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 user 2008-04-23 at 1:47:45 pm Views: 65
  • #19694

    Scandal-Plagued Samsung Chairman Quits
    Lee Kun Hee steps down after being charged with tax evasion. Reaction among watchers is mixed; shares didn’t budge
    was one of the most stunning scenes in the history of South Korean
    business. Standing in front of reporters packing a basement conference
    room at Samsung’s Seoul headquarters on the morning of Apr. 22, Lee Kun
    Hee, for decades the most powerful businessman in the country,
    announced his resignation as chairman of Korea’s largest conglomerate,
    the Samsung Group, and chairman and co-CEO of Samsung Electronics, the
    world’s largest maker of memory chips, liquid-crystal-display panels
    and TVs, and the second-largest cell-phone maker only after Nokia
    (NOK). Bowing deeply, Lee apologized to the nation for corporate
    governance problems that have been the focus of investigators for more
    than three months. “I’ll take responsibility for all the flaws of the
    past,” said the disgraced chairman, who was charged last week by a
    special prosecutor with tax evasion and breach of fiduciary trust.

    disputes the tremendous success Samsung achieved in the past two
    decades under Lee’s leadership. The $160 billion Samsung Group is a
    source of Korea Inc.’s pride, accounting for 21% of the country’s total
    exports. The electronics unit has transformed itself from a second-tier
    producer of TVs and appliances into a design powerhouse and a
    trend-setter of the planet’s information technology industry.Yet
    investors and longtime watchers of Korea’s chaebol, or conglomerates,
    responded with a relative calm over the unexpected resignation. “I
    don’t think there will be a fundamental change in Samsung,” said Ahn
    Young Hoe, chief investment officer at Seoul-based fund manager KTB
    Asset Management, which owns some $500 million in Samsung Electronics.
    “Lee Kun Hee will remain as a major shareholder and his family will
    wield influence in one way or another.”Perhaps reflecting such
    sentiments, Samsung Electronics shares stayed little changed, closing
    0.1% higher at $678 on Apr 22. In fact, the stock has risen 20.5% so
    far this year against a 5.8% fall in the benchmark Kospi index on the
    Seoul bourse, as investors have believed the probe into Samsung could
    improve the company’s independent management from the group while not
    affecting its finances. Although Lee Kun Hee is the chairman,
    management of the electronics unit has been firmly in the hands of
    respected Vice-Chairman and Chief Executive Yun Jong Yong and his team
    of talented professional managers who have steered the company’s rise.

    activists have criticized the 66-year-old Lee and his relatives for
    what the activists assert is the Lee family’s near-absolute control of
    Samsung’s 59 affiliates ranging from insurance and credit-card services
    to shipbuilding and chipmaking, even though the Lees only have a sliver
    of shares of the group. The family managed to retain the tight grip
    because reforms in the past decade have tackled accounting and
    governance in listed companies but have done little to limit the
    founding family’s control via tangled cross-shareholdings of
    affiliates, some of them held privately.Critics of Samsung acknowledge
    Lee’s resignation and other reform steps could open the way to
    improving Samsung’s governance system. Samsung will disband the
    powerful Strategic Planning Office, or SPO, which prosecutors have
    alleged arranged illegal business deals to benefit the Lee family at
    the expense of other shareholders. Chairman Lee’s son, Lee Jae Yong, an
    heir apparent, will step down as Samsung Electronics’ chief customer
    officer and will stay overseas for building up experiences, according
    to Samsung officials.

    Special prosecutor Cho Joon Woong on Apr.
    17 accused the SPO of arranging an illegal 1996 transaction to give the
    junior Lee, who turns 40 in June, and his sister a combined 64% stake
    in Samsung Everland, which was later made a de-facto holding company of
    Samsung Group. Lee Jae Yong and his three sisters paid $9.9 million to
    exercise warrants converting bonds they held into shares of Everland,
    an unlisted amusement park and real estate company, at just
    one-eleventh of the market value.Then in a private placement, Everland
    allegedly was able to buy 18.4% of shares in unlisted Samsung Life
    Insurance that had once belonged to the founder, Lee Kun Hee’s father,
    but had been transferred into accounts controlled by Samsung
    executives. Samsung Life, in turn, owns 7.3% of Samsung Electronics.
    Therefore by controlling Everland, Lee Jae Yong now controls the
    biggest block of shares in the electronics giant.Cho also accused Lee
    Kun Hee of owning some $4.5 billion worth of stock in Samsung Life,
    Samsung Electronics and other companies that were hidden in nearly
    1,200 brokerage accounts in the name of former and current executives.
    Such holdings, prosecutors say, were kept secret to avoid paying hefty
    taxes. Samsung officials say those shares, which were held that way to
    help Lee protect his management rights, will now be held under the name
    of Lee, who will pay taxes that were avoided.

    Samsung execs say
    the reform measures announced Apr. 22 are “just the beginning” to make
    group companies more transparent and independent. “We will actively
    pursue changes if there are such needs in the future,” says Vice
    Chairman Lee Hak Soo, head of the SPO, who also vowed to step down by
    the end of June.Some activists argue the reforms fall short of
    guaranteeing the prevention of the family’s return. “The problem is the
    son can always be elevated to the chairman and assume near-absolute
    control unless a system is built to guard against such practices,” says
    Korean National Open University economist Kim Ki Won, who has studied
    the chaebol for two decades. “My hunch is that there’s only a 30%
    chance of Samsung achieving a good governance system in view of the
    lack of reference to the son’s illegally earned benefits.”Others,
    though, are more hopeful. “I respect today’s move by Chairman Lee, who
    unlike other chaebol chiefs, personally took responsibility for
    wrongdoings,” says Jang Ha Sung, dean of Business Administration
    College at Korea University and a longtime promoter of shareholder
    rights. “What’s still needed is to build a sustainable system enforcing
    transparency and accountability.”