Vin Lee – CEO of Grand Metropolitan – Beverly Hills, California

Mr. Lee, how are you able to manage multiple corporate groups all at once? What should a routine be like in order to make everything in time?

My journey would have been a lot easier if I had $3 billion back in 1992.  I would have saved a lot of years and a lot of heartache.  It has been an arduous process with my involvement in just the last three decades.   Grand Metropolitan didn’t materialize overnight or organically increase exponentially in a short period of time.  For 200 years some of our legacy brands have built their image and reputation one customer, one dollar, one footprint at a time.  That history is important, especially in this age of information.  The relationship within the community, society, and the family is absolutely invaluable particularly in the lifestyle and luxury markets.

Recently a local jeweler asked me how we manage so many jewelry brands at Finlay Enterprises.  It does not take twice the resources to manager twice the number of brands or even 5 times the amount, but you have to be the architect of this type of expansion anticipated far in advance.  In similar fashion with Heilig-Meyers, our furniture division, the infrastructure was created to this purpose.  In an “industry rollup” it becomes much more economical the more streamlined the process becomes.  The elimination of redundancies in overhead and vertical integration in the supply chain create enormously profitable economies of scale.  Vendor exclusivity, a system I created in the mid 1990s, also assists in stabilizing efficiencies within a multibrand operation.

Finlay

The very core of what Grand Metropolitan brands Finlay Enterprises and Heilig-Meyers (now part of Hadid), and Handleman Company were as entities is what drew me to them in the first place.  Prior to our purchase of the Finlay Enterprises brand in the wake of its bankruptcy, the company managed 1,100 jewelry stores most of which were in major department stores across North America including May Department Stores; Foley’s, Filene’s, Kaufmann’s, Robinson’s May, Meier & Frank, Hecht’s, Strawbridge, Famous Barr, L.S. Ayers, Lord & Taylor. Federated Department Stores; Bloomingdale’s, Burdine’s, The Bon Marche’, Rich’s, Lazarus, Goldsmith. Saks Inc. Department Stores; Carson Pirie Scott, Boston Store, Bergner’s, Younker’s, Parisian’s.  In addition, the company operated hundreds of locations under multiple fine jewelry brands.  Inventory management control allowed the shift of product not only from store to store but across geographic regions where one product line may have fared better.  In highly capital intensive industries like jewelry, this is invaluable on the path towards profitability.

The Handleman Company did a similar task but within the entertainment industry of books, music, movies, and video games/software.  Managing inventory systems for major retailers like Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Woolworth at over 21,000 locations, the company was able to migrate content in and out of its distribution centers while negotiation for large volumes and therefore discounting not available to independent or smaller regional retail operators.  Effectively, if you are able to represent thousands of locations to a supplier you will garner greater favor in terms and finance.  The retailers benefit from your ability to assist in refreshing inventory and higher turnover rates.

Many people believe because they have just heard of you or your company that you are somehow an overnight success.  But that is often very hardly the case.  Today, we have technology companies that spring up over long weekends and within a period of months they achieve billion dollar valuations.  Their founders are immediately skyrocketed to celebrity status with the aid of social and traditional media.  They can disappear or fall from favor as quickly too.  Success in luxury is much harder earned.  It is slower to embrace and equally difficult to part with once that commitment has been made.  Legacy is very much like love, everyone wishes to capture it.  Some are fortunate enough to grasp and clutch it for a short time.  Few have found it lasting.  But while you clutch it between your fingertips, it is such sweet pleasure.

I started my career in my teens in the late 1980s, the same time that LVMH and Richemont were coming on the scene.  It has been a long slow layering process with missteps, mistakes and failures.  I invested in my first jewelry company at 22 with proceeds I had made from another venture. As the years progressed, with hills and valleys, Grand Metropolitan has achieved a respectable position.  We still have many miles to go before we sleep.  Hopefully this is only the second act for us. One I hope to perform from Monaco as we are looking to open European offices there.

