As an extension of our “International Woman Campaign”, we had a privileged conversation with a successful entrepreneur and investor; such a pleasure to share with you his insights from a different perspective.
Our founder Carla MARTIN had the honor to talk to Mr. Vin LEE, CEO of Grand Metropolitan.
Carla MARTIN: Please introduce yourself for those who do not know you yet. Kindly tell us about your background and your business?
Vin LEE: I am CEO of Beverly Hills based luxury goods conglomerate Grand Metropolitan. While the holding company may not be readily familiar, our 130 brand portfolio contains some of the most iconic luxury names in North America for the last 200 years. Finlay Enterprises is the largest privately-held jewelry group in America with 20 of the TOP 50 retail jewelers of the last century. Heilig-Meyers Furniture was once the largest home furnishing retailers in the world that today includes Rhodes Furniture, Room Store, plus Sterchi Brothers and Wickes Furniture. The later two were also world leaders in their respective markets before being acquired by Heilig-Meyers. Those businesses have earned more than $100 Billion since their inception.
We also maintain dozens of local and regional brands in the world of luxury. Pushkin Caviar is arguably our greatest success in this aspect having become a leading supplier to the VIP, event, and charity auction crowd. The Beverly Hills Cigar Club has been awarded the honor of TOP 5 must have private memberships by Playboy Magazine as well as LOUIXS, our private label cigar as TOP 8 in the world. Both LOUIXS and Pushkin are not available publicly. In addition, Gallery Rodeo manages and maintains the Rodeo Collection, over 100 works of fine art as well as participates in auctions with Christies, Sotheby’s, and private estates.
CM: How you decided to create your business?
VL: I started my business in the late 1980s, at that time Bernard Arnault had just taken over LVMH merging Louis Vuitton with Moet Hennessey. A year later François Pinault listed Pinault S.A. (Kering) on the Paris Stock Exchange. These men were the original architects of the luxury goods conglomerates that today dominate the world. The language needed to walk in that world is not readily accessible to everyone. Certainly not where I came from. There is a saying “To dine with the classes, you must sell to the masses”. Men like Arnault, Pinault, Oppenheimer, and Anton proved that theory wrong.
I grew up in what was considered the most affluent county in the United States at the time. Yet, Tiffany, Cartier, Gucci had no retail presence in the entire state. Ferrari didn’t have a dealership within hundreds of miles. And even though General Motors, headquartered in the city, was owner of Lamborghini you were hard pressed to find a single Countach on display anywhere. Fashion choices for us were effectively Levi or Lee, Nike or Reebok at a time when Marithé et François Girbaud were selling out across Europe. It was a time when Bijan was lighting up Rodeo Drive, Versace was the toast of South Beach, and Morty Sills was dressing the CEOs of Wall Street.
Most people start their careers or businesses ambitious to ultimately live the lifestyle of wealth and privilege. When I moved to South Florida, $3 million bought almost anything on the beach. But it was only 1 years rent on Rodeo Drive. I didn’t know what rich was until I moved to Beverly Hills, where $30 million helped you fit into the crowd. But it wasn’t until I visited Moscow for the first time that I learned what true wealth was. I have never been one that wanted to fit in. I always wanted to own the club than to be a member. I prefer providing those who have with what they want, to being the one always wanting.
CM: Tell us what is your success mindset ?
VL: Patience. I am ultra-competitive. I have been from a very young age. The key is to make sure that you are able to compete in what you are doing. You must have more than hope or will, but a point of differentiation that enables you to, at least in some way, beat your competitors. Most people do not. They have an idea for a product, service, or business that is marginally unique from a hundred others out there and they think they are going for it. But they also want to have a steady income, happy marriage, children, and vacations every year. Something will give, usually a little bit of everything is damaged by their enterprise. I read a quote from Warren Buffett that stated “You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant”
I spent 2 years working with management to buy Samuel’s Jewelers from investors. I failed, and they filed for bankruptcy a month later. It took me 8 years to acquire the Finlay Fine Jewelers brand. It has taken almost two decades for us to straighten out the fallout from Heilig-Meyers Furniture bankruptcy.
