Vincent Boland: South Korea’s billionaire dynasties face a reckoning as their family businesses outgrow them

For all its modernity, the country’s corporate sector is stuck in a peculiarly Korean time warp, and this is especially true of Samsung, which is now too big for the Lee family who controls it

Lee Kun-hee, centre, with daughters Lee Boo-jin and Lee Seo-hyun in 2012. He died in October, leaving his family with an $11 billion inheritance tax bill. Picture: Steve Marcus/Reuters

An old proverb in the corporate world says: “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” It refers to the idea that a business family’s wealth begins to vanish once it reaches the founder’s grandchildren.

Business school literature says the adage is often proven by evidence, which is a little depressing when you consider how many family businesses there are around the world.

So meet the Lee family. In 1938, a man called Lee Byung-chul founded ...