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Lee Kun-hee, the man who saved Samsung, dies at 78

Lee Kun-hee changed Samsung from a second-rate appliance company to a leader in smartphones and other technology

Samsung Sign on building entrance

Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics, died peacefully with his family by his side on Sunday.

Kun-hee, who was 78 years old, battled lung cancer in the 1990s and suffered a heart attack in 2014. Due to his heart attack, he lapsed into a coma and remained hospitalized in that state until Sunday. 

Lee took over as chairman of Samsung in late 1987 after his father’s death, Samsung’s founder, Lee Byung-chul. 

The younger Lee made major changes in 1993, believing that that company was too focused on making large quantities of low-quality goods instead of competing in the higher-quality markets. He famously told his employees to “change everything except your wife and kids.” By 2006, Samsung was the leading maker of flat-screen televisions, ending Sony’s reign. 

The company continued its advancements with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone’s introduction in 2010. The Galaxy went on to be a leader in the smartphone market and continues to innovate today. 

In 2008, after an ongoing probe by South Korea into corruption allegations, Lee resigned his post as chairman of Samsung. He was found guilty of financial corruption and tax evasion, but South Korean President Lee Myung-bak pardoned him, and Lee returned as chairman of Samsung in 2010. He remained in that position until his 2014 heart attack.

Time Magazine named Lee was named one of its 100 Most Influential People in 2005 for his successful transformation of Samsung. 

Today, Samsung is worth $300 billion and is the world’s largest manufacturer of smartphones, televisions and memory chips. Lee became South Korea’s wealthiest person in 2007, a title he held until his death. At the time of his death, Lee’s estimated net worth was $20.7 billion. 

Lee was married to Hong Ra-hee and had four children. His son, Lee Jae-yong, has been the de facto Samsung chairman since his father’s heart attack. Lee also had three daughters, Boo-jin, Seo-hyun and Yoon-hyung. Yoon-hung died in 2005 at the age of 26.

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