“What are you willing to do to get what you want?” That’s the question everyone should ask themselves. If you aren’t willing to go all-in, to make this your life, perhaps you should find a job in the industry you are passionate about rather than attempting to start a business. This isn’t what I do, it is who I am.
CM: What was your biggest challenge on the personal side, also on the business side?
VL: One of the most significant challenges for me was spending 15 years on a jet every two weeks flying between California and Florida and everywhere else to build this company. It took a great toll upon me living out of a suitcase. I missed out on years of time with family and friends. But even earlier one the real challenge, I think for everyone, is to share your life with someone that has the same goals. My business is very capital intensive especially since I do not assume any debt through our operations or acquisitions. In this instance having a partner that respects that same position saves years of heartache. If you choose to share your life with someone that wants to spend lavishly on lifestyle rather than reinvest your resources in your business, you will always be pulled in opposing directions. Our culture has been supremely encouraging of living beyond ones means. This is especially true of those who work for others.
CM: I would like to know what is the best advice in business you have been given? May I ask who gave it to you?
VL: I started out my career as a teenager. If anything, I was encouraged not to pursue this path.
“That most people who started a business would fail.”
“Anything you can come up with, someone else has already thought of.”
“There will always be someone out there smarter than you, faster than you, and better looking than you.”
Sometimes negative reinforcement can be just as motivating as nurturing support. Fortunately, I had some very modest success in overlapping projects that would drown out the “advice” that was tossed at me. It created this self-confidence that I could indeed accomplish the outsized goals I had set for myself. While I came from a very affluent community, it was not a place of entrepreneurs. The Midwest in the 1980s was predominately a corporate culture of Fortune 500 firms. Most of the successful icons of that time were part of the Mergers & Acquisitions community established in New York, Milken, Boesky, Icahn, KKR. Of course the explosive investment environment created by Silicon Valley had not been imagined yet.
CM: For a young entrepreneur, what advice would you give?
VL: “Don’t do it”. I see this type of question all of the time. And the most offered advice to young people or even older people who have dreams of starting their own business is to “Go For It”! These people love to follow through with the “Fail Fast” slogan as if these people are throwing darts at a carnival board with free tokens. It’s easy for people at the top of their game who have often borrowed their way from venture to venture until something finally stuck to toss out that flippant attitude. I disagree. It can be devastating personally and professionally to “fail fast” as an entrepreneur. For many people, and their families and friends who financially supported their dream, most won’t recover. Maxing out credit cards or borrowing against their houses or pensions to fund a business.
If you have an idea that you believe is marketable, that you believe the world cannot live without, take careful steps to proceed. It will always take three times as long and twice as much as you calculate. If you are doing this to become a “millionaire”, you probably won’t be successful. If you are doing this because you are passionate about the product or service, it will help buoy you through the darkness. Because this is not an easy journey for life. It will strain all of your relationships. It will destroy some if you ask them to underwrite your dream. I have had hundreds of people in my personal life ask me to pay them to live their dream. Requesting hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars so they can be a restauranteur, film maker, or run a charitable foundation.
So much of our society is instant gratification. We all barter our time in nanoseconds. As impatient as you are to be successful, the people around you will also bull dog you about progress, especially if they have invested in you. I prefer to encourage people to follow their dreams, but the sobering truth is that it can be a very painful process. Make sure that your brand has a significant point of differentiation. But I still think you shouldn’t do it. If you still believe in yourself after everyone else tells you NO, than maybe you’ll have a chance.
CM: With everything you have achieved, what you would say your greatest achievement is?
VL: That’s actually a very hard question to answer. Professionally, I have done some things that warrant some merit. I am proud of those things. We still have so much more to do, I just hope there is enough time to make it. I went to sleep and I was only 38, I woke up at 49 and so much time has passed by. But this doesn’t really answer your question. I realize I should be bragging about creating the largest this or the most successful that. But it really has never been about money for me.
I have to say my greatest achievement to date is me. Throughout a 30 year career with so many challenges and struggles peppered within the successes, I like who I am today. People don’t often realize that behind the glitter and glamour of the luxury business, there is a lot of corruption and danger. It is very seductive. My faith in God has never been stronger. My family is still there supporting, caring, and accepting of me, even with my decade’s long distraction with work.
CM: What was the most challenging moment in your life? And how did you manage to overcome it?
