Samsung heir Jay Y. Lee sidestepped legal troubles to fill his father’s shoes

Lee received a presidential pardon that also lifted a five-year ban on holding an executive role
It's time.
It's time.
Photo: Pool (Getty Images)
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Samsung’s de facto leader, Lee Jae-yong (also known as Jay Y. Lee) has formally stepped into his late father’s shoes.

The board of directors of Samsung Electronics approved Lee’s appointment as executive chairman of the company, the South Korean firm said in a brief statement today (Oct. 27) that cited the “current uncertain global business environment” and “the pressing need for stronger accountability and business stability.”

The top seat had so far eluded the scion of one of South Korea’s most influential families because of a string of corruption probes and jail stints.

Now, the 54-year-old is taking the reins of an electronics giant that looks much different than it did two years ago. The supply chain crisis is worse and geopolitical tensions are rife.

Family business

Lee’s grandfather, Lee Byung-chull, founded grocery trading company Samsung in 1938. Some 30 years later, he established Samsung Electronics. A decade after that, Samsung Semiconductor & Telecommunications was established. The last two additions became the biggest moneymakers.

After the founder’s death in 1987, his third son, Kun-hee, took charge and eventually grew the company into the country’s most valuable company, a tech giant that forged partnerships with the likes of Google and Apple.

Kun-hee also had troubles with the law, starting in the late 1990s, when he was sentenced in a bribery case, but he’s pardoned a year later. He stepped down from Samsung’s helm in 2008 after being convicted for tax evasion but received another presidential pardon the following year. He was then named as a suspect in another tax evasion case in 2018.

A brief history of the bribery case getting in the way of Jay Y. Lee’s ascension

Dec. 2012: Lee becomes the heir apparent of his family-run “chaebol” Samsung—the world’s biggest technology group by sales at the time—after being promoted vice chairman from his role of chief operating officer.

May 2014: His father’s hospitalization raises Lee’s profile as the company’s de-facto leader

Aug. 2017: Lee is sentenced to 5 years in prison for bribery, hiding assets abroad and embezzlement.

Feb. 2018: Lee is released from jail after an appeals court cuts his sentence in half and suspends it for four years.

Aug. 2019: South Korea’s Supreme Court orders a retrial.

Oct. 2019: Lee’s bribery retrial begins.

May 2020: Lee makes a public apology and says he will not hand over management rights to his children.

Oct. 2020: Lee’s father Kun-Hee dies at the age of 78.

Dec. 2020: Prosecutors seek a nine-year jail term for Lee.

Jan. 2021: The Seoul High Court sentences Lee to two and a half years in prison.

Aug. 2021: Lee is out on parole.

Aug. 2022: South Korean president pardons Lee, ending the five-year ban on his holding the pole position and clearing the way for Lee’s ascension

Samsung earnings disappoint

Lee was appointed on the same day that Samsung reported disappointing earnings. The tech conglomerate’s profits dropped 23% year-on-year. The mobile and foundry business did well, but other segments struggled. Some of the challenges Lee will have to face include:

💳 Weak demand caused its memory business to shrink

🌎 Geopolitical headwinds because the US and Europe want Samsung to increase investment on their turf while distancing from China, the chipmaking hub

Lee’s priorities, in his own words

“Without a doubt, we are at a pivotal moment. Now is the time to plan our next move. Now is the time to act, to be bold and unwavering in our focus.” —Jay Y. Lee

Lee’s Samsung ownership, by the digits

1.63%: Lee’s stake in Samsung Electronics

$5.9 billion: Lee’s net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires index

492 trillion won: Samsung’s market cap, equivalent to over $346 billion

Pending legal troubles

Lee is still fighting a case accusing him and ten other Samsung execs of stock price manipulation and accounting fraud. So far, eight people have been charged, while three were jailed.

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