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Samsung chair's son also takes up role as firm's heir apparent

SEOUL -- When Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee strode into a celebration last week to mark his quarter-century in charge, his only son Jay Y. Lee followed two steps behind in a sign of respect for elders typical of South Korea's Confucian culture.

Over the years, Lee senior urged staff to change “everything but their wife and children” as he sought to transform Samsung into a global leader. He also ordered piles of substandard mobile phones to be burned.

On Wednesday, Lee junior, 44, was promoted to vice chairman, moving him a step closer to eventually taking over from his 70-year-old father in what looks to be a well choreographed long-term succession plan. Investors appear to like the idea, with Samsung shares hitting a record 1.455 million won (US$1,300) each, valuing the group at close to US$200 billion.

Jay Lee has generally shunned the limelight. He has no official Twitter account and little is known of him outside the company — bar a high-profile divorce in early 2009. Lee has a degree in East Asian History from Seoul National University and an MBA from Keio University in Japan.

Critics say Lee doesn't have the experience for the top job, and lacks his father's charisma, but Samsung insiders say his quiet, urbane manner disguises a steely determination Lee will need to keep Samsung at the top of the global television, memory chip, flat screen and mobile phone rankings. Samsung's quarterly revenue is equal to around a fifth of South Korea's GDP.

Stamp of Approval

Leadership transitions, as Samsung's main rival Apple Inc. has shown after the death of co-founder Steve Jobs, can be bumpy.

As Samsung struggled to come up with a product to take on Apple's early iPhone, Hong Won-pyo, then executive vice president of the South Korean firm's mobile division, fretted to colleagues that teething problems with the Galaxy smartphone would upset Jay Lee, then chief operating officer.

“I feel the COO would point out the same things. I really want you to review (the failings) seriously,” wrote Hong — who has been promoted to company president — in an email filed to a U.S. court as part of a long-running patent battle with Apple.

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Jay Y. Lee, the oldest child of Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee, farewells his father, who is leaving on a trip, at Gimpo International Airport in Seoul on Monday, Dec. 3. ...

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