Deep blue eyes in the middle of a charismatic and honest face.
Loves his family, his animals and life. It is about Vin Lee, one of the most exciting men, not only for his professional career, but for his up and down life.
You only must see his deep blue eyes to understand that his soul is plenty of light, and this light shines in a strong way that makes all he touches be magical.
Over the last three decades, Grand Metropolitan has accumulated a portfolio of over 100 luxury brands including 7 billion-dollar banners as well as dozens of hundred-million-dollar ones. In addition, the company has consolidated all online operations into its own exclusive digital platform Lichtensteins Department Store.
Finlay Fine Jewelers and Heilig-Meyers Furniture have each been leading employers and influences in their industries and communities for over a century with more than $200 billion in cumulative revenue including 20 of the Top 50 retail brands in each industry during that time. Heilig-Meyers has a deep history of raising tens of millions of dollars for charity including Cystic Fibrosis.
Grand Metropolitan has multiple specialty businesses including Gallery Rodeo, Beverly Hills Cigar Club, and Pushkin Caviar. These operations are very invested in the charity circuit participating in VIP events and fundraising for organizations around the globe.
You are a man of success, but you had the experience to loose everything and later to rebirth as a true winner. What happened, and how did you face this upside down and success again?
First of all that is very kind of you to say, but whatever I have done in my life I sure didn’t do it alone. I have been surrounded by people my entire life that have encouraged me along the way. Not to mention, I started out with far more advantages than most.
Now that being said, not all the support has been positive and certainly not all the behaviours have been exemplary. I learned a lot from the mistakes and misteps that others have made as well. I have known many self-important men throughout my career. Especially at a very early age, I saw men confused about how important they really were. One thing they never learned was in order to beat someone you have to be competing for the same thing. And you can’t ever stop no matter how much it hurts.
At the age of 20, I signed a contract with the City of Detroit Pension Fund to turnaround the $80 million in losses at the Grand Traverse Resort. The contract was for a minimum of $3.6 million per year with as much as $50 million upside. My brief but effective experience consulting in the automotive transportation business helped reassure my abilities to rehab their operation. And just like in the trucking business, they did not want to honor their contract with me. They decided not to pay out the last two years of the agreement. So I shut off the program. They sued me for $13 million and I countersued them for $40 million. This lead to a painful and stressful 6 year long legal battle with a $3 billion entity. By the time it was over, my view of the world had changed and Michigan was too small for me anymore.
When I started my career, all I wanted was to earn $6 million. The first $3 million would buy the biggest house on Orchard Lake near the country club and the rest would keep me in a new Ferrari every few years and eating out whenever I wanted. Moving to Florida, $3 million bought a garage on 100ft of beachfront. Then I got out to Beverly Hills and found that $3 million buys you a starter home in the Valley and those Ferraris cost a lot of money to maintain whether you drive them or not. To be a player there you need at least $100 million just to get in the door and be part of the crowd. You’ll still probably be asked your name at the door. I was never going to stand in that line. I wanted to own the club.
After a broken relationship and serious depression, I found myself on Siesta Key Beach at sunrise sitting in the parking lot of a friends restaurant in an old corvette and a tank top. What was I going to do? Continue to limp through life or stand up and fight back? I had an opportunity at buying Samuels Jewelers, then 5th largest jewelry chain in America, but I would have to risk it all. But if I pull it off I could lead an industry roll-up. The kind that H. Waybe Huizanga did in three different businesses in the 1990s, Blockbuster, Auto Nation, and Waste Management.
I would have to borrow $75 million to buy one of the oldest jewelry chains in America once boasting almost 200 locations with more than a third of it unsecure debt. I signed a deal with a broker to pay 5% of the funds raised in cash, regardless of the outcome. After two years of screaming into telephones and kissing up to some of the most vile people in the finance world both local and international, I quit. Knowing full well the tab was to be paid and I would walk away with nothing. My parents would be so proud of me. I had failed completely.
