Samsung succession in disarray amid leader's criminal case

Mr Jay Y. Lee (centre) arriving to be questioned as a suspect in bribery case in the influence-peddling scandal that led to the president's impeachment at the office of the independent counsel in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan 12, 2017.
Mr Jay Y. Lee (centre) arriving to be questioned as a suspect in bribery case in the influence-peddling scandal that led to the president's impeachment at the office of the independent counsel in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan 12, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - The long-orchestrated plan to cement Mr Jay Y. Lee's position atop Samsung Group may put him in jail instead, raising questions about who would step in to run South Korea's biggest conglomerate in the aftermath.

Prosecutors are seeking Mr Lee's arrest on allegations including bribery and embezzlement, which could prompt him to relinquish duties at the family business if proven.

Potential replacements include executives running key divisions of the dominant electronics business, as well as a sister - hotel executive Lee Boo Jin. While a long shot, her anointment would mark a seismic shift in the way the nation's patriarchal empires are run.

After spending years following his father's footsteps to the chairman's seat of Samsung Group, Mr Lee is trying now to avoid the missteps that triggered his father's two criminal convictions.

Even if the accusations against him involving South Korea's president are proven in court, it's still possible he could call the shots from behind bars, just as executives from Hyundai Motor Co. and SK Group have done.

"Chaebol executives have a history of managing from the jail, whether it be via lawyers or secretaries visiting them," said Professor Lee Kyung Mook from Seoul National University's Graduate School of Business.

Samsung declined to comment when asked about a potential leadership vacuum.

Mr Lee's potential arrest in the scandal surrounding President Park Geun Hye is another calamity for the vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., the largest maker of mobile devices. Last year, the company pulled its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone off the shelves because some devices burst into flames.

The debacle cost Suwon-based Samsung an estimated US$6 billion (S$8.6 billion) and a competitive advantage before Apple Inc. released its iPhone 7 models.

Mr Lee, 48, has had trouble matching the success of his father Lee Kun hee, who transformed Samsung Electronics from a copycat appliance maker into a global powerhouse in TVs, smartphones and memory chips. The elder Lee - South Korea's richest man - suffered a crippling heart attack in May 2014, and Samsung shares fell that year and the next before recovering in 2016.

"It's a perilous practice that a person can take over a company just because he or she was born to a successful father," opposition lawmaker Park Yong Jin said. "The biggest problem with our economy is that people with unproven skills run its biggest companies."

Mr Lee isn't a day-to-day manager, using co-CEOs and other top managers to handle those responsibilities. Rather, when it comes to the next big bets in technology or potential acquisitions, employees and shareholders depend on him to provide strategic guidance.

After the elder Lee's collapse, executives including J.K. Shin, who is in charge of the smartphone division, handled daily operations for Samsung Electronics.

The son became de facto leader of the group, which then embarked on an intricate reorganization to solidify his control. Prosecutors want to know if that effort involved making payments to a presidential confidante in exchange for government support.

If Mr Lee is imprisoned, he could be replaced by Samsung Electronics' co-Chief Executive Officer Kwon Oh Hyun, who leads the semiconductor and display businesses. The successes of those two divisions helped propel Samsung to its best operating profit in three years during the quarter ended Dec 31.

Another candidate is Yoon Boo Keun, who heads the consumer-electronics unit encompassing TVs and appliances.

"He's part of the trio with Lee and Kwon that has run Samsung Electronics," said Mr Park Ju Gun, president of Seoul-based corporate watchdog CEOSCORE. "Samsung could be run as if that trio were still intact."

It also would be "natural" for Mr Lee Kun Hee's eldest daughter to be considered, said Mr Chung Sun Sup, who runs corporate researcher Chaebul.com.

Ms Lee Boo Jin, 46, is CEO of the luxury Hotel Shilla Co. chain, which is on track to post revenue growth for a sixth straight year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. She owns 5.5 per cent of Samsung C&T Corp., one of the biggest shareholders in Samsung Electronics.

"Some speculate she could practically take over, but being a large shareholder doesn't mean she could run a massive company like Samsung Electronics," Mr Chung said. "Realistically speaking, Kwon may be the one."

Professor Lee Kyung Mook from the Seoul National University also identified her as a candidate to manage the conglomerate, albeit temporarily.

A daughter taking over Samsung would break with tradition in South Korea, where sons succeed fathers at the chaebol that dominate the economy. Still, Samsung has been a trailblazer in doing away with old business practices and hiring women aggressively.

"Lee's sister may briefly take the reins, but there's little chance she'd take over permanently given she has fewer shares in the firm than her brother," the professor said.

The youngest surviving daughter, Ms Lee Seo Hyun, is an executive at Samsung C&T.

In the meantime, Mr Jay Y. Lee may miss the window of opportunity to succeed his father as parliament moves to make it harder for Samsung to use its own shares to help him consolidate control, said Mr Heo Pil Seok, CEO at Midas International Asset Management in Seoul. That could make the stock more volatile.

Mr Park, the lawmaker, submitted a bill nicknamed the "Jay Y. Lee Law" to prevent financial firms from supporting the types of internal mergers orchestrated to help Lee boost control.

"The corporate governance at Samsung could remain awkward for an extended period of time, and that would increase uncertainties," Mr Heo said.

The elder Lee faced his own scandals - a 1996 conviction for bribing a former president and a 2008 conviction for embezzlement and tax evasion. Both times, he was pardoned.

That history may work against his children, and Mr Jay Y. Lee acknowledged publicly that someone else may take over the collection of about 60 divisions whose combined revenues equal about one-fifth of South Korea's gross domestic product.

During a parliamentary hearing before President Park's impeachment, he was asked whether he would surrender management control of Samsung.

"I will hand it over if there is someone better than me," he said. "I will hand it over at any time."