My mornings start at 7:00 am, for but a few brief moments, tending to some details around the house. This includes checking in on email, text, social media etc.  I will usually go back to sleep until about noon.  An hour of meditation, usually accompanied by a walk on the beach keeps me balanced.  Often I am in my office after dinner until about 4:00 am.  Working on several time zones requires a certain flexibility.

What helps you recover?

Fortunately, I am immersed in an industry that I am passionate about and have developed a certain aptitude for.  This is not just what I do, but who I am.  I do work 7 days a week, and often those days are 12-16 hours long.  I keep my phone under my pillow.  Email, text, and post on social media can occur at 4:00 am.  But the truth is I go to bed when I am tired.  I wake up when I am rested.  I walk the beach any time I desire.  Technology has allowed us all to be more effective and efficient.  I get more done at 2:00 am with a cigar and a scotch on the beach than I once did in a week.  Information is so accessible, we are learning and developing at an exponential rate.  The mistakes are more quickly identified and rectified than ever before.

The key to our progress is actually the key to our success.  What I mean by this is that it is very important to me that we manage costs and do not carry any debt in our operations.  I relish in the freedom that affords.  Any acquisition or expansion has to be earned through revenue first.  Many of our legacy brands were acquired as a result of financial mismanagement by others, borrowing to expand, or overextension of credit markets  We do not employ outside funding to purchase the very brands that failed from debt or exhausted finance.  While this makes our growth a painful process, it also determines that we are well prepared and measured in our actions.

I get bombarded daily by dozens of solicitations for investment in businesses or industries we do not occupy.  I have the next 5 years of capital already allocated for acquisition.  If you would have interviewed me 5 years ago I would have told you the same thing.  It keeps the noise and distraction away allowing you to focus on what you really want.  When one is constantly chasing to pay their bills or buy a bigger house you make decisions based on those efforts.  Our transactions traditionally take years to complete.  It requires a degree of patience and persistence.

Admittedly it is all-consuming and when there are challenges they can be emotionally taxing.  For example, the higher our profile becomes and the more visible we are, the more hampered my negotiating leverage becomes.  People have this perception that because of the breadth of our operations we can or will overpay in our transactions.  Heilig-Meyers is having this problem currently in South Africa, where the counsel for one of our target acquisitions has stalled negotiations because, although no other suitors exist, they want more money simply because they believe we can or will pay it.  Because this entree into the dark continent is so vital for our long term growth in both furniture and jewelry operations, Grand Metropolitan has to maintain it’s integrity while tempered by its financial conditions.

It is important to surround yourself with people you can confide in.  Someone you trust that will offer you solace in the middle of the night that “Everything will be OK in the morning”.

The trade-off to the stress and the hours is being surrounded by beauty and elegance.  I have had the distinct honor of being around some of the most amazing and people in the world.

You are a creative person who sees and appreciates beauty. Please tell us about your passion for the arts.

Thank you very much for the kind compliment.  I am fortunate to be surrounded by beauty in so many forms.  I was actually blessed with an interest in the arts at a very young age and encouraged by my parents.  Believe it or not the Detroit Institute of Arts was an often attraction in my youth.  My earliest memory pertaining to fine art was the night my brother was born. I was left to stay with friends of the family.  At almost 5 years old I was put to sleep in this old four post bed.  Above my head hanging over the headboard was a copy of J.M.W. Turners 1796 oil painting Fishermen at Sea.  The first of his works exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.  His use of water and light are still hauntingly beautiful.  Imagine this artist would stand on the shores for hours creating these stormy epic images in his head.  Returning back to makeshift studios to transport those visions to naked white canvas.

Gallery Rodeo

A significant influence in my life, as it pertains to the art world as well as business, was Mr. A. Alfred Taubman, (Sotheby’s owner and Chairman).  I first met him in 1992 when we were discussing expansion of our retail investments to Taubman Malls.  Sotheby’s recently sold his art collection, accrued over his lifetime including epic pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Klee, and Amedeo Modigliani.  I have a similar representation of the 1976 Willem de Kooning he had in his Bloomfield home in my private office in Florida acquired in 2015.

