The Korea Herald


CEO war heats up among big three battery makers

Key men close to chaebol chiefs stepping in to lead red-hot battery units suggest shift in business priority

By Lee Ji-yoon

Published : Dec. 22, 2021 - 16:52

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The latest battlefield for the nation’s top three battery makers -- LG Energy Solution, Samsung SDI and SK On -- is their new leaderships. High-profile executives, including a chaebol scion, have stepped in to nurture the battery-making units of LG, Samsung and SK as new growth engines.

The Korean trio has seen a surge in battery output capacity this year amid soaring demand for electric vehicles around the world, especially in the all-important US market. Their market share reached a combined 44.1 percent in the first 11 months of this year, according to market research firm S&P Global Platts.

They may still be losing money in the nascent field but are rushing to pour in more resources in a bid to keep up with growing demand and widen the gap with their rivals. And their new CEOs are tasked with pushing ahead with the ambitious plans without hesitation. 

LG Energy Solution, a spinoff from LG Chem, named Kwon Young-soo, former chief operating officer of group holding company LG Corp., as its new CEO last month. It was a surprise announcement considering the group’s No. 2 man had stepped away from management to oversee business strategy across all LG affiliates in recent years.

Kwon, a financial specialist, played a key role in growing LG’s battery business from the beginning. In 2012, he took the helm of the battery business division of LG Chem and secured a slew of global carmakers, including Audi and Daimler, as its key clients.

Since then, he has moved up the career ladder at LG, serving as chief financial officer of LG Electronics and CEO of LG Display. Upon the inauguration of LG Group Chairman Koo Kwang-mo in 2018, he was promoted to vice chairman and chief operating officer of LG Corp.

Having inked a series of partnership deals with Hyundai Motor, General Motors and Stellantis, the owner of Fiat-Chrysler, LG Energy Solution, the market leader, plans to drastically expand capacity from the current 120 gigawatt hours to 260 gigawatt hours by 2023.

In order to finance the plans, it is also seeking to raise nearly 12 trillion won ($10 billion) next month in what would be the nation’s biggest-ever initial public offering.

“Kwon’s return comes at a crucial juncture for LG Energy Solution. He is a well-respected veteran CEO who can handle the mammoth IPO and other tricky issues like risk control,” an industry source said on condition of anonymity.

Samsung SDI, which has focused on improving profitability rather than making huge investments, has also added weight to its burgeoning electric vehicle battery business by appointing Choi Yoon-ho, former Samsung Electronics chief financial officer, as its new CEO.

When Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was imprisoned for corruption in 2017, an emergency management system was operated under three CEOs and Choi, then president of management support division, doubled as chief financial officer and chief risk officer.

He joined Samsung Electronics in 1987 and worked at key divisions where he nurtured financial specialty. He also worked at Future Strategy Office, the now defunct control tower team of Samsung Group, in 2010 for three years. He became chief financial officer in 2014.

In the latest executive reshuffle, Choi was promoted to vice chairman, the first executive to do so outside Samsung Electronics, the group’s crown jewel.

Compared to its crosstown rivals, Samsung SDI has modest investment plans but its profitability has improved faster as well.

Samsung SDI recently signed a joint venture deal with Stellantis to produce battery cells and modules in the US, where LG Energy Solution and SK On are already betting big to secure a firm footing. With the Stellantis deal alone, the firm aims to reach an annual 40 gigawatt hours battery capacity.

In his first town hall meeting with employees, Choi stressed “super gap” technology and profitability as the key to maintaining the firm’s leadership position.

SK On, the electric vehicle battery unit of SK Group, may be a latecomer among the big three but has made the most ambitious investments under the goal of elevating battery capacity from the current 40 gigawatt-hours to more than 500 gigawatt hours by 2030.

In an apparent move to continue the momentum, the firm last week named Chey Jae-won, Chairman Chey Tae-won’s younger brother, as its co-CEO.

This is a return to management for the junior Chey, eight years after he stepped down from all posts in 2013 when he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison form embezzlement. After being released on parole in 2016, he faced employment restrictions for five years, which ended this October.

As the only chaebol scion to take the helm at the red-hot battery unit, it seems inevitable that he will face heightened public scrutiny. But sources say his return reflects his strong will and affection for the new growth engine business.

Chey, who holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brown and a master’s degree in materials science from Stanford, was deeply involved in SK’s business expansion in the battery sector as he recommended that his brother look into the huge business potential and make aggressive investments.

Due to its rapidly expanding global production network, SK On outpaced its bigger rival Samsung SDI in terms of battery capacity early this year. In May, the firm announced it would set up a joint venture with Ford to build electric vehicle battery facilities worth 13 trillion won.

“Now batteries are everywhere from electric vehicles to smartphones. Due to its huge market potential, big firms are adding weight to their business units by placing key figures at the helm,” said another source who wished to be unnamed.

S&P Global Platts predicted the Korean trio could continue their leadership in the electric vehicle battery market, excluding China, at least for the next three to four years. In the January-November period, LG Energy Solution’s global market share soared to 36.2 percent in terms of capacity, outpacing the 25 percent of last year’s leader Panasonic of Japan.

While China’s CATL maintained its third position with a 12.5 percent share, SK On and Samsung SDI took 11.1 percent and 8.9 percent, ranked at fourth and fifth, respectively.

The next battlefield for the three battery makers is expected to be the North American market as a free trade agreement among the US, China and Mexico takes effects in July 2025 to require carmakers to sell electric vehicles equipped with locally produced parts only.