For the next year or so I would lick my wounds on the beaches of the Florida Keys. I track raced my vintage Porsche 930 turbo and Ferrari Testarossa. Put in some time helping the local community and did the charity circuit. I was almost delighted to be out of the jewelry business. I had cigars to occupy my attention, until a jeweler friend of mine found himself in trouble and asked if I would still be interested in buying his local wholesale/retail operation. It serviced about 128 jewelry stores down the coast. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Samuels Jewelers would fall back into bankruptcy shortly after I walked away. It would ultimately be sold to India’s Nirav Modi, landing him on the pages of Forbes as a billionaire. We would regularily compete on the red carpet as he splashed celebrities and models with diamonds paying them to be in expensive ad campaigns for his brand. I refuse to pay people to wear my collections. Nirav Modi would become entangled in the largest financial fraud in Indian history approximately $2 billion and a fugitive from authorities losing everything.
Samuels Diamonds is now part of Finlay Enterprises. Checkmate.
What does it mean to live in Beverly Hills, and what luxury means for you?
I first moved offices to Beverly Hills almost 20 years ago, but maintained my home in South Florida as well. The tax benefits of a Florida resident more than offset the costs of having a home in Beverly Hills/Bel Air, CA. The community of Holmby Hills has been a wonderful haven for me to meet and mingle with some of the world’s most successful and famous people. Of course, owning the Beverly Hills Cigar Club has opened doors all over the world. I tease people that rich people live in Beverly Hills but their bosses live in Bel Air.
For me, the address was very important when starting out, especially in luxury. Many companies spend $300,000 to $500,000 a month just to have a 3D billboard (retail presence) on Rodeo Drive. Location, Location, Location is vital for success in our industry. But I must also stress, presence is as important especially if you are not building on a legacy. Making a name for yourself in the world’s most exclusive retail space is very expensive. Standing out and standing above is key.
Being a leader in the luxury industry, one is expected to be surrounded by opulence, the fanciest people, the most exotic locales, the best the world has to offer. In America, Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills is the ecocenter of that world with 5th Avenue, New York an equal point of reference. Coincidentally the headquarters of Finlay Enterprises, our largest jewelry banner acquisiton boasting 1,100 locations and over $1 billion in annual revenue prior to our taking over the brand.
Luxury for me is about creating an experience for clients, giving them something they have never felt, tasted, or seen before, that inspires them to want more from their life.
You administer 130 luxury brands of different issues. How it is possible to manage so many brands and what is the key of your success?
Grand Metropolitan is a family office that owns and operates 130 brands across 7 divisions. In comparison, LVMH has over 60 subsidiaries and is exponentially larger than we are even though we both started operations in 1989. That same year, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (Kering) was formed and has risen to the second largest luxury group in the world with a smaller assortment of much larger aspirational assets such as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.
Much of our contemporaries are global brand managers working with department stores and other retail groups for distribution. Grand Metropolitan’s primary focus for the last three decades has been North America. We specialize in distressed heritage assets in the luxury market. For over 30 years we have been slowly adding to our stable of brands primarily in jewelry, home furnishings, tobacco, and foods most of which have gone through some level of financial restructuring or bankruptcy.
Within the jewelry industry, our largest competitor has 7 national brands and 11 regional brands supported by $6.5 billion in revenue and riddled with debt and legal issues. They have lost over 90% of their stock value in the last few years in one of the hottest economies we have seen in decades. Finlay Fine Jewelers maintains a portfolio of (50) jewelry brands dating back over 200 years and having accrued almost $100 billion in that time frame. Heilig-Meyers Furniture manages about (30) home furnishing brands with similar numbers supporting them.
We operate one marketing and public relationships department for the entire group. This eliminates significant cost and redundancies. It also creates relationships and opportunities for brands to come togeter in events and functions around the world. More than 100 of our brands are heritage or legacy brands having served tens of millions of people some for over a century. Those relationships, reputations, and operations were built on billions and billions of dollars of debt and overhead that no longer exist.
As we continue to grow and strengthen market position both geographically and demographically, we will be paring down the portfolio to under 100 brands putting more resources and emphasis on the Dalgety portfolio. Some product lines, such as wine & spirits, tobacco, and caviar can take decades to develop and mature. They require great capital and patience. But that gives you a very long runway to develop relationships and build up brand loyalties.