My first offices were down the street from Park West Gallery, one of the world’s most revered art houses.  I spent a lot of time strolling through their exhibits in my 20s.  In fact my first piece was purchased from them.  Our Beverly Hills’ Gallery Rodeo is composed of the Rodeo Collection.  We have art acquired through Park West Gallery in the collection. These are works that I have admired and collected over the years primarily comprising named artists like Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Salvador Dali.  My two most coveted pieces are an early casting by Auguste Rodin and a sketch by Gustav Klimt, both acquired privately.  But the proceeds for the Rodin went to a local Children’s Hospital.

Art galleries and auction houses are one of my more pure guilty pleasures.  I spend a lot of time reading through offerings by Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Bonhams as well as local houses.  Occasionally we bid on pieces that I feel we can add to the collection for a reasonable price.  Recently I have been infatuated with Camille Pissarro as I have regretted missing out on a small collection of 6 originals last summer.

When was the last time you were holding a pencil or a paintbrush?

I studied fine art for many years, both as an artist and collector, continuing as the later.  I found my talent did not lie in the patience of watercolor or mixology of acrylic as much as commercial design and graphics.  If one cannot create, one appreciates.  So I tend to admire the leaders and innovators of the art world with a rudimentary understanding.   Honestly, it has been many years since I have held a brush or charcoal.  But even back in school the tools of art were changing.  During my studies I was privileged to use computer programs like Deluxe Paint from Commodore Computers Amiga brand when they were just introduced.  Today it is Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator that are at the forefront and the kids use them the way we used Crayola.

In the beginning of my jewelry career I would use butcher paper and charcoal to create the sketches to be caste in precious metal and encrusted in diamonds and gemstones.  But since the modest success of the tennis earring, I have not been active in jewelry design.  While it has been so long since I have held canvas or mixed acrylic, I do still use technology to create or at least participate in Grand Metropolitan’s marketing, design, and product development.  Much of the branding and packaging I get intensely involved in.

In the back of my mind I have been working on a small art project I hope to put to paper.  I primarily went to school for animation at a time when it was not so much a revered field.  The cliched starving artist career path.  The average income of an animator was $30,000 when I was in art school.  I had achieved some modest milestones with my art but soon found distraction in design and invention.

Shortly after being granted patents for my mechanical billboard designs, Walt Disney Pictures released The Lion King to great fanfare and box office acclaim.  The entire industry was invigorated and artists were then able to earn very lucrative incomes for their talents and creativity.  Prior to that the hopes of making a decent living were limited. About 30 years later, I made the right decision in leaving art to the artists.  Today, I believe that my canvas is Grand Metropolitan and I attempt to paint it with beautiful things from around the world.

Do you have any hobbies?  How do you find any time for them?

I actually have three passions that are possibly defined in that manner.  Gallery Rodeo, The Beverly Hills Cigar Club, and Beverly Hills Sports Car.  Even though they are all structured as commercial interests, they were born out of my own personal passion.  As a young man, I was an avid sports car enthusiast.  DuPont Registry was a constant on my nightstand.  For a short time I track-raced vintage Porsche and Ferrari.  But after an unrelated accident where I shattered the front end of my Ferrari 512 TR in front of a large audience of wine spectators, I thought perhaps I should pursue a safer and more tame hobby.

Not withstanding the crash, some singular highlights of my time in the sports car world include the LaFerrari at Fiorani, Ferrari’s test track located adjacent to the emblematic factory in Maranello.  It was for me, far more impactful than visiting the Vatican.  One late afternoon in Sant’Agata Bolognese, after the factory had closed, my driver took me to Museo Lamborghini for a tour with museum curator and founder nephew Mr. Fabio Lamborghini.  He introduced me to the family’s private wine label, Sangue di Miura, while waxing tales among the legendary Muira, Countach, Jalpa, and Espada.  It was a significant moment in my life.

