Few entrepreneurs can say they have left their indelible mark on the world of luxury, but Vin Lee is one of those few.
Hollywood stars, celebrities, royalty, and heads of state have worn Lee’s jewelry collections. His caviar has been consumed by the rich and famous; his ultra rare cigars puffed by the select elite.
Lee is CEO of Grand Metropolitan, managing a portfolio of some 130 high-end brands valued at $7 billion (US). They range from the Beverly Hills Cigar Club to behemoth billion-dollar industries like Heilig-Meyers Furniture to Finlay Fine Jewelers. It’s fitting that the king of luxury’s name is Vin – French for wine – the very symbol of the good life.
The Toronto-born Lee became a self-made millionaire in his late teens. He first left his mark on the business world in the 1990s, having invented specialized marquee signs – now a $6 billion global industry – used by McDonald’s, Walt Disney, Blockbuster, Universal Studios, Las Vegas tourism, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums, and scores of others.
One night lying in bed, staring at his window blinds, Lee wondered if the same concept could be used to market products, with moving artwork on three different angles of the side of the blind. The bonus – they could be lit up at night.
“Finding a way to manufacture these was the real challenge. In the days before the internet, information was terrifically hard to access,” he tells The Edge. “I pored through magazines, books, and business directories… It was terribly time consuming and unencouraging. Today, the process would take seconds on Google.” Getting the attention of corporates meant months of cold-calling.
Lee’s company, Cinemagic Marquee, was the first of many successful ventures. Not long after, he’d parlay his business insight to repackage Michigan’s Grand Traverse Resort.
The Resort developed a top-line reputation for national events, but its mammoth expansion left it unable to reconcile an $80 million debt. Lee, not much past high school, saw an opportunity. With the skills he learned at Ford Motor Company in Detroit reorganizing transport logistics, and a proposal for turnaround, he scored meetings with Grand Traverse management and was offered a three-year mandate to rescue the sinking ship. He rebooted the resort to have the look and feel of an elite destination, collaborated with upscale brands, and in a year and a half, not only improved operations, but eliminated decades-long debt.
“I never wanted to be part of the club; I wanted to own the clubhouse,” he jokes.
By his early twenties, Lee entered the jewelry business, quite serendipitously. It began with a celebratory stop to buy a Rolex at DuQuet Jewelers to reward himself for a new corporate deal. Enchanted by the proprietor’s stories about the wild world of jewelry, Lee made his first investment in the industry then and there. He bought the store, a five-decade-old business that already had a reputation for selling high-end merchandise. Ambitious as well as knowledge-hungry, Lee rolled through a quarter-century’s worth of trade magazines, sustaining his keen interest to today.
Lee went on to launch The Diamond Channel in collaboration with several large North American jewelry manufacturers. TDC became the largest global online jewelry database, featuring over 128,000 different design selections.
However, a huge disruption occurred with iconic jewelry retailers about a decade ago that turned Lee’s fortunes. During the recession, retailers began defaulting on overextended credit. Heavyweights like Zale Corporation, Town and Country, and Michael Anthony Jewelers were sinking, while the Signet Group, the largest worldwide jewelry company, cut 300 locations. Many other known names were closing shops, and it didn’t help that the price of gold dipped to lows not seen since the 1970s.
In 2009, Finlay Enterprises – whose footprint was 1,100 locations across North America – filed for bankruptcy protection, buckling under a debt of more than a half-billion dollars. Two years later, Lee’s company Grand Metropolitan acquired some of the company assets.
Finlay’s products have graced the red carpets of events like the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, and the Grammys, among others. Vin’s own creative pieces have been worn by celebrities, diplomats, and royalty. In 2001, he invented the “Tennis Earring” also called “the ear cuff”, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival and to be featured later on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Today, Finlay Enterprises is the largest privately-held jewelry retail group in North America.
Meanwhile, Wickes Furniture – the largest furniture retailer in America – also filed for bankruptcy, in 2008. Grand Metropolitan gobbled that up too, attaching it to the company’s already-owned Heilig-Meyers banner.
Grand Met is able to buy out so many brands through shrewd investing, and it’s a slow and steady process. “We earn and save until we have enough to acquire the next brand,” Lee says. “No one sees the years of hard work or sacrifice.”
In recent years, the company has expanded to food, with Pushkin caviar and Frechef brand Fruishi (fruit sushi), developed as a healthy alternative to yogurts and smoothies. Still for Lee, it’s not all about the glamour. “I get to interact with artisans, tastemakers, fashionistas, farmers, and financiers,” he says. “The people, associates and vendors that make up the company of Grand Metropolitan with such skill, dedication, and integrity.”
With creativity, seizing opportunity, tenacity – and yes, a certain amount of being in the right place at the right time – Lee gives inspiration to all entrepreneurs that the sky’s the limit.
Dave Gordon | Contributing Writer