Management

Shelly Banjo is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering industrial companies and conglomerates. She previously was a reporter at Quartz and the Wall Street Journal.

Will the real leader of Samsung Electronics Co. please stand up?

In a grand executive reshuffle Tuesday, two heads of the South Korean company's three main business units offered to resign while Chief Financial Officer Lee Sang-hoon will become chairman. It's the first time the company has split the chairman and chief executive officer duties.

On the surface, the changes look like progress for a company that's been slow to embrace better corporate governance and is still recovering from a bribery scandal that led to the impeachment of South Korea's president and landed Samsung's co-vice chairman and heir apparent Jay Y. Lee behind bars. His father, Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee, remains hospitalized.

Rap Sheet
Many of South Korea's largest family-owned conglomerates, known as chaebol, have had leaders sent to jail at some point--but most of them returned to run their companies
Source: Bloomberg

The only problem is, Tuesday's shakeup doesn't resolve the issue of who is really in charge. The musical chairs suggest the company is still holding on to hope that Jay Y. Lee will be able to appeal his five-year prison sentence and return to the helm regardless of who is running Samsung's three key business units.

The addition of an independent board chairman will help move Samsung toward a more modern leadership structure befitting a global electronics giant, but could be just a rubber stamp should Lee come back. Although more hands off than his father, underlings still deferred to him on big decisions. The trio of exiting CEOs arguably held more sway over Lee than the new crop stepping into the roles.

Taking Me Higher
Despite corporate governance troubles, Samsung's shares have skyrocketed over the past year
Source: Bloomberg

The issue with running a business as big as Samsung's on the assumption Lee will return is that it maintains a dangerous power vacuum. That can lead to big decisions getting bogged down and confusion over the company's long-term direction.

As Gadfly's Tim Culpan points out, while Samsung's profit and shares are at a high, there's no guarantee that will continue to be the case. A steady hand on the tiller is crucial to ensure Samsung stays on course.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Kim Hyun-suk will replace Yoon Boo-keun at consumer electronics, and D.J. Koh will take the place of J.K. Shin at the helm of mobile phones. Kim Ki-nam will succeed Kwon Oh-hyun as head of Samsung's display and semiconductor division after Kwon announced he would leave earlier this month.

To contact the author of this story:
Shelly Banjo in Hong Kong at sbanjo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net