Fine art could be considered my main interest or hobby outside my family of course.   Throughout my travels, I have visited some of the world’s most prominent art collections in either museums, galleries, or estates.  From the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy to the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia,  I have enjoyed private tours and visitations of incredible works of art.  A few years ago I was able to acquire the 1934 Vollard Collection originally from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and brokered by auction house Christie’s in exchange for an assortment of Columbian emeralds assumed from that of a fallen competitor.

In North America, my Bel Air home is just minutes from The Getty and in Florida, The Dali.  Most Saturday afternoons in Los Angeles have been spent browsing the works of Helmut Newton at Annenberg Space for Photography, Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse at LACMA, or Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning at the Hammer Museum.  Sarasota, Florida has the waterfont John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and their palace Ca’dZan hidden among colossal banyan trees.  The Ringling boasts a world-renowned collection of Peter Paul Rubens paintings surpassing the Louvre, Paris, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Antwerp, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in its representation.

The Beverly Hills Cigar Club has been instrumental in my participation in both the exotic car and art worlds.  But more importantly it has allowed me access to the world of fine cigars, wine & spirits, and food.  I enjoy cooking very much and that consumes a great deal of my private hours away from work. Our investment in Dalgety has allowed me to mix another passion and business with our Pushkin Caviar and more recently Frechef introducing Fruishi and Granisado to new markets.

What is the most important thing in a person’s character for you?

This is actually a fascinating question.  One of my favorite quotes is “Manners Maketh Man”. William Horman.  Expounding upon that, I believe integrity is the most important quality to have in a person’s character.  The jewelry business is very capital intensive.  Most people do not realize it is built primarily on integrity.  One must be able to fund or finance millions of dollars in a showroom just to make a single $10,000 transaction.  The reputation of your company and therefore yourself is what helps you to establish those resources.  Most jewelers stock their shelves with consigned goods or product on memo.  If you are in good standing you can have access to millions of dollars of diamonds and jewelry for your clients simply on your word.

When I first relocated Grand Metropolitan to Beverly Hills, I spent years building upon our reputation and integrity within the community.  We were and are very active on the charity circuit.  In addition thanks to some very influential relationships we were able to do favors for people, not just in Los Angeles, but across the world.  The Beverly Hills Cigar Club opened up a great many doors allowing us access to not only Hollywood elite, but also the wider fashion and luxury industries.  The exclusivity the club affords to exclusive social circles has been invaluable.  One must always maintain integrity to not only sustain those relationships but to prosper.  The world today is so very well connected and transparent.  Your reputation can either lead you into a room or escort you out of one.  It is entirely up to you to always be polite and respectful to everyone both personally and professionally.

Which people are most likely not to be around you?

Often times, we are who we surround ourselves with.  So it is imperative to fill your life with people who are uplifting and supportive.  It is difficult enough in this life to achieve our goals without having people sabotaging your self-esteem and ambitions.

The older I get the more selective I am about who I share my time and attention with.  You must be very guarded in this day and age.  Trust is absolutely invaluable.  In business, especially as varied as Grand Metropolitan’s portfolio has become, I often spin in many different circles of individuals or assorted backgrounds and motives.  There are always a slew of people attempting to garner favor in order to get you to invest, finance, or fund their latest proposal or opportunity.  Ultimately it seems like everyone eventually has an agenda.   So trusted family and friends have to be isolated from the rest of these outside influences.

We are very heavily vested in social media, like Twitter and Linkedin.  The access this creates for people from all over the world to reach out with a few taps of the keyboard is dangerous.  Daily I receive 100s of emails or correspondence of some kind from complete strangers requesting money.  Selfies of them crying or tales of their children accompanying their pleas.  It is very disheartening to be confronted with so often.  You want to help as many people as you can, but it is almost impossible to determine who is in real need and who is simply engaging in a confidence game.