Luxury is one of the sectors that are really growing, but not in the same way as in other different countries. Regarding the American market, what is your opinion?
I believe that the world wide luxury market has been built successful on brands and legacy for well over a century, especially the emerging markets have started to participate in both sides of the mercantile. Much like blue jeans and Jack Daniels were considered much sought after luxuries in Berlin in the 80s.
In America, luxury is evolving into a different kind of animal. Your aspirational lifestyle products are no longer just rare items with an elevated price tag. The new economy has made virtually everything available to everyone around the world today. So in fine fashion, the Americans want to know the meaning behind the purpose. Sustainability. Carbon foot print. The story of creation has become a vital component to brand loyalty, not just in luxury but in most consumer goods today in North America.
Clients want to be certain that ther diamonds are cage-free and the precious metals were gently massaged into shape, not banged or abused. We are proud to announce that no animals have been hurt in the creation of our award winning cigars.
In a crazy world that only influencers, beautiful people and “richness developers” are on the top, you seem to be fully different.
My father use to tell me “there will always be people who are smarter than you, wealthier than you, and better looking than you.” He was right, except they aren’t all the same people.
There are a lot of people that have developed their audience/personal brand on social media platforms, specifically Instagram, Twitter, and Snap Chat. These “influencers” show off a lifestyle of glitter and glam from hundred thousand dollar time pieces and million dollar vehicles. The kids love this and want to emulate it so they fawn over these personalities in the hopes that somehow they will either get noticed or develop the same luck through osmosis. I have been considered an influencer on Linkedin over the years and really stay loyal to that platform as much of the details and information is verifiable.
What you aren’t privvy too on Instagram is how these indivudals came upon these exotic lifestyles. First of all you have the “Rich Kids”. These are people that are living off of their parents money and showing you how terrible your life really is. There is a lot of this on the international stage, through Europe and Asia. Kids street racing exotics and running up huge tabs at hotel cabanas with beautiful young girls by their side. If you feel bad about your close circle of friends on Facebook going on vacation, wait until you see how poor you really are compared to these kids. You find today that the ladies are the ones actually making all the moves, producing the deals, sponsorships and profits like Chiara Ferragni, Michelle Phan, and Kylie Jenner.
One person who is considered a “big deal” on Instagram received a rumored $100 million trust from his fathers questionable investment endeavors. He has spent years showing everyone how great life was just laying around the beach with dozens of scantily-clad women and machine guns. He even did a photo shoot at a $250 million Bel Air Estate which the internet immediate dubbed his NEW HOME. There is no real business there, but like I said, the kids love it.
Then you have the “showman”, the men that are attempting to prove to you how successful/wealthy they are so you will buy their books, tapes, and go to the Holiday Inn in Paramus to hear their conferences for just $1,000! They will 10X your life and one day you can take video of yourself walking on a private jet with your name painted on the side too! Just buy these audiotapes! If you dig back a few years you will see that most of them were renting props to stage these audacious claims or success to draw in and build their audiences. Even photoshopping his logo on the seats of a jet one pretended to own. This “I’ll teach you to get rich” scheme has been around for decades, since late night tv showed Carleton Sheets walking around a Rolls Royce in front of a mansion he never lived in. There’s been dozens of these clowns over the years. It’s not new and it isn’t real.
Take care of the business, and the business will take care of you. For me, no one cares how much money I earn or spend. And they sure as hell don’t care what kind of car I drive or how big my house is. I am just an executive of a modest family office. In fact, I have not taken a dime out of Grand Metropolitan in 30 years. It is all about the business, and the brands. The people in my world want what they pay for, to be paid on time, and treated with respect. Vendors and employees want consistency and integrity in the companies and principals they are associating with. If you are spending money like you won the lottery, you better pray that you are never late on a single bill or payroll. These are glamorous product lines, but the people behind them are tough.
I don’t feel the need to live in the limelight. I own the club now, I dont have to go to the party. The real succesful people of the world, those of accomplishment, taste and style, don’t have to post on Instagram walking in and out of a jet for their self worth. But the kids love it and they run up their credit cards trying to be just like that. Ask Scott Storch, Daniel Sadek, or James Stunt how that worked out.
