As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vin Lee. Mr. Vin Lee is the CEO of the family office Grand Metropolitan founded in Beverly Hills, CA. The group specializes in acquiring distressed assets and brands within the luxury goods industries with a primary focus on jewelry and home furnishings. 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. 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.
Thank you so much for joining us Vin! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the opportunity today. It has been a very long journey that started in my teens. But in discussing the luxury industry specifically, I had a great penchant for the Rolex President when I was a kid. When I was in my early 20s I was able to achieve some modest success and wanted to mark the moment by purchasing one. At the time I had no relationship with the brand or the jewelry industry at all, only what I had read or seen on television.
After closing a large contract, I asked my broker where I could buy a Rolex. She referred me to a local jeweler I had never heard of before. So I walked into the showroom, announcing my intentions, quickly offering my recent achievement to justify such a purchase. The owner took me in back and for the next several hours regales me with stories of riches, treasure, and romance. I walked out having made my first investment in the luxury industry. It would be several years before I actually put one of those watches on my wrist. I never could justify taking inventory off the shelves. Besides, why do you need the watch when you own the company?
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When you are 22 years old, regardless of what you have already accomplished, it can be very challenging to convince people of what your goals are not to mention supporting and encouraging you. If I were to tell you I was going to buy a jewelry store, most people could possibly imagine that. If I told you I had plans to build one of the largest privately-held jewelry group in the country from that modest little office behind that showroom in Detroit. You might suggest medication or at the very least therapy.
The community I grew up in wasn’t very entrepreneurial. It was heavily automotive influenced with the majority of the people aspiring to work for the Big Three. Now please don’t misunderstand, the community was affluent for the Midwest. I was introduced to a lot of the comforts the world has to offer. But in the late 1980s, none of LVMH brands had a presence in the entire state. There wasn’t a Lamborghini or Ferrari dealership. Even Cartier and Tiffany had no idea that Michigan existed. Only a few of Grand Metropolitan regional brands had locations there back then. So unlike Beverly Hills, New York, Milan, or Monaco, the lifestyle, the language, the experience of luxury was foreign to most of my peers and family members.
It can be very difficult to share your goals and ambitions with other people staff and employees sure, but especially those closest to you. Mine were certainly outside the purview of the people in my world. Of course they were outsized ambitions but definitely fueled by the things I had already achieved in my teens. But I have been told my whole life that my feelings were too big. What I learned was that even if you achieve all you set out to do, most people are not happy for you. Sometimes you have to keep both your ambitions and your accomplishments to yourself. It will save you a great deal of disappointment, drama, and heartache.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I was fortunate as a young man to have some immediate moderate success in the projects I was working on in high school and college. That gave me an irrational sense of purpose and confidence.
Timing was also vital as we were able to enjoy growth during down economies. Many companies exist on overextended credit terms to sustain operations and growth, hoping to eventually outpace the overhead on the path to profits. I refuse to borrow to finance our growth, so as a result we are cash flow positive at the close of any transaction. This enables us to replenish our coffers without being beholden to any creditors or lenders, preparing for our next acquisition.
In many cases this has slowed our progress and even caused us to miss out on deals. But at the same time, if you were to go back to the year we started, 1989, and identified the top 50 players in each industry we participate, we own many of them today.
Looking back now I suppose I was always different than the group. In the late 80’s while my classmates were memorizing all manner of sporting statistics for their Fantasy Football teams, I was studying the Forbes 400, Fortune 500, and Hoovers. I figured the odds of me becoming an NFL owner were a lot better than becoming a player.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. It’s lonely at the top. While everyone else is planning their weekend, you’ll more than likely be in your office late into the night and throughout many Saturdays and Sundays. Even if you are not physically there on property, the weight of the responsibility stays with you. It can be very hard to find someone to share your concerns with or even identify with the challenges you have. Certainly it can be difficult for many people to be empathetic without actually being in that position. They just imagine the perks and compensation package. Being a CEO is not what I do, it is who I am.
2. It costs twice as much and takes twice as long as you plan to achieve your goals. You can plan and strategize until you are blue in the face. But until you get to the table with your opponents you have no idea how it will work out. You need to take the time to learn and research the people and organizations you are working with. Whether they are suppliers, vendors, acquisition targets or acquirers. The more you know about the people you are negotiating with the better you will be able to get your price and time table. Otherwise, you will find that knowledge is power and it is expensive.
3. Overnight success often takes 20–30 years to achieve. Very few people actually hit it out of the park their first time at bat. Study those people that you find successful in your field. Emulate the thing they did that helped get them to their station. Do your best to avoid the mistakes they made as well. You can study professional athlete statistics but it wont really make you a better ball player or a faster runner. But reading articles and interviews from successful businesspeople will teach you a lot about how to act, think, and speak.
4. Success is different for everyone. Some people run marathons and climb mountains to prove to themselves they can do it. Success comes in all forms. Your idea of success may be to make enough additional income from your side hustle to pay for a family vacation or buy a buy a car for your teenaged daughter. Very admirable. Not everyone is trying to be a billionaire rockstar and rule the world around them. Recognizing that others may not be as ambitious as you will allow you to relate better to family and friends as well as staff, employees, and even competitors.