If you can find at least one person who genuinely enjoys your company, someone who reaches out just to ask how you are, you are a very blessed person.

Please tell us about the rise of your career from the beginning. What was the turning point of it?

I started out very young with my endeavors.  In school I was afforded opportunities that most do not have.  As a teenager I created an illuminated marquee for the entertainment industry.  This would be used in video stores and movie theatres for displaying films and concessions.  The interior illumination of the three-sided mechanical displays was patented and grew to become a $6 billion/year industry.   It was an incredible boost to my self-confidence although financially I didn’t fare as well as my partners.  My next deal involved consulting on the turnaround of an $80 million resort that had fallen into bankruptcy.  This was really my first entree into the world of luxury.

With the initial proceeds from the resort contract I invested in a few local businesses including a jewelry company. I would sit in my offices in the back of the jewelry showroom reading decades of backlogged issues of National Jeweler, JCK Magazine, and Modern Jeweler that had stacked up.  Discovering an entire history of the trade as hours of reading compounded years of transactions, mergers, and bankruptcies.

The real turning point came for me when I relocated to Atlanta, GA. I moved in to a hotel suite and spent my time focusing and reading a great many financial journals.  The Internet was in full swing and information was readily available about whole entities across many market segments.  Soon I was able to formulate a plan for what I wanted Grand Metropolitan to become.

Heilig-Meyers

At this time three major American retail icons had filed for bankruptcy: Montgomery Wards, Heilig-Meyers Furniture, and Service Merchandise.  I met with the parties that were conducting the bankruptcies and interviewed executives from each company in an effort to find a way for Grand Metropolitan to assist.  Heilig-Meyers was the only deal that fit into my plans.

Shortly afterward, I relocated to South Florida.  It was there that I put all of my efforts into acquiring Samuels Jewelers, one of the largest retail jewelers in North America with about 114 locations.  Two years later, I still had not been successful and had to walk away from the deal with nothing to show for my efforts.  It was a humbling and freeing event.

Who was your mentor and patron?

I have not had a mentor or patron in the traditional sense.  My father would be considered the closest example of both.  He taught me the value of integrity and instructed me in the ways of conducting myself professionally.  His career took him further than he had planned. The process must start out very young with learning how to address someone properly, look them in the eye when you shake their hand.  Give respect to everyone if you expect it in return.  My mother also provided me with much of who I am today.  Sensibilities not as transparent or evident, but just as valuable.  In the beginning, I stood on the shoulders of both my parents, their hard work, their dedication to become what I have.

I have had the pleasure of meeting many powerful and successful people over the course of my life.  My businesses have also brought me in close regard with them.  The Bohle Company, my PR firm in Los Angeles, was the first agency that Mr. Bill Gates and Mr. Steve Ballmer hired to represent Microsoft.  We also worked with Mr. Tom Gores’ Platinum Equity, owners of 100s of firms including the NFL basketball team the Detroit Pistons.  In addition, the agency has an exceptional roster of clients including Playboy Enterprises, Mr. Nolan Bushnell’s Atari Corp., and Mr. Beny Alagem’s (owner of the Beverly Hilton) Packard Bell.  The Beverly Hilton, home of the Golden Globes and Emmy’s, also hosts the Milken Institute Global Conference where I have had the pleasure of meeting President Bill Clinton, economist Mr. Mohamed El-Erian, and fallen billionaire Mr. Eike Batista.  Even spending an hour in the company of great men over a cigar can be a life changing experience.

