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CEO profile

SK Hynix CEO Lee Seok-hee: Star engineer, bookworm, soju connoisseur

Jan 12, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)


When SK Hynix Inc. announced a $9 billion all-cash deal to acquire Intel Corp.’s NAND memory chip business in mid-October of last year, the market gave the chipmaker the cold shoulder, saying it was paying too much.

Weighed by concerns over the apparently high price tag, SK Hynix’s shares fell for most of the sessions during the 10 days following the announcement, until Chief Executive Lee Seok-hee stood up to dispel the market’s doubt over the deal.

Lee said the price was fair given the value of Intel’s intangible assets and the synergy the deal would bring to SK Hynix, a latecomer in the intensifying global NAND memory market.

A few days later, the veteran chip engineer vowed to triple its NAND flash memory sales to 15 trillion won ($13.6 billion) within five years, as the company released strong third-quarter earnings buoyed by recovering memory chip prices.

The company’s shares have since risen 55% to finish at 129,000 won on Jan. 12 as investor concerns over its Intel deal subsided amid a growing market view that the chip industry is poised to enter a “supercycle” in the coming years.

STAR ENGINEER AT INTEL

NAND flash chip produced by SK Hynix

Industry officials say Lee’s bold decision to take over Intel’s NAND business derives from his decades of experience as a veteran engineer and researcher, including a stint as a chief technician at Intel for 11 years from 2000.

Some of his former Intel colleagues remember him as a star engineer, as he received the Intel Achievement Award, the US firm’s highest recognition for technical achievement, three times during his time at the company – a rare feat for an engineer.

Having received an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree from Seoul National University, he started his career in 1990 at Hyundai Electronics, which was later renamed Hynix and then SK Hynix after the SK Group took over the chipmaker in 2012.

In 2000, he left Hyundai for the US to join Intel, and received a doctorate in materials science and engineering from Stanford University in 2021.

Back in Korea, he worked as an electrical engineering associate professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) from 2010 to 2013.

Lee returned to SK Hynix in 2013 as a senior vice president and head of its R&D division before taking the role of its chief operating officer in 2017. He assumed the CEO post in December 2018.

LOVE FOR BOOKS AND ALCOHOL

At SK Hynix, Lee is known for his love for alcohol as well as books.

Some industry officials call him a bookworm as he reads a lot, from the humanities to science and technology books. He is said to buy more than 10 new books from Amazon.com every month to read even before they are translated into Korean.

An SK Hynix official said Lee used to read a technology thesis every day after work before going home to learn more about semiconductors during his early years at Hyundai Electronics.

“What’s inside my briefcase is gold, not a book,” answered Lee once when he was asked why he reads books so enthusiastically.

He is also known to appreciate alcohol, consuming two to three bottles of soju, a strong Korean liquor, on special occasions.

His close friends joke that he climbed the corporate ladder to the top post at SK Hynix “with a book in one hand and a glass of soju in the other.”

ONE STEP AWAY FROM HIS GOAL

Lee faced an industry downturn right after he took the helm of Hynix, the world’s second-largest memory chipmaker.

At his New Year's speech in 2019, the chief executive said he envisioned Hynix as a tech giant with 100 trillion won in market capitalization within three years. Back then, SK Hynix shares were hovering around 60,000 won apiece on the Seoul bourse with less than 50 trillion won in market cap.

The company’s operating profit likely rose to about 5 trillion won last year, up from 2.7 trillion won in 2019.

Slightly more than two years in office as SK Hynix CEO, Lee is just a step away from achieving his goal for the company to reach 100 trillion won in market value.

During an SK Hynix town hall, called All-Hands Meeting, in November of last year, he amused company executives and employees by citing a line from boy band sensation BTS’ hit Dynamite to express his determination to take the company to the next level.

“I’m good to go. I’m diamond, you know I glow up.”

Write to Hyung-Suk Song at click@hankyung.com

In-Soo Nam edited this article.

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