Samsung 'crown prince' Jay Y Lee ready to ascend throne
Insiders say Jay Y Lee is a strategic thinker and is capable of taking over from his ailing father
Unassuming, media-shy and, as yet, unproven, Jay Y Lee is the unofficial heir-apparent to lead Samsung Electronics, as the world's biggest technology group by sales approaches a crossroads after years of explosive growth.
The only son of Samsung's frail 72-year-old chairman Lee Kun-hee, Jay has been groomed for years to take over the sprawling South Korean family-run chaebol, a conglomerate with interests spanning technology and insurance to shipbuilding and construction. Samsung Group's 2012 revenue of 380 trillion won (HK$2.86 trillion) was more than a quarter of South Korea's nominal GDP.
The younger Lee, 45, became Samsung's vice chairman in 2012 after a spell as chief operating officer in what appeared to be a well choreographed long-term succession plan. But his father's ill-health - Lee senior was hospitalised for a heart attack at the weekend - has raised concerns over whether Jay is ready to take control.
"[Our] vice-chairman is a strategic thinker and is very tenacious," said a senior Samsung executive, who did not want to be named because he is not authorised to comment. "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."
Fluent in English and Japanese and dubbed the "Crown Prince of Samsung" by local media, Jay Lee has become the public face of Samsung in recent years, at meetings with corporate leaders, and politicians from China and the United States, building relationships for a group which had been regarded as largely secretive.
When South Korea's president invited Google CEO Larry Page to visit Seoul a year ago, one of the first to meet him was Lee, who flew Page to a display plant south of the Korean capital to show off the latest technology Samsung was working on, including flexible screens that could potentially be fitted to Google Glass-wearable devices.
The two firms have not signed a deal on supplying bendy screens, but have since agreed global patent cross-licensing in a joint attack against Apple - defying speculation of fraying ties as Samsung, the biggest smartphone maker using Google's Android platform, develops its own mobile operating system.
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. He has a degree in East Asian History from Seoul National University, an MBA from Japan's Keio University and a business administration doctorate from Harvard. He joined Samsung Electronics in 1991.
While some critics say Lee doesn't have the experience for the top job, and lacks his father's charisma, insiders say his quiet, urbane manner disguises a steely determination and a tenacity to get things done.