The Beverly Hills Cigar Club has worked with Mr. Phillip Anschutz’s AEG, the world’s largest owner of sports teams and sports events.  They are owners of the Los Angeles entertainment complex Staples Center, the StubHub Center, and investors in London’s O2, the home of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

I have studied the Forbes 400 since 1990, both in their successes and their failures.  But the figures I am drawn to the most are the ones that created great corporations out of legendary luxury brands.  A task I have assumed for myself with Grand Metropolitan.  Industry leaders like Mr. Bernard Arnault of LVMH, Mr. Johann Rupert of Richemont, and Mr. François Pinault of Kering.  These men have assembled many of the finest aspirational brands in the world in the span of my career inspiring me to do the same.

Have you ever had one of those moments in your life when you lost everything you have created?

I have absolutely been on bended knee.  In fact most of my career I have been climbing a mountain in what seems bloodied and bruised in some way or another.  The more effort one places on career, the greater the toll on your personal life.  The victims of ambition are those you love the most.   The famous quote “It is lonely at the top” can be interpreted as you isolate or alienate those around you in your strive to excel.  Now that being said, I am hardly at the top.  We have been fortunate to make great efforts in each of our fields and met with some notoriety.  We still have much farther to go.

I didn’t get my start in life in the manner that many of my competitors did.  LVMH, Kering, and Richemont were all born of individuals from multi generations of wealthy families.  It is much easier to achieve greatness when you don’t have the distractions of paying your bills and your familial prominence opens up doors to finance and influence.

I have been at a crossroads, personally and professionally, where I had to consider giving up or fighting on.  I have stood at the end of the jetty in a storm curtained by water in the dead of night.  But then you pick yourself up and put yourself back together again.  Each time becomes easier as you realize you can survive and everything is better in the morning.  “Memento Mori” or roughly translated from Latin, “Remember that you must die”.  What I have taken from this is we must take as much from life as it has to offer.  You will eventually die anyway.  So drink deep of all that life has to offer, even the pain.  For it is better to feel the pain than nothing.

Who or what helped you revive or become stronger?

It is a bit complicated if you haven’t been to the edge of the abyss in your own life.  Once you embrace the fact that you can always give up at any time it helps you to overcome your fear.  In the end no one is really watching anyway.  My own challenges have been carrying the burdens I have placed upon myself.  I have struggled for years about my own decisions.  Once you forgive yourself, you regain your conviction and can get back to the task of living life again.

There is the opinion that the business giants were able to reach certain heights only by turning off their feelings and emotions. Is this true?

Perhaps that may be the perception of those adversely affected by the decisions of those individuals.  So many men climb upon the backs of others leaving nothing but pain in their wake.  Those people can be viewed in the manner in which you describe.  I do not believe I have that reputation.  My entire life I have been told that my feelings were too big.  That I am too sensitive.  But I do not believe you can exceed in life without passion and conviction.  You cannot maintain drive and motivation without powerful feelings and emotions especially if you are surrounded by adversity.

Heavy lies the crown.  I have been in countless meetings where people have argued against my plans or strategies.  But often time no one else in the room knows the whole picture to be able to make those types of critiques.  Privately-held entities like Grand Metropolitan do not face the same scrutiny as our much larger publicly-held competitors.  What can appear as short term damage can be an effort towards long term growth suitable for enhancing the lives of stakeholders and employees alike.  But so often you must be the one sitting at the head of the table to know all of the purpose behind hard decisions or complex motives.

It goes back to integrity.  In all of my dealings I am the last one to benefit.  Everyone else gets paid before we profit.  This is important to me as we build relationships in new markets.  As we are looking to expand in South Africa and Eastern Europe we must maintain the reputation we have carved out here in North America.  Establishing a European Headquarters in Monaco is integral for us to continue a leadership position in the world of luxury. The same way we needed to be in Beverly Hills in North America.

Your organizations consistently and generously support various foundations. Please tell us more about it.

We believe that without the community, there is no company.  It is the community that comprises our customers and our employees.   Grand Metropolitan has been very dedicated to helping others.  I do not like to exploit our charitable financial support as a PR talking point or selling point for our products.  Heilig-Meyers has been a dedicated supporter of Cystic Fibrosis for decades, long before they were a part of Grand Metropolitan. The company has been responsible for raising tens of millions of dollars during that period.

