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VIN LEE, CEO, GRAND METROPOLITAN "The Life and Art of a Luxury Brand King"


Vin Lee became a self-made millionaire in his late teens. One of the many breakthrough ideas that launched his career were patented marquee signs – now a $6 billion global industry – used by the likes of Universal Studios, Fenway Park, Las Vegas, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museums.

Today, Vin Lee is CEO of Grand Metropolitan, managing a portfolio of 130 brands valued at $7 billion USD. Those brands range from the Beverly Hills Cigar Club, Gallery Rodeo (an art gallery), and behemoth billion dollar industries as Heilig-Meyers Furniture and Finlay Fine Jewelers.

His first foray into the jewelry industry decades ago came from a random stop to buy a Rolex at DuQuet Jewelers. Enchanted by the proprietor’s stories on the topic, Lee made his first investment in the jewelry industry then and there. Ambitious as well as knowledge-hungry, he rolled through a quarter century’s worth of trade magazines, sustaining his keen interest to today, where Finlay Fine Jewelry owns over 70 brands, 30 of them in the top 50.

Vin’s own creative pieces have been worn by celebrities, diplomats and royalty; adorned by stars at American Music Awards, Golden Globes, Hollywood Film Awards, and Billboard Music Awards. Additionally, his company began producing a sustainable caviar under the Pushkin brand.

That, truly, is really the tip of the iceberg of Lee’s success, and business biography. It’s fitting that the king of luxury’s name is Vin – French for wine – the very symbol of the good life.

Vin Lee took time out of his busy schedule to speak to My Business Magazine, and talk about what some people might not know about his work, and reveals what’s inside the mind of the man behind some of the biggest luxury brands.

MBM: Which business people do you most revere and why?

VIN LEE: The easy answer would be Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE CEO Bernard Arnault, because of his prominence in the world of luxury. A space we work so hard to excel. He has such style.

There are a few business leaders I really have admired over the years. Men like Howard Hughes, Aristotle Onassis, and Daniel Keith Ludwig. All of which I studied as a young man and in certain instances emulated some of the lessons I learned from them.

As I have gotten older I have had the honor of meeting some incredible business people who have also made a lasting impact on me. In my twenties, I was introduced to H.Wayne Huizanga, the genius mechanic behind Blockbuster Entertainment, Auto Nation, and Waste Management. It was by his example, that I learned about industry roll ups a financial mechanism instrumental to the growth of Grand Metropolitan.

Of course closer to my Canadian roots, the Bronfman family certainly grabbed my attention with their assembly of Seagrams and dominance of the liquor industry on both sides of the border. Later their attempts to reach out into a much larger world with their stakes in DuPont, Vivendi, and entertainment assets of MCA (Universal Pictures) fascinated me.

MBM: The three things you aspire to be?

VIN LEE: My life and career have been a big adventure for three decades. I have lived. I have loved. I have lost. But I am grateful for it all. God has blessed me throughout it and guided me through endless lessons. He continues to teach me daily. My priority is to be as appreciative and polite as I can be to those in my life. “Manners Maketh Man” William Horman. I want to be remembered as a gentleman above all else.

MBM: What, for you, differentiates a good manager, from a great manager?

VIN LEE: A good manager is punctual, trust worthy, diligent and engaging. A great manager, owns the position as if it was their business. They take an interest in the industry, learn about the competition, and establishes relationships with the vendors.

I am constantly surprised by how many people working in the jewelry industry, at all levels, have never heard of Finlay Fine Jewelers, operating for over a century and 1,000 locations. Our brands have cumulatively earned over $100 billion. Similarly, it’s absurd how many people in the fine timepiece media are not aware of Finlay Enterprises dominance. How do you think all of those watches get to consumers in the first place?

If you are working behind a jewelry counter, you have a great deal of time to learn all aspects of not just store operation and gemology, but the industry around you. When I started out I read through hundreds of diamond and jewelry publications that today are all accessibly from your phone. I have met thousands of people that fancy themselves as jewelers from beading at the kitchen table to international factories with sizeable staff. Most of them do not learn the macro view of the business, and I think that’s a handicap for their growth. I believe this is true whether you run a luxury goods division, or a granisado cart.

Be constantly engaged with consumers, product, and especially competitors. We support a lot of industry activity across the board. For instance under Heilig-Meyers Furniture, it is vital for us to have a voice in our communities and educate consumers to hazards such as protecting children from tipping furniture and appliances to toxic coatings that can be used in nefarious foreign made products. We feel it is important as a leader in our industries to take up these efforts because our customers are our families and friends.

MBM: Is there an item from Grand Metropolitan that hasn’t yet gotten its due?

In coming years you will see a greater presence for our Dalgety food divisions in your communities. Our Frechef brand Fruishi (fruit sushi) is being tested and developed as a healthy alternative for yogurts and smoothies. It is the culmination of infinite combinations of fruits, rice, dusts (crushed nuts) and dips (fruit compotes).

MBM: Work/life balance – any tips?

VIN LEE: Everything in moderation. It cannot be all cognac and cigars or just grilled chicken and half marathons. I am very fortunate that most of my “work” is involving many things I also enjoy in my private life.

MBM: Takeaways to the budding entrepreneur?

VIN LEE: Looking back on a 30 year career, I think the most important lesson that has carried me through is always maintain your integrity. Money and notoriety will ebb and flow, but you have to be able to live with yourself at the end of it all. Especially in this era, every step you take and every move you make is immortalized and archived digitally. Some of the biggest deals I have been involved in I have not profited from in the way I had anticipated. But I didn’t take short cuts and paid my dues.

MBM: How has the online world changed the way your businesses do business?

VIN LEE: Grand Metropolitan has always tried to be positioned to pivot with the advent of new technologies. If you were to go back to before 2000, you would find that our brands were represented in more than 5,000 brick and mortar stores with crucifying debt service and overwhelming overhead. We have slowly begun engaging in social media with our vendors and consumers over the last 5 years. Soon you will find all Grand Metropolitan brands available exclusively on our own digital platform under Lichtenstein’s Department Store

Dave Gordon has penned more than a thousand articles, and more than five hundred editorials, on every topic imaginable. He writes regularly on domestic and international politics, current events, culture, relationship issues, and much more.

He has spent time in the newsrooms of the Toronto Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, National Post and eye Weekly.

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