VL: This interview would become far too long and depressing to outline the biggest challenges. I think that most people have family and loved ones that will forgive and accept all kinds of behaviors. No one will reject you for failing in your lifegoals. Your parents or spouse recognizing your commitment and effort will always have a home for you to lay your head. But absence both physically and emotionally while you are pursuing your ambitions is impossible to compete with.
I disappeared into this foreign world of luxury and its world-wide pursuit for decades starting from a very young age. The people around the dinner table didn’t understand the language I was speaking. For about 2 decades I was swimming alone through the complexities of finance and fashion most of which you cannot just “read up on” to be able to communicate with others. There is no MBA program at the corner of Wall St. and Rodeo Drive. As I have mentioned almost 15 years of my career was spent on a jet bouncing from coast to coast or country to country living out of a suitcase even with multiple homes. You never really unpack and the clock is always ticking to the next flight or meeting. The phone is under your pillow and doesn’t recognize the time zones during your sleep. People in your life aren’t often easy to forgive the empty chair at birthdays and holidays.
If you are successful, and you can provide for your family, fear becomes a reality especially in jewelry. People have a hard time grasping what the jewelry business really is. It is the most valuable and liquid asset on the planet. No one will rob a bookstore for that shipment of Harry Potters. But as a jeweler and a cigar guy, you can secure as much as $5 million in stones in a cigar tube and get on a plane and disappear, achieving that same value in any city around the globe. In a world where people will attack you just for wearing the wrong baseball hat, it’s very dangerous.
Security and privacy become far more paramount concerns over other trappings of wealth. You begin to monitor your family and friends about casual Facebook posts or Tweets asking them not to give out your address to those requesting to send holiday cards. That in fact turns everyone against you as they misinterpret your behavior as being pretentious or self-involved. Your circle becomes much smaller.
CM: From your entire professional experience, what was your most exciting project up to now?
VL: That’s a great question! I have been so fortunate to be involved in many interesting and exciting endeavors over my career. Even if they didn’t produce a profit or even ultimately become a success. When you’re young or new to business, everything is exciting, new products or deals. I could probably tell more exciting stories about the projects that failed than the ones that completed.
The most exciting project is always the next one. In this instance, I invented a very simple consumer product in the hygiene industry 30 years ago this year. It is now time for me to release it, since no one else has come up with it. It is completely out of the luxury realm, so we will see if we can make strides outside of our wheelhouse.
CM: Could you please tell us what is your business current focus?
VL: While we continue to grow our leadership position in North America, I have spent the last couple of years working and building our international presence. Dalgety was a great step for us in this process which we folded our tobacco and caviar business into. We began test marketing both Frechef Food Systems and Fruishi products.
We actually have a long term focus for growth in each division. Most of the efforts the last two decades have been about acquisitions of both regional and national brands in our supply chain, jewelry, furniture, fashion etc. These energies are all culminating in Lichtensteins. Every product Grand Metropolitan produces under its entire brand portfolio will be available on our luxury digital platform. This streamlines our online presence and keeps quality and customer service at a premium.
CM: Luxury definition has changed so much during the past years. What does luxury mean to you today and how do you think the notion of luxury could be updated for the modern days?
VL: Well so much of our society has shifted to “fast casual”. We know longer dress for dinner, or even set a table for guests. Crystal, china, and flatware are no longer cherished family heirlooms. The great lost art of conversation has been replaced by texts and emoji. People now do their shopping and travelling in their pajamas. So it really is no surprise that the world of luxury, those coveted aspirational items, have to evolve or die. I honestly believe that women have been better served by luxury items over the centuries. Everything from health & beauty, jewelry & accessories, haute couture has always predominantly been focused towards the ladies. Gentlemen have really been limited in the past, but it has picked up.
CM: From all the brands you represent and not only, if you had to choose one favorite piece (jewelry, watches etc) which would it be?
VL: I admit that is a complicated question to answer. People often respond with, that would be like picking my favorite child. And we have about 130. It is honestly something that rotates on my plate daily. Which brand we give more love or attention too. With such a large portfolio and finite amount of financial resources we do pretty well. Primarily we have about 100 brands broken down between jewelry, home furnishings, and tobacco. So your efforts become focused on managing groups or market segments rather than specific brands or even products.