5. If you are ultimately successful, it will come at a higher price than you can fathom when you start out your career. Depending on when you start your career life gets far more complicated as the decades pile up. It is easier the younger you are to make more selfish choices for career over relationships, even family. You always feel there is going to be time to make it up and do everything else you wanted too. There isn’t.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t do just one thing in life. Find a balance between work and family, sure. But also don’t focus so intently on just one purpose professionally. Everyone has a side hustle these days. Look for new and exciting ventures. While I was “waiting” three years to close on the acquisition of Finlay, I distracted myself by turning attention to building out our Heilig-Meyers Furniture brand. Like a shark, I would have died if I had to sit still all that time. I needed to keep myself creative and focused. Starting any business is a lot of hurry up and wait. Keeping your imagination active will help stave off burnout
Hopefully if you are going into business for yourself you are following a personal passion. One of the things I have done is turn my private interests into businesses. My love of fine art has grown from collecting a few pieces to Gallery Rodeo, one of the most prominent art galleries on the West Coast. From an early age I enjoyed smoking cigars, especially playing poker or golf. So I followed that interest and created LOUIXS cigars which are now the exclusive cigar of the Beverly Hills Cigar Club. Our cigars are rated TOP 7 in the world and have been called “the Bugatti of the cigar industry” while BHCC is one of the TOP 5 must-have private club memberships according to Playboy Magazine. You never know what you might trully be great at.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I often credit my time working with Blockbuster Video chairman H. Wayne Huizenga on my marquees as the most impactful of my young life. Much of his business theory I still employ today. Certainly meetings with Sumner Redstone, no matter how disappointing the results, would have a lasting effect on me at my 20th birthday.
Obviously, my parents gave me an incredible start in education and exposure to what life had to offer. My father, as an executive at Ford Motor Company, acted as liason between the railroad and trucking companies so my brother and I were introduced to a great deal very young. In fact I rode in my first helicopter at the age of 10 years old and we had several vacations in a chauferred custom coach. These moments were quite lavish. Phillip Anschutz railroad even has custom railcars replete with private chefs.
As a result of these early experiences I also had the pleasure of meeting local automotive titans like Heinz Prechter and Roger Penske. I had pitched ASC and Heinz my designs for smart glass sunroofs. Which he politely informed me would never make it to market due to cost. Tell that to Mercedes and Maybach today. I even designed hair care packaging that was presented to John Paul DeJoria of Paul Mitchell and Patron Tequila fame. He graciously passed on the project. But I was fearless in my pursuit or working on projects and deals with successful men and women. Briefly working on a Valentines Day partnership between my jewelry company and FTD then President & CEO Meg Whitman.
Of course my passion and affinity for art would start decades before when I was in school. Ms. Lynn Olson was my art instructor for much of my education and was responsible not only for encouraging my own creativity but also fostering my love of fine art and the masters. So much of my opportunities had come from her efforts. In fact it was under her care that I was able to recieve a grant from the Michigan Education Association to study animation under the tutelage of a Hannah Barbera director throughout high school. This lead to my attending art college in Canada and working with the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics in graphics and merchandise.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
It has taken us three decades to accomplish the first act. Act II will be to strengthen our balance sheets as well as market share in North America as we prepare to launch our new financial vehicle for the diamond industry. The project will take a $3 billion capital investment just to start and will include our 50 jewelry retail brands. As for the rest of Grand Metropolitan, we have both short term acquisitions and long term growth plans for each division.
My personal goals are no longer as synonymous with my professional goals as they once were. As I will be turning 50 this year I have every intention of spending as much time with family as I can. My parents live in South Florida and I have a home there as well. I missed more than 15 years traveling and working on building Grand Metropolitan to its current level. I want to make sure that I do not miss anymore time with the people that are most important in my life.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Grand Metropolitan assets have been operating for more than a century. Some of them have been serving communities since the 1800s. While most of life is about the journey rather than the destination, I hope that our efforts will not only inspire people to reach for more in their lives, but for all those our company supports, allow them to live out their dreams and give their children and grandchildren a chance to prosper as well.
Most of the world will have never heard of me and probably not even Grand Metropolitan. But there are millions of people who have been married clutching Finlay wedding rings or furnished their homes with Heilig-Meyers furniture. Some people may even celebrate the birth of their new family member with one of our LOUIXS cigars or that 50th wedding anniversary with a tasting of our Pushkin Caviars.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Ultimately that is our purpose in several of our brands mission statements. As we continue to improve our position in the global diamond market, we hope to change the way that people purchase their jewelry and increase the trust and relationship the consumer has with the industry.
The engagement ring can be the third largest purchase of a couples relationship behind of course their home and automobile. Often it is the largest outright expenditure at a time when incomes are lowest and expenses are the highest in terms of simply building the beginnings of a life together.
Finlay Fine Jewelers intends on improving the transparency within the diamond industry from “Mine to Yours” or slogan. Your relationship with your local jeweler should be built on trust and be more than just a one time transaction. We hope to restore confidence and integrity to the diamond business and prosperity to the more than 2 million people the industry employs worldwide.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
We are very active on social media. I am considered an influencer on Linkedin.