Lee Kun-hee was born in Daegu, in Japanese-occupied Korea, on Jan. 9, 1942, to Park Doo-eul and Lee Byung-chul, who had founded Samsung a few years earlier as an exporter of fruit and dried fish. He was a wrestler in high school.
Samsung first grew by dominating the consumer staples, like sugar and textiles, that war-torn Korea needed. It later expanded into insurance, shipbuilding, construction, semiconductors and more. Lee Kun-hee graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo in 1965. He then studied in a master’s program at George Washington University but did not receive a degree.
He started his career at Tongyang Broadcasting Company, a Samsung affiliate at the time, in 1966. He worked at Samsung C&T, the conglomerate’s construction and trading firm, before being named vice chairman of Samsung Group in 1979.
When he became chairman in 1987, he took from his father a fixation on planning for the far future, even when times seemed good. But he added an overlay of existential fear and ever-present crisis that persists among Samsung brass to this day.
“We are in a very important transition,” Mr. Lee said shortly after taking charge, in an interview with Forbes. “If we don’t move into more capital- and technology-intensive industries, our very survival may be at stake.”
The radicalness of the transition he had mind was made clear when he summoned scores of Samsung Electronics managers to a luxury hotel in Frankfurt in 1993. For days, he lectured the executives, urging them to bury old ways of working and thinking. “Change everything,” he said, “except your wife and children.”
Samsung, he decreed, would focus on improving product quality instead of increasing market share. It would bring in talent from overseas, and it would require that senior executives intimately understand foreign markets and how to compete in them.