Giving back to the community is imperative, but first and foremost our commitment is to our employees, vendors, and customers.  When asked why he didn’t give away his fortune in the manner of Mr. Bill Gates and Mr. Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge, Mexican billionaire Mr. Carlos Slim responded “Charity doesn’t solve poverty.”  He offered that “It’s more important to put all your resources and your experience to work.”  I wish to honor our financial responsibility to everyone in Grand Metropolitan and their respective families.

At 46 years old, I still hope to achieve much more for my company and community.  Those resources we employ keep the lights on and create growth and opportunity.  We use social media to educate consumers about industry issues.  As an example, Heilig-Meyers Furniture is actively engaged in informing the public about the lethal dangers of falling furniture in the household or the hazards of toxic chemicals used to treat some furnishings by manufacturers.  Finlay Enterprises and its many brands have for years donated gorgeous pieces of jewelry to charity events around the world.  In addition, we are very active in the efforts to keep our diamond sources conflict-free.  In each of our divisions we attempt to be a leading voice and advocate for the public.

More directly, Gallery Rodeo, The Beverly Hills Cigar Club, and Beverly Hills Sports Car are all actively participating in charities around the globe.  We donate time, money, and resources to events where we hope we can make a difference. Pushkin Caviar has recently taken place among our core brands participating in those auctions and events.

Lichtensteins

What advice would you give to first-time entrepreneurs?

Today’s entrepreneurs are significantly different than those I followed in the beginning of my career and much younger than ever before.  Their examples are strewn across the front pages of magazines, newspapers and flung across the Internet.  They have grown up in an era where an idea can be pitched in a hoodie and give rise to billion dollar venture backed enterprises.  When I was starting out, everything required skin in the game.  You had to have money to make money.  You didn’t just imagine something then walk around and ask people for money to finance your dreams.  Too much of these younger generations have had that process reinforced in recent history.  The worst example of this is Ms. Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.  Touted as the youngest self-made billionaire in the world, she has become a victim of her own PR raising enough private capital to elevate her personal net worth to almost $10 billion while question still remains as to whether her company claims are valid.  She recently abandoned her social media efforts with one word on Twitter:  humbled.

Everyone speaks of being the next “Steve Jobs”.  I have heard Ms. Elizabeth Holmes, Mr. Elon Musk, and Mr. Mark Zuckerberg all heralded to take the mantle left vacant by him.  I am grateful no one has ever considered that of me.  I wouldn’t want to attempt to follow his shadow in any manner.  I want to be known for what I did and who I was.

In July 2011, a few blocks from my house in Bel Air, Petra Ecclestone Stunt, heiress to the Formula 1 fortune, purchased Aaron and Candy Spelling’s 56,500-square-foot faux-chateau for $85 million.  I found this curious as to why a woman who would always be viewed as Bernie Ecclestone’s daughter would also want to live in someone else’s house.

My advice to young or first-time entrepreneurs starting out today is find out who you are and be that.  Be proud of your heritage, your family, and your business.  Don’t try and live someone else’s dream. Find one of your own and chase it for all your worth.

What can a man who has everything wish for? What is your dream?

Well I am flattered by the inference but I am hardly the man that has everything.  My parents raised me to watch my pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.  I have been very blessed throughout the course of my life to have experienced some amazing things.  But I am still on a course charted years ago.  The truth is, you can only eat one meal at a time, drive one car at a time, and sleep in one bed at a time.  Everything else that we are becomes a compilation of our experiences and the people we share them with.

If I was allowed to dream out loud beyond what I currently have, I wish I had a time machine.  Taking me back to 1985. Most of what I wish for is to correct some of the mistakes I made in the past.  My professional life not withstanding, I wish I could have taken better care of my personal life and those I had around me.  What I thought I wanted to achieve became less important with the fallout from those efforts.  People got hurt while I was distracted with Grand Metropolitan and what I thought I had to compromise.

