‘We want to be Ferrari not Fiat’, says “King of luxury” Vin Lee
Vin Lee is an American businessman who is the current chairman and chief executive officer of Beverly Hills based luxury-goods holding company Grand Metropolitan.
Business Leader Magazine sat down with Lee to talk about his career, his approach to life and why he is named “The king of luxury”.
What inspired you to go into business in the first place?
I received a grant from the Michigan Education Association to study computer animation as part of my commercial design and Graphics curriculum working with Commodore Computers Amiga and Time Warner Cable.
I then transferred to the University of Michigan to study business and became a consultant for the automotive industry through the assistance of my father, an executive at Ford Motor Company. I was able to again utilise my design background in helping automotive assembly plants create more efficient methods of storing and distributing vehicles through trucking and rail yards.
What do you see as the biggest changes in the world of business over the past few years?
People always seem content to identify the internet as the greatest evolution the last century. But in recent years I have noticed that it is in fact the smartphone that has made the largest impact on the business world.
Cellphones untethered us from our desks at a time when PCs had shackled us to the floor. So much of the business advancements have been the apps developed for literally millions of uses. Retail clerks have entire inventory control systems in their pockets. Drone, VR, AR, and AI technology have all rocketed forward a result of these shared software’s to anyone around the planet.
In addition communication has exploded. It was a thrill to ride around in the late 1980s with a phone in your car. My first flip phone allowed me to walk through the woods and have conference calls. But today, I can manager, source, and expand my entire operation from the beach without even talking to another human being.
What do you see as the biggest disadvantages to technology advancements?
Today, there seems to be a loss of etiquette and elegance to the world of business. Letter writing skills have been replaced with emoji’s and Casual Fridays know no bounds. I am afraid too that with so much immediate and instant gratification, the great art of conversation is now lost.
Now how does this social change effect the world of luxury? The fine time piece industry, a major component of the overall jewelry market, has been drastically damaged by the fact that everyone has a “clock” on their phone. Form follows function.
Much of the couture that once enveloped our business landscape has been replaced by skinny jeans and leisure ware. Homebuilders are even eliminating dining rooms as people are not as likely to entertain in formal fashion. That movement has also influenced the furniture, crystal, and flatware industries. People are not collecting fine china and crystal like they once were.
How did you get involved in the world of luxury?
I had just signed a three year $50m contract to reverse the fortunes of a luxury golf resort $80m in debt and wanted to mark the moment with a Rolex President. My trade broker referred me to a local fine jeweler with a 25 year history owned by two French brothers. DuQuet Jewelers at one time operated five retail locations and shop facilities supporting local mall jewellers.
One of the little known secrets across suburban America is that many of the locally owned fine jewelers contract out service and repair for the regional and national mall brands who cannot afford to pay for those high rent levels and staffing for full-service shops.
After boasting about the deal I had just done, the owner took me to the private diamond room. He began to regale seductive tales about the fine jewelry and diamond trade. Several hours later I emerged completely enchanted with this new world and as the new owner of the establishment.
The company earned just over $3m in annual revenue selling to the area’s elite, political powers, and professional sports athletes. I quickly moved to renovate and update the showroom and shop facilities.
What is your view of the state of the worldwide luxury market?
I believe the worldwide luxury market continues to expand into more varied facets of life. Once just symbols of wealth or affluence, today you find luxury categories in everything from fashion to food. Companies and brands are embracing this new era of transparency and experiential lifestyles.
They are creating the story behind the brand as part of the relationship with the client. This history becomes personal, if produced properly, and creates a bond between the banner and the user we have not seen before.
Luxury is also becoming simultaneously more global and hyper local at the same time.
Where does your passion for the luxury industry come from?
Having grown up as a student of the fine art world, it was only a few steps further into the realm of luxury. My parents did an exceptional job of introducing my brother and me to so much of what the world had to offer.
I was encouraged to study calligraphy as much as martial arts. We were introduced to people from so many varied backgrounds. From my first ride in a private helicopter as a child of 11 to the family vacations down the coast in a chauffeured coach it was apparent this was the type of lifestyle I wanted to pursue.
Heritage and superior quality are significant components in the world of luxury. There is a specific cadence and a dialect in everything from wine to wardrobe. I didn’t just want to understand that language, I wanted to master it.
