Lotte Group founder Shin Kyuk-ho, the billionaire tycoon who turned a chewing gum business into a sprawling corporate empire, died on Sunday in Seoul. He was 98.
Shin’s death marks the end of an era. He was the lone surviving founder of the five giant, family-run conglomerates — Hyundai, LG, Lotte, Samsung and SK — that dominate South Korea’s economy.
Born in the southeastern city of Ulsan in 1921, Shin moved to Japan, Korea’s colonial rulers at the time, to seek his fortunes.
He started out delivering milk and newspapers before founding an oil production company in 1944. The business came to an abrupt end after it was bombed by US fighter aircraft at the beginning of World War II.
Shin then founded Lotte in 1948 after seeing how popular chewing gum was with US forces stationed in Japan. He later expanded the company to his home country, establishing Lotte Confectionary in Korea in 1967.
Lotte went on to become one of South Korea’s biggest family-run companies, or “chaebol.” The sprawling multinational’s wide range of businesses include candy, retail, theme parks, hotels and construction.
Lotte’s assets include a professional baseball team, the Lotte Giants, the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, and South Korea’s tallest building, the 123-story Lotte World Tower.
The Federation of Korean Industries, which represents major businesses in the country, on Sunday hailed Shin as a “pioneer” who helped re-build post-war South Korea.
Shin’s dedication to investing in the nation “when South Korea was recovering from war ruins, laid the foundation for the national economy,” the organization said in a statement.
But like other chaebol founders, Shin’s legacy was tarnished by family in-fighting, allegations and convictions of widespread corruption, and growing criticism among South Koreans of the outsized influence wielded by the family-run conglomerates.
In 2015, Shin’s sons were involved in a highly publicized corporate feud to take control of Lotte. The younger son, Shin Dong-bin, eventually won.
But the spat caught the attention of South Korean prosecutors, and allegations of corruption soon emerged. In 2017, Shin, his son Dong-bin and several other family members were charged with tax evasion, embezzlement and illegal business dealings. A South Korean court eventually sentenced Shin, then 95, to four years in prison, but allowed him to remain free due to his deteriorating health, according to local media reports.
His son, Dong-bin, received a suspended jail sentence in that case, according to local media reports. But he was later swept up in the far-reaching, political corruption scandal that brought down former South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. Dong-bin was arrested and indicted on bribery charges in 2017. He denied the charges, but was found guilty by a South Korean court the following year, receiving a suspended jail sentence.
“We respect the wise ruling of the court. We will become a company that works to contribute to the country’s economy and take societal responsibility,” the Lotte Group said at the time, according to local media reports.
Shin Dong-bin currently serves as chairman of the Lotte Group.
— CNN’s Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.