Samsung’s crown prince
Some readers inquired about the Samsung family, ranked wealthiest in Forbes Asia’s business families (see column last week, May 6, 2016). How did the patriarch raise his current heir?
For a family that’s constantly in the spotlight, surprisingly little is known about Lee Jae-Yong (popularly known as Jay), 48, the heir to his father Lee Kun-hee. The vice chair of Samsung Electronics, Jay is worth approximately $7 billion.
From all accounts, he wants to keep it that way.
This desire for privacy is evident, and it is unlikely that any of the Lee family members will appear in tabloids, publicly feud with each other or take each other to court.
Unlike the daughter of another powerful Korean patriarch who owns the national airline, who shocked the world with her public shaming of a flight attendant for serving her nuts the wrong way, Jay is low-key.
Though born with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth, he appears to have his feet firmly on the ground.
Immersed in Asian culture, Jay holds a bachelor’s degree in East Asian history from Seoul National University, the country’s premier tertiary institution, and an MBA from topnotch Keio University in Japan, following in his father’s footsteps.
But Jay seems to have eschewed Asian tradition, in small ways at least.
Perhaps his graduate stint at Harvard played a role (though he has yet to finish his doctorate in e-commerce), but whatever the reason, according to a “Fortune” cover story (which Jay did not cooperate with), he asked the company’s security guards not to bow to him, even if bowing is a sign of respect in Korean and Japanese culture, not a connotation of subservience in any way.
Confucian values permeate through East Asian culture, including multiple hierarchies between and among generations and leaders and followers.
Presumably anyone in any Samsung company would recognize Jay, but he still wears his ID tag. He even personally replies to e-mails, instead of delegating them to an assistant.
Jay seems brought up well, by parents who have managed to avoid the trappings of entitlement that might have naturally accrued to their heir. Families have their secrets—and one sister did take her life—but Jay’s two other sisters have senior positions in the hotel and fashion industries within the Samsung group. They appear to be even more reticent than their brother.
However, Jay reportedly lacks the charisma of his father, and despite a global outlook, his personality seems more reticent. Though he acts down-to-earth, the rigid Korean hierarchy in Samsung (and other chaebols, or conglomerates) is so pronounced that when Jay allegedly once mildly critiqued marketing strategies, the one in charge resigned out of shame.
Though Samsung has diverse interests in practically every facet of the Korean economy, it is most known by its smartphones, and the ongoing battle between Samsung and Apple for global domination is as twisted as a Pacquiao-Mayweather bout.
However, Jay has enough pragmatism to play well, if not fair, with his competitors. Rumors have it that Jay personally brokered a deal with Steve Jobs for Samsung to manufacture the flash drive for the iPod Nano, an act based on trust that is all the more remarkable because the Nano was not yet in the market at that time.
Jay even attended Jobs’ funeral, and is close to the latter’s successor, Tim Cook. These friendships did not stop Apple from suing Samsung for patent infringement in 2012, which the former won.
Jay is a paradox. Schooled in history and business, Jay’s heart might lie in IT, since he also maintains close ties with the movers in Silicon Valley. Quiet and reserved, Jay nevertheless loves golf, and he can be light-hearted even in the rare times he talks to media, according to Reuters.
Jay began working in Samsung in 1991, but when his father was convicted of tax evasion a decade later, many people believed he would never become heir. But the savvy patriarch regained control of Samsung, and Jay began taking more senior roles.
When Lee Kun-hee suffered a heart attack in 2014, Jay’s elevation to vice chair left no one in doubt about the succession to the Samsung empire.
Divorced with two children, Jay is considered the most eligible bachelor in South Korea.
Our executives (and politicians) can all learn from him, since not even the most assiduous tabloid has managed to unearth any tidbit about his love life.
Will Jay be a worthy successor? So far, he has emerged victorious over a US hedge fund takeover attempt, and the Lee family still heads the Forbes list.
Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the Board of Directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). E-mail the author at email@example.com.
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