I wish I could do things over again in a much finer fashion.  Even if it meant ending up somewhere else in life.  As I said, we are who we surround ourselves with.  When you find someone that makes you feel like the only man in the world, do everything you can to make sure she feels like the only woman.

Looking ahead my goals are to continue on our leadership path in the United States, while establishing a strong presence in Monaco to compete with the Paris based luxury goods conglomerates.

When looking at your entire life journey from a bird’s-eye view, do you have any regrets? What would you do differently now?

Honestly, I spend more time privately on this question than anything else in my life.  The path I took in my career was necessary.  The decisions I made were based on the very best information available at the time.  Obviously those choices effected my personal life as well.  As I have just mentioned.

If given another chance I would put the focus on family and loved ones.  The people you can trust the most are the ones that are not impressed with what you have accomplished.  They still hold you to the same level of expectation and etiquette as they did before.  Hopefully you do not let them down and still show them the respect they deserve.  It is hard to hold on to those people that ground you if you are floating away all of the time.  The trusted ones support you simply because of who you are and don’t allow you to get lost in all of the trappings that success can sometimes provide.  If you can find someone content to watch an ocean sunset with you on a park bench, the rest of life is easy.

 Mr. Lee Do you agree with the biblical words “Love your enemies…” because you’ve become what you are now thanks to them?

I certainly do agree with those words.  As I have grown and matured, my strength in my faith has become fortified.  It has allowed me to discover and tame my demons.  I no longer have enemies.  But of course once upon a time, there were people whose life goals were different than mine. I wanted a bigger adventure than others.  Being surrounded by an energy that runs contrary to your own wants and needs can weaken and destroy the best of men.  Most fold and fall in to line.  I had to leave that community and be around people that had similar ambitions and interests.

When you work in a traditional career path, you allay the responsibility of your paycheck and every other foreseeable paycheck on someone else.  Your lifestyle then becomes borrowed time.  People enslave themselves when they mortgage their homes, they lease their cars, they run up their credit cards buying things to occupy their time until they have to report to work again.  When you own your own business, money doesn’t become about the things you can run out and buy.  It is a commodity used to grow your business, increase your net worth and value.  It can be a powerful weapon of time and freedom.  That is how you vanquish your enemies.

I once viewed many of my competitors as my enemies.  For a while my enemies were winning.  As long as the credit markets were strong and the economies were healthy, these men were able to borrow their way to success.  I refuse to enslave Grand Metropolitan in long term or short term debt.  While this philosophy has taken its toll on me, slowing down the process of our growth through acquisition, it has served us well in the long term.

Grand Metropolitan acquired the Beverly Hills Cigar Club, I was very aggressively aware of my competition both locally and nationally.  The cigar brands that competed with our signature LOUIXS cigar, considered a Top 10 in the world, are also our partners in BHCC promotions and operations.  No one smokes only one cigar.

Tennis Earings

When I was first creating the tennis earring, Jacob the Jeweler was thought to be my biggest competitor, until he went to jail on charges of laundering more than $270 million in narcotics.  Neil Lane was also getting a great deal of notoriety with his distribution deal with Zales, Jared, and Kay.  As we ventured deeper into retail with Finlay Enterprises, every single Christmas commercial for Zales would drive me crazy.  Then Bermuda-based Signet purchased Zale Corp. and is now dissolving the Dallas-based division.  Vertical integration can easily turn your competitors into your partners.  This is why always maintaining your integrity and etiquette is so vital.

It took almost 18 years running Heilig-Meyers Furniture after our industry rollup of competitors before we were able to really define a significant point of distinction besides size and legacy. Launching Goldilockz, our first private bedding line, will instantly turn our competitors into distributors.

What makes you smile kindly?

The love of my life.

 

An interview with Vin Lee, CEO of Grand Metropolitan
(c) Photos by Grand Metropilitan
Michael R. Zamut