SEOUL — South Korea’s SM Entertainment appointed Jang Cheol-hyuk as the company’s new CEO on Friday (March 31), as the K-pop giant vowed to turn over a new leaf by bringing on a fresh leader and board of directors. Jang succeeds outgoing CEO Lee Sung-soo.

“I feel a great responsibility to assume the position as a CEO when SM is about to take a big leap forward,” said Jang in a statement. “We will establish a sound [and] transparent governance structure and faithfully implement the SM 3.0 strategy so that SM can become a fan-and shareholder-centered global entertainment leader.” 

The landmark corporate shakeup is part of SM’s bid to improve corporate governance as well as its production system, which in recent years lagged behind rivals and invited investor scrutiny. Friday’s appointments also put an end to the weeks-long drama that gripped the K-pop world, pitting industry giants HYBE, home to boyband BTS, and South Korean tech giant Kakao against each other.

A certified accountant and professional manager, Jang joined SM in early 2022 as CFO and has been involved in creating the blueprint for SM’s future. Dubbed SM 3.0, the plan is to diversify the company’s artist portfolio and delegate more creative control away from the single-pipeline structure helmed by SM founder Lee Soo-man.

For years, Lee hasn’t had an official role at SM — which developed K-pop groups EXO, NCT and Girls’ Generation — but he had nearly unchecked powers as its largest shareholder. He was being paid millions of dollars a year in production fees, a setup that ended late last year following a shareholder revolt. 

At Friday’s meeting, Kim Kyung Wook, a former SM CEO and now shareholder, pressed the agency to recoup the production fees, but outgoing CEO Lee Sung-soo — who is Lee Soo-man’s nephew — said the company was not ready to consider that step.

Cracks began to show at SM in February after management, without Lee Soo-man’s approval, signed a partnership deal with Kakao. The founder retaliated by selling most of his shares to HYBE and laying the groundwork for a possible merger between the two largest K-pop agencies. 

Friday’s shareholder meeting had been hyped as a spirited battle between HYBE and Kakao before HYBE abruptly threw in the towel last week and ceded some of its SM shares to its rival.

Together with subsidiary Kakao Entertainment, Kakao has now secured nearly 40% of shares in SM, becoming the company’s largest stakeholder. Jang Yoon-Joong, executive vp/global strategy officer at Kakao Entertainment, as well as Align Partners CEO Lee Changhwan — who led the shareholder revolt — have now joined the board as non-executive directors. 

Three SM executives, including incoming CEO Jang, were also appointed to the board, while five outside directors were also approved: Kim Kyu-Shik, chairman of the Korean Corporate Governance Forum; Kim Tae-him, attorney at Pyeong San Law Firm; Moon Jungbien, professor at Korea University Business School; Lee Seung-min, partner at Peter & Kim; and Sung M. Cho, CEO of music analytics company Chartmetric.  

Before BTS conquered the world, Lee Soo-man was the most famous face of K-pop in Korea for reasons both good and bad. He has been lauded as a visionary but criticized for his harsh treatment of trainees and artists. While he treated stalwart artists like family, keeping them on the roster even after their career peaks, he also was accused of excessive control over the acts’ professional and personal lives. He has also been convicted of embezzlement, though he later received a presidential pardon for his contribution to K-pop. 

Lee Soo-man still holds over 3% of SM’s shares but hasn’t disclosed his future plans regarding the company. A representative sent to Friday’s meeting on his behalf stayed silent at the gathering.

“Today marks an end of an era at SM, a company I founded in my name,” said Lee, in a statement emailed to reporters shortly before the shareholder meeting. While not commenting directly on the proceedings, he said he was staying outside the country and is “deeply immersed in the world of global music.”

Alexei Barrionuevo
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