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Samsung Chairman Lee, the man who made the company an electronics giant, dies at 78

Kun-Hee Lee has been hospitalized for years, but Samsung didn't specify what caused his death.

Samsung Chairman Kun-Hee Lee has died at the age of 78.
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The head of Samsung, Kun-Hee Lee, has died at the age of 78, the company said Saturday. It didn't specify what caused his death, but Lee has been in poor health since a heart attack in 2014. He's credited as the person who turned Samsung into the electronics giant that it is today after refocusing the company on making high-end products instead of cheap, commodity devices. 

"Chairman Lee was a true visionary who transformed Samsung into the world-leading innovator and industrial powerhouse from a local business," Samsung said in a statement. "All of us at Samsung will cherish his memory and are grateful for the journey we shared with him."

Samsung didn't immediately respond to a request for more information. 

Lee's father, Byung-chul Lee, founded Samsung Group -- Samsung Electronics' parent -- in 1938 as a trading company that sold dried Korean fish, vegetables and fruit to China. Samsung didn't start selling electronics until 31 years later, in 1969. And it wasn't until the mid-1990s that Kun-hee Lee, then at the helm of the company after the 1987 death of his father, committed to making high-end products and shed Samsung's reputation for cheap goods. In 1993, during an executive retreat in Frankfurt, he told employees that they needed to "change everything but your wife and kids."

Samsung noted in its statement Saturday (Sunday local time in Korea) that Lee's "1993 declaration of 'New Management' was the motivating driver of the company's vision to deliver the best technology to help advance global society."

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That proclamation wasn't enough, however. Early in 1995, Kun-hee Lee discovered that phones he gave as gifts didn't work. Enraged, he traveled to Gumi, home to Samsung's main assembly plant about three hours south of Seoul by car, and dumped 150,000 phones onto a field. Then, the story goes, he ordered employees to surround the pile and instructed some of them to light the phones on fire and plow over the mess with a bulldozer. After that, Samsung Electronics put extreme focus on designing high-quality products, something that's helped it attract customers to its myriad devices. 

Today, Samsung is one of the world's biggest phone makers -- it held the title on and off for nearly a decade until earlier this year, when Huawei surpassed the company -- as well as a giant in TVs, components manufacturing, memory chips and home appliances. 

Lee's rise

Lee was born on Jan 9, 1942, in a part of Korea occupied by Japan. He graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo in 1965 and studied for a master's at George Washington University but left without finishing his degree, according to the New York Times

In 1966, he started a job at Tongyang Broadcasting Company, an affiliate of Samsung and later worked for Samsung's construction and trading business, called Samsung C&T. In 1979, he became vice chairman of Samsung Group. 

Lee served as chairman of Samsung Group from 1987 to 1998 and chairman and CEO of Samsung Electronics from 1998 to 2008. He again served as chairman of Samsung Electronics from 2010 to his death. He helped Samsung become one of the most powerful companies in technology, turning him into the richest man in South Korea. But he faced legal problems over the years. Lee was convicted and pardoned twice for white-collar crimes in South Korea, first in 1996 and again in 2008. 

While Samsung is one of the best-known and biggest companies in the world, it has struggled in recent years. Lee's hospitalization beginning in 2014 left a dearth of direction from the top of the company. Lee's son and heir apparent, Jay Y. Lee, has been overseeing Samsung since his father became ill, but he's faced legal issues of his own. In 2017, he was sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty by a Seoul court of bribery and other charges. At the time, one of Samsung's co-CEOs said the company was like a ship without a captain. The younger Lee's sentence was suspended the following year. 

Samsung said Jay Y. Lee was by his father's side when he died. 

Samsung of late has faced other hurdles, particularly as the novel coronavirus pandemic rages across the globe. 2020 was supposed to be a strong year for the phone industry, as innovations like 5G and foldable screens got people shopping again. Instead, financial struggles and worries about COVID-19 will limit the number of devices companies can make and how many phones people will actually buy.

While Samsung was one of the first companies to release a phone with 5G, it's been surpassed by Huawei. And analysts expect Apple to become the world's second biggest 5G phone vendor this year -- with less than three months of sales. That puts Samsung, once the leader with the new connectivity, in third place. It has counted on its components business to buoy its revenue, while its other electronics have struggled.

Earlier this month, Samsung said it expects a 58% jump in profits in the third quarter. In recent months, Samsung's chip business has gotten a boost from data centers that rely on the technology to store everything we're doing online.