SEOUL — Shin Kyuk-ho, who built a chewing-gum business into the immensely successful Lotte Group in South Korea and Japan, only to see his sons squabble over the corporate empire, died Sunday. He was 98.
The company, South Korea’s fifth-largest business conglomerate, announced the death of Mr. Shin, its founder.
He was the last of the rags-to-riches founders of South Korea’s major family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, and his death represented something of an end of an era for South Koreans. Charismatic chaebol tycoons like Mr. Shin were credited with engineering the dramatic industrialization that transformed the country into one of Asia’s leading economies after the destruction of the Korean War in the 1950s.
Like those of other chaebol founders, Mr. Shin’s beginnings were humble.
He was born in a rural village in Ulsan, in the southeast of what is now South Korea, in 1921, when the country was languishing under Japan’s colonial rule. He was the eldest son of a family with 10 children.
The young Shin had a literary bent and yearned to become a novelist. He was raising pigs in his village after graduating from an agricultural high school when he decided to stow away in a ship to Japan in 1941 to pursue a literary career.
In Tokyo, he delivered milk and newspapers during the day while attending college at night. His first serious business venture in Japan, a factory producing cutting oil, a lubricant used in metalworking, was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during World War II.
He never became a novelist, but he named his first successful business, a company that marketed chewing gum, Lotte after Charlotte, the female character in Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
He began selling Lotte bubble gum in 1948, after watching US soldiers in postwar Japan handing out chewing gum to children. It was an instant success, and Lotte expanded into chocolate and other confections, as well as real estate.
Mr. Shin never forgot his roots. He retained his Korean citizenship and lived in both countries. As soon as South Korea and Japan established diplomatic ties in 1965, he began investing in his home country, building hotels and department stores in Seoul.
Today, Lotte is a household name in South Korea, running 90 affiliates that generate $86 billion, in annual revenues.