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Why Lee Kun-hee was a visionary – and family business icon

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Lee Kun-hee, the recently deceased chairman of Samsung, was one of the greatest business leaders of the last fifty years, arguably among the top five. He is also a family business icon. But those who read his obituaries will be hard-pressed to see these achievements.

Inheriting the business from his father, Lee built the massive conglomerate to what it is today – one of the world’s most recognisable brands and successful companies. Samsung has revenues of more than $1 trillion annually, it employs nearly 300,000 people around the world, and its brand is the fifth most valuable globally and Asia’s number one, according to Interbrand. 

If Lee isn’t viewed as a business icon, he is even less regarded as a family business one

Much of that global brand awareness was built by the company’s electronics business, with Samsung now being the world’s biggest producer of consumer electronics in revenue terms. Lee made that happen with his famous “change everything except your wife and kids” pronouncement in the early 1990s to his employees in response to quality problems with many of the company’s products. 

The world today buys more Samsung mobiles and TVs than any other brand. That’s largely down to Lee’s efforts to make Samsung a world-beater in all the sectors it operated in, but particularly electronics. 

Driven by his desire to beat the best in consumer electronics, which in the 1990s was Sony, Lee achieved that and more. Today, Samsung is way ahead of Sony as a global brand – and Samsung Electronics makes much more money than its Japanese rival. 

If Lee isn’t viewed as a business icon, he is even less regarded as a family business one – the much-reported shenanigans of the family get in the way, according to many commentators in the sector. 

But didn’t he create one of the world’s biggest family business dynasties in the classic manner of a second-generation heir? Didn’t he pay more attention to Samsung’s biggest stakeholder, its consumers, than many other business leaders? Why would have Samsung got so big if he hadn’t? 

OK, he wasn’t too good on stewardship and succession, although you could argue the jury is still out on this given his son Lee Jae-yong might turn out to be as influential as his father was in the years ahead. 

Too much of Lee’s public reputation is centred on his controversies linked to bribery and tax evasion charges. Look at most obituaries in the past few days and his Wikipedia entry, and more column inches are written about these issues than his achievements. 

That’s often the case with the media – they concentrate too much on the negatives rather than the positives. 

But Lee should be held up as an icon of the business world. How many business leaders have created such extraordinary businesses in the last fifty years, employed so many people, created so much tax revenue, and created so much pleasure for the consumer of his company’s products? 

The answer – you can probably count then on one hand. 

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