Obviously my patented marquees hold a special place in my heart. It is the one creation that has been with me the longest, since my teen years, and produced the largest impact on the world. I have seen these internally illuminated billboards all over the globe from Moscow to Milan and Miami to Madrid. Originally created for Blockbuster Video, they have evolved to the sides of buildings, trucks and tuk-tuks all over the world creating a $6 billion/year industry.
Of course in a close second place would be my tennis earring. When I was starting out in the jewelry industry I had outsized ambitions to have my name in rank with Harry Winston, Nicki Oppenheimer, or Laurence Graff. So I set out to create a jewelry style that no one had ever seen before in the manner of David Yurman or Christian Louboutin, recognizable across a crowded room. When we first launched after the millennium, Playboy Magazine claimed it was “too bling”. Originally our market was identified as professional athletes and musicians. It took almost 15 years to be mainstream. Now you find smaller versions of our inline diamond earrings in mall jewelers around the world as well as online shops made with synthetic stones and set in alloy metals. That’s quite a movement from the $300,000 custom set we showed at Prince’s Beverly Hills Estate or the $1 million suite worn by Frances first family member at the Cannes Film Festival.
In each of our businesses, we have introduced a product into the market place that has evolved into a leadership position in some manner. I have, especially in the early years, had a lot of influence in the design and creation of these items. It is very satisfying to sketch out a concept with paper and chalk and then see it become reality, especially when the consumer embraces it. We see that happening every day at Finlay Fine Jewelers, Heilig-Meyers Furniture, Dalgety Foods, etc.
CM: Who inspires you today?
VL: Boy that is a hard question to answer. I have met some of my heroes in real life and they have fallen short of the hype. So many of our leaders and leading industrialists have lost their luster in the last few years. Everything is so politicized. I do continue to be inspired by what Bernard Arnault has created. How can you not? That’s pretty easy. I did recently identify Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis as a personal hero of mine. What she accomplished in her life is one of the most inspired stories I have ever heard. As a French-Canadian, student of fine art, and resident of this planet she impressed upon me that anyone from anywhere can have a lasting positive effect on the Earth. I think the film of her life has done as much as her talent as an artist ever did to make the world a better place. It chokes me up every time I watch it. I wish anything I ever did had that kind of impact on someone.
CM: Vin, do you have a secret talent?
VL: I am not sure how much of a secret it is, but I do love to cook.
CM: You found your passion, in your opinion how does everyone find their own passion?
VL: Unfortunately, I don’t believe everyone gets to find their passion. I think they try and create passion in what their life leads them to, whether it is in family, work, or some hobby or outside interest. I know a lot of people that haven’t lived up to their full potential for life. It was too scary or too much work to reach out for something extraordinary. I have seen this my whole life. It is very difficult to break from the group, to step outside of the comfortable world of everyone else. Basically because we are taught to try so hard to fit in and be like everyone else. Today it is even worse with every child getting a participation trophy just for showing up. We are literally breeding excellence out of our society. Because if there are winners, there also have to be losers. And unfortunately there are far fewer lions than there are penguins.
CM: If you had the power to change just one thing in the world what would it be?
VL: Well obviously, my answer would be very personal and I can’t divulge that secret. It involves a Delorean and a flux capacitor. But if I was to change something for the betterment of the world, I would stop people from looking on each other’s plates. So much of the problems we have today in society are based on who has what and who doesn’t. This is how social media platforms like Facebook have destroyed so much of the goodness in the world. If you keep giving participation trophies to everyone whether they show up or not, you disincentivize people. Those who are exceptional stop trying to strive for more. Those who need improvement will never learn to handle adversity in their lives. There is this political movement towards making everyone special so that no one is. People go on Instagram and see that everyone else is richer, prettier, and far happier than you are in your sweat pants eating nachos and binge watching Netflix. Twitter has become a sounding board for all of the unhappiness in the world focused towards whatever the topic of the post is.
If we stop worrying about what other people have and focus on appreciating what we have the world would be a much nicer place to live.
CM: Much obliged Vin for your time and kindness to answer my questions. Such a pleasure to hear your opinion on so many different topics.