companies in the technology, insurance, construction and fashion industries each have their own management. The electronics business that generates the most revenue has three co-CEOs, all appointed by the elder Lee.

Xi, Zuckerberg

“Investors are looking at Samsung’s business and the succession plan as separate issues," said Kim Hyun Su, a fund manager at IBK Asset Management Co. in Seoul. “As long as no big problems are spotted on the business side, it doesn’t seem investors will complain much about the lack of communication about succession."

In addition to Cook and Chinese President Xi, the younger Lee met with Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the past year.

Jay Y. has been groomed as the potential leader since he joined the chaebol full time in 2001. He has an undergraduate degree from Seoul National University, the nation’s top school, and a master’s from Japan’s Keio University. He also studied for a Ph.D. at Harvard Business School, though he didn’t receive a degree.

With most daily operations left to incumbent executives, Jay Y. has focused on setting the strategic direction of Samsung Group and trimming the sprawling empire.

That includes holding initial public offerings for two family companies to prepare for potential inheritance taxes and keep the family’s grip on the group, while also disposing of stakes in chemicals and defense units. That has helped the group focus on reviving its biggest business of electronics and moving beyond its emphasis on manufacturing.

More deals

“Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee has for a number of years been providing leadership focusing on overall business performance, driving major innovation and long-term strategy," Samsung Group said in an e-mailed statement.

Since Lee Kun Hee’s heart attack, Samsung Electronics has participated in 12 acquisitions and ventures, twice as many as the previous 12 months, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Deals under Jay Y.’s watch include buying LoopPay Inc. to open a new front against Apple through payments systems and purchasing SmartThings, which makes mobile applications to control electronics in houses.

Jay Y.’s only formal steps so far toward succeeding his father are plans to replace Lee Kun Hee at two Samsung charitable foundations this month.

Earnings slump

While the Lee family has unchallenged control of Samsung Group through a web of shareholdings, Jay Y.’s past 12 months haven’t been without scrutiny.

Doubts about his abilities were heightened by the slump in earnings at Samsung Electronics as the company lost smartphone market share to Apple and Chinese rivals led by Xiaomi Corp.

“It’s tough timing and a big burden for him to lead the company," said Chung Sun Sup, CEO of corporate researcher “He needs to draw and propose a long-term master plan of his vision for Samsung."

During Jay Y.’s tenure, Samsung Electronics has fought back with new Galaxy S6 devices, announced the new chip plant investment and positioned itself to capitalize on the move to connected devices, the so-called Internet of Things.

Analysts now expect the company’s first profit rise in five quarters, according to the average of estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

“Samsung Electronics’ second-quarter results will be a lot better, and that will surely help make his one-year leadership look fairly pretty," said Lee at HI Investment & Securities Co.

With South Korean custom emphasizing deference to family elders, the heir to Samsung is expected to keep his focus on running the empire in Lee Kun Hee’s absence, even with an interim tag on his job description.

“Foreigners will have no idea why Samsung’s not naming the next chairman, but it’s a very unique and Korean thing," said Chang Sea Jin, author of “Sony vs. Samsung: The Inside Story of the Electronics Giants’ Battle For Global Supremacy."

“Samsung’s emperor is now in the hospital and his son, the crown prince, must remain at his post until his father’s dynasty ends with his death."

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Published: 21 May 2015, 02:14 PM IST
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