Samsung's billionaire chairman died on Sunday. He once counted Warren Buffett as a shareholder

AP Images; Steve Marcus/Reuters

  • Samsung’s chairman, Lee Kun-hee, died on Sunday at age 78.
  • The boss of the South Korean conglomerate once counted Warren Buffett as a shareholder.
  • Buffett, a billionaire investor and the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, made “hundreds of millions” from a rare overseas bet on Samsung, he revealed in a CNBC interview in 2018.
  • “It was a big, strong, good company,” he said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Samsung’s billionaire chairman, Lee Kun-hee, died on Sunday at age 78 after an extended illness. He once counted Warren Buffett, the famed investor and Berkshire Hathaway CEO, as a shareholder.

Lee’s father, Lee Byung-chull, founded Samsung as an exporter of fish, fruit, and noodles in 1938. Lee took the reins in 1987 and helped grow the South Korean company into a sprawling global conglomerate with interests in consumer electronics, microchips, home appliances, medical equipment, life insurance, shipbuilding, and theme parks.

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There are clear similarities between Samsung and Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Both own scores of businesses across numerous sectors such as insurance, energy, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and retail.

Berkshire also holds billion-dollar stakes in Apple, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, American Express, and other public companies.

The similarities may have been a factor in Buffett’s decision to invest in Samsung, despite sticking to American businesses for most of his career. He revealed the rare overseas bet during a CNBC interview in 2018.

Berkshire bought a “reasonable amount” of Samsung stock when it was trading at about 1 million won ($886) per share, Buffett said. That price equates to 20,000 won following the group’s 50-for-1 stock split in 2018. 

The investor was drawn to the South Korean company’s low valuation and robust balance sheet, along with the prospect of share buybacks.

“It was very, very cheap,” Buffett said. “They had a lot of cash. They hadn’t done much buying of their stock but they’d talked about it.”

“It was a big, strong, good company,” he added.

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Berkshire set its sights on South Korea because stocks were “ridiculously cheap” following its financial crisis in the late 1990s, meaning there were “a lot of bargains,” Buffett said.

The investor and his team ultimately cashed out after Samsung’s stock price surged about 80%. A weaker won also boosted their return in dollars.

“We probably made in the hundreds of millions,” Buffett said. “Might have been $500 million, $400 million, I don’t remember exactly,” he added.

The estimated return suggests Berkshire invested about $500 million to $600 million in Samsung.

Buffett’s wager paid off handsomely, but he may have sold too soon. Samsung’s shares have tripled in value since the time of Berkshire’s investment, and now change hands at more than 60,000 won each.

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