How a tale of unrequited love inspired a business empire

The business empire that he built was worth an estimated US$100 billion. Yet 78 years earlier when he stowed away on a ship to Japan, all the young Shin had to his name was 83 Japanese Yen and a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

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SOUTH KOREA. Lotte Group founder and honorary Chairman Shin Kyuk-ho, a wartime migrant to Japan who built the fifth-largest conglomerate in South Korea, passed away at the age of 97 on Sunday afternoon, writes Min Yong Jung.

The name of the company originates from the lead female character Charlotte (Lotte) in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, who Chairman Shin drew inspiration from

Chairman Shin had been in and out of hospital since 2018 and was most recently hospitalised on 18 January. He passed at Asan Medical Center, Seoul with his family at his bedside. His second son, Lotte Chairman Shin Dong-bin, returned prematurely from a business trip in Japan upon hearing of his father’s failing health.

Honorary Chairman Shin was born 4 October 1922 in the city of Ulsan on the Korean Peninsula. He was the eldest son of ten children and spent much of his youth in Korea which was a colony of Japan at the time. Chairman Shin stowed away on a ship to Japan in 1942 in search of his dream to become an inventor and attended night school at Waseda Jitsugyo High School (currently Waseda University). All he had at the time was 83 yen and a copy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’.

The obituary on Lotte Group’s website tells of the sad passing of Chairman Shin at 98. It says that his philosophy of the company giving back to the country will be upheld in the future.

Chairman Shin in his younger days

Chairman Shin was a self-made entrepreneur, who established numerous businesses prior to founding Lotte in 1948. The name of the company originates from the lead female character Charlotte (Lotte) in Goethe’s novel, who Chairman Shin drew inspiration from.

Lotte grew from selling chewing gum to become South Korea’s fifth-largest conglomerate with a wide scope of businesses (food, department store and duty free retail, entertainment, finance, construction, amusement parks, hotels, trade, IT, chemical, machinery and transportation) on multiple continents. Lotte made its mark in South Korea with Chairman Shin returning to the country to found Lotte Confectionery in 1967.

Honorary Chairman Shin’s decision to invest in the tourism sector dates back to the 1980s when he began acquiring land in Gangnam to realise his dream of building the world’s tallest landmark building. “We should not just talk about the decline in foreign visitors but invest and work towards making a country that foreigners want to visit,” he said.

Chairman Shin was a visionary and the investments made by Lotte ahead of their peers resulted in Lotte Duty Free becoming a powerful global player in the travel retail industry. According to The Moodie Davitt Report Top 25 Travel Retailers ranking, Lotte Duty Free ranks as the world’s second-largest duty free operator and is committed to becoming number one.

Chairman Shin’s foreword to Lotte Duty Free’s 30th anniversary book in 2010: “Korea’s travel retail industry has grown into a leading driver of national tourism development thanks to Lotte Duty Free” [A decade on, The Moodie Davitt Report is producing Lotte Duty Free’s 40th anniversary publication this year].

Honorary Chairman Shin was among the last generation of entrepreneurs in Korea who worked to rebuild the war-torn country in the 1960s. His successes saw his wealth build from a mere 83 yen in 1942 to a conglomerate with an estimated value of KRW115 trillion (US$100 billion).

Lotte World Tower was the culmination of Chairman Shin’s dream to create a world-renowned landmark in his native land

While his father’s leadership will certainly be missed, current Chairman Shin Dong-bin and a wealth of experienced management staff have worked to overcome difficulties posed by both the Korean and Chinese governments since 2016. With a recent corruption scandal and the retribution from the THAAD anti-missile system (housed on Lotte Group land) nearing its end, the future appears brighter for Lotte Group.

Honorary Chairman Shin leaves behind no will for his personal wealth estimated at around KRW1 trillion (US$862 million). His family will need to agree upon the inheritance split or accept the legal ruling on fair inheritance of the late Chairman’s assets.

Market speculation resulted in the shares of Lotte Corporation spiking as much as +20% in early hours of trading on Monday morning. However, the passing of Honorary Chairman Shin Kyuk-ho is expected to have little impact on the management and ownership as the legal battle between Chairman Shin Dong-bin and his older brother Shin Dong-ju is all but over (in favour of the current Chairman).