Ever since Samsung's 72-year-old Chairman Lee Kun-hee suffered a heart attack this weekend, the spotlight has clearly turned to his 45-year-old son and heir apparent, Lee Jae-yong – better known as Jay Y. Lee – and the critics keep asking if he is ready to assume such a large, new role. This new role will be coming at a very important crossroads – after years of unheard of growth, Samsung's mobile business is expected to show its first annual decline in three years as sales of smartphones are slowing down in a saturated market. Many wonder if the young Lee is up to the task and many of the questions surrounding his abilities are because nobody on the outside really knows much about him.
Though shy and unassuming, Lee has been groomed for years to take over the family run Samsung conglomerate – started first by his grandfather, Lee Byung-chui, and subsequently taken over in 1987 by his father, Lee Kun-hee after the elder Lee passed away. The young Lee has really become the face of Samsung these past few years. He is fluent in both English and Japanese, holds a degree in East Asian History, an MBA from Japan's Keio University and a B.A. Doctorate from Harvard and referred to as the "Crown Prince of Samsung" by the media.
Possibly, because of his demeanor, Lee is the one that meets with other corporate leaders and politicians forging relationships and making deals that many thought could never be accomplished. They worry he lacks his father's charisma, but people who know him say that underneath that quiet exterior he has the determination and tenacity to get the job done. Hong Jeong-woong, a fund manager at Alpha Asset Management in Seoul said:
"The new businesses Samsung has been preparing are starting to take shape, and I think they will start showing us something concrete from this year. It's inevitable he'll feel pressured to prove his abilities to become chairman, so we may see Samsung pick up the pace on pushing new businesses. I think the risk of any management vacuum is small."
Samsung already does much more than produce smartphones – they are heavily into Smart HDTVs, appliances, memory chips, processors, displays, batteries and much more. They are looking into the solar industry and bio healthcare to possibly expand their future growth. Lee has met with several global automakers, discussing opportunities in electric batteries, display screens, and even embedding their smartphones directly into the car's navigation system.
From all indications, Jay Y. Lee is more than ready to move Samsung forward with his eyes wide opened. A senior Samsung executive said of the young Lee:
"(Our) vice chairman is a strategic thinker and is very tenacious. He's been doing things that senior executives can't easily resolve on their own. For example, he spends a lot of time meeting key clients and then manages to cut a deal that would seem almost impossible. We've actually benefited significantly from his deal brokering and strategic decision making. He's been doing far more than what many people outside Samsung might guess. He's been learning for years from the chairman and has already been deeply involved in daily operations."
This 45-year-old, Lee, has the education, the experience of working under his father, he gets along with other corporate leaders, works "outside the box" and has the will to prove himself. It looks like Samsung will be in good hands when the time comes for his father to step down.