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Samsung on Friday laid the groundwork to appoint a third-generation chairman at South Korea’s biggest conglomerate, when it elevated Lee Jae-yong to the newly created position of chief customer officer at Samsung Electronics.
Mr Lee, 38, is the only son of the current chairman, Lee Kun-hee, and has been groomed to take over Samsung’s leadership despite outstanding legal issues and the objections of corporate governance campaigners.
Samsung said that in the new role Mr Lee would act as “an internal advocate” for customers while working to form alliances externally with its corporate clients.
In a statement Mr Lee said he would work “to ensure that Samsung is highly responsive to the changing needs of our customers while promoting our commitment to creativity and innovation throughout the company.”
The heir-apparent, who has an MBA from Japan’s Keio University and enrolled in but did not complete a doctorate at Harvard Business School, has been working at Samsung since 2001. He oversaw the ill-fated e-Samsung, the group’s internet affiliate which collapsed, and has worked in the electronics affiliate’s corporate strategy office.
But the younger Lee’s increasingly prominent public role - during the Las Vegas consumer electronics show this month he showed Rupert Murdoch around - has been seen as confirmation that his succession of his ailing 64-year-old father is now just a matter of time.
Samsung was founded by Mr Lee’s grandfather Lee Byung-chul in 1938 as a small exporter of fruit and dried fish but it is now the world’s largest producer of memory chips and flat screens as well as one of the world’s largest mobile phone makers.
Although Samsung has played a pivotal role in South Korea’s rapid industrialisation, the founding family has faced criticism that it is seeking to install a third-generation leader at the mighty conglomerate.
Yun Jong-yong, Samsung’s chief executive, said on Friday that Mr Lee was “uniquely qualified” to become chief customer officer.
But corporate governance activists argued that his management capability has not been proven yet.
“He is going through a process to become the heir to Lee Kun-hee and the promotion is a step to qualify him as the next leader. But it is hard to know from the outside how much he contributed to the company’s development,” said Kim Sun-woong, head of the Centre for Good Corporate Governance in Seoul.
An appellate court is due to rule in March over whether the transfer by the Lee family of convertible bonds in Samsung Everland, the group’s de facto holding company, to the Lee children was illegal.
Two Samsung group executives were convicted in 2005 for their role in helping Mr Lee and his sisters buy the bonds at a big discount. But neither the current chairman nor his apparent successor have been questioned on the matter.
Although his father runs the conglomerate, the younger Lee is effectively the owner through a complex web of cross-shareholdings. He is the largest shareholder in Samsung Everland with a 25 per cent stake. Samsung Everland controls Samsung Life Insurance, which is a big shareholder in Samsung Electronics.