You have as main values as for example your family, your dogs, your discretion, things that maybe can’t be important for many people. What is your secret?
Perhaps I just have different priorities than others. Money has never been a priority for me. Certainly not the goal of my efforts. My secret in overcoming pain and loss is with rage and anger. And the chip on my shoulder my father always teased me about. My journey has already been more than 30 years and it has not always been a straight rocketship to the moon. Even with the advantages I had in my teen years I have fallen on bloodied knee many times. I left a lot of skin on the canvas so far. I was very lucky there was still someone there for me when I did get back up.
I’ve shared this many times in the past, but in the last decade I was on over 500 flights across the country as well as internationally. I added up the time I spent in the air and it was over 1 year I was away from my family. The deals and transactions we do often take 2-3 long years to come together and are never certain. The complexity is incredible.
As an example, Finlay Enterprises had 18,000 creditors. Heilig-Meyers had thousands of real estate contracts and leases. Not to mention the billions of dollars in inventory. Samuels Jewelers recently only had about 100 locations and still maintained $100 million in inventory. This all doesnt even take into account the human factor. There are thousands of families impacted tremendously by these transactions and emotions run very high.
All this being said, when you are in the middle of a handful of these deals simulateously, you don’t always have time or patience with the ones around you. It can be a very selfish lifestyle. Its not for the faint of heart. So I am very grateful for the people I have in my life and make sure to jealously protect them all from my work.
New generations think that money is easy to get, but to climb the mountain and be there is not available for the majority of people. What is your advice for them?
Certainly today’s youth think the path to success is to come up with some “disruptive” idea and walk around and ask everyone else to pay for it to become reality. “If you fail, great! Let’s do it again!” Uber is in 875 cities and losing $5 billion consistently each quarter. After expecting a $100 billion valuation, analysts and insiders dont see the business model as sustainable.
Elon Musk has Tesla’s balance sheet drowning in over $24 billion in debt just to produce a few hundred thousand cars in 16 years. He has never shown a profit in any of his ventures his entire life, but as long as people keep funding his fantasies and he has access to 1980s sci-fi movies it will continue.
But these situations are reserved for a small group of people. People who already created wealth for the money men and women that made them during the dot com boom. Silicon Valley is a very tight knit group that is hard to break in to.
My advice is to think long and hard before you want to follow this type of path in life. It is not for everyone. There is a lot more compromise than you think of who you are. Everything will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you anticipate. Climbing the mountain you will find a lot of people in your way and if you do make it to the top, not everyone will be happy for you.
How do you see the future of luxury brands and also the influence of the digital marketing on them?
This too shall pass. Influence in digital marketing will evolve into something else. Especially as brands have begun building engagement with consumers on social media. I think that Artifical Intelligence we become a determining factor. You will ask your own personal A.I. Angel for shopping and purchase advice that will be compiled based on an aggregate of your needs and wants, viewing and searching results.
People by nature will always aspire for more in their lives so luxury will continue.
And the evolution of the customers that buy these luxury goods?
Hem lines rise and fall. Haircuts straighten and curl. Automobiles swell and compact. All that is old is new again. Everything is cyclical in our society. Luxury goods as a general category is no different. Generations go through the opposites of what their predecessors do. Not to mention, once the kids find something cool, the parents quickly follow. Then it isn’t cool anymore and falls out of favor. Halston and Bill Blass are hardly on the lips of Millenials these days.
If you were raised during the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s you spent, often on credit. The next generation got slammed with watching their parents try and pay off their debts and overextended mortgages so they retreat from larger showy purchases and make smaller more intimate and meaningful acquisitions. And they spend on experiential purchases like travel. It is the same with the McMansions and the Little Homes rotations. The one thing that is assured is price tags will continue to outpace income.
As Aristotle Onassis once famously stated, “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” Women will continue to have the most powerful influence and voice in the household finances especially as it pertains to luxury and aspirational goods.
What is the only thing that you never did, but wanted to do?
I never got to be a father.
Thanks very much Vin!
I am honored to share your experiences with our visitors!