It’s not about the ability to write a large cheque for a piece of fine art or rare vintage of wine. Certainly not the car you drive or the time piece on your wrist. But about creating something of substance that no one has ever experienced before. I think that is at the heart of both art and luxury.
What are the ways in which gaining funding has changed and is it for the better?
There are so many funding options today, it seems difficult not to get financed. Especially now where wealthy investors have a lot of cheap capital to put to work. This was the main motivator behind our participation in the Ellerines Furniture bankruptcy in South Africa.
We believe that mobile payments and microloans are one of the major growth segments especially in emerging markets. Imagine retailers financing consumer purchases directly with payments made through their phones particularly for those communities without traditional credit card facilities or banking options.
Crowdfunding sites like Go Fund Me, Kickstarter, and Lending Club are the great equalizers of our modern society. They empower anyone to participate in investing in entrepreneurs for as little as $10. Once you had to have substantial “skin in the game” or equity to start a business or develop a product.
What does it take to be a success?
Success, just like luxury, is defined differently for everyone. The key to longevity and thus a level of success at least in my career has been to maintain ones integrity. Everyone experiences dips and challenges, it is how you manage through the storm that matters. When you are starting out, shortcuts can be very tempting, especially if you are really hungry.
With the digital world, everything you do and say is forever. It will shadow you the rest of your life. If you are like me, I google everyone I am considering to be in business with. How you treat people will ricochet throughout your life.
We are very active on social media platforms. People get a familiarity with you, your company, and your products. Even if you are only getting a few likes, there are thousands of people watching.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced in business over the years, and how did you overcome it?
When I was younger I was very impatient, driven by ambition, wanting to get my name on a list in a magazine. As mentioned, I had some modest success in my teen years and was anxious to make my mark on a much larger world.
I had to navigate my way through a very complex and foreign world with little guidance and even more limited resources. Everything took three times longer and cost twice as much as you calculate.
As a result, I financed everything independently. No debt, no partners, no borrowing from friends and family and certainly not financial institutions. In the earlier years that put progress on a glacial path.
But along the way the lessons learned about debt and managing overhead is exactly how we have sustained such aggressive growth to the top of the industries we occupy.
How do you see the business landscape changing and evolving over time?
We are a global economy and every pebble tossed into the pool creates ripples around the world. As such you are seeing many blue chip established companies making major investments in the tech sector as well as acquiring very young but scalable startups.
Amazon bought both colossal retailer Whole Foods and medicinal packaging startup PillPack. While centurian Nordstrom Department Stores picked up two digital startups, BevyUp and MessageYes. I think many of these organisations are finding that buying innovation is much more satisfying to their investors and PR than attempting to grow or develop from within.
Professional executives are really being shown as the rock star celebrities of their own industries. Apple has wooed dozens of executives away from the uncertainty of Tesla.
I think we will continue to see companies once hidden behind their countries borders taking larger and larger interests in brands all over the globe.
Any advice to entrepreneurs?
What are you willing to do to get what you want? This is a question you must consider seriously. There is a great deal of freedom in working for someone else. When you take that step to running your own company you take on the responsibility of everything and everyone in your world.
And honestly, there will be more doubters than supporters along the way. It is no longer a matter of what you do for a living, but who you are. It is more important than ever to maintain your level of integrity throughout the entire process. As it may be your first venture, it probably won’t be your last.
Why do they call you the “King of Luxury”?
That is a very generous moniker given to me by Beverly Hills Magazine.
Monaco or bust?
In North America, there are arguably two main luxury epicenters, New York City, specifically 5thAvenue and Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. When we started Grand Metropolitan Beverly Hills was the prime choice for our modest operation to stand out. The red carpeted, celebrity, star studded, gilded everything.
In similar fashion as Beverly Hills, I believe Grand Metropolitan’s future growth and the development of my banking project should find its home on the French Riviera in Monaco.
What makes a man?
Manners Maketh Man, William Horman, Headmaster at Eton School. I find this to be one of my favorite quotes and a useful mantra in business. One should always be consistent with how to treat others, regardless of lot or station in life. I have always worked diligently to be fair and balanced in my negotiations as I cherish a good night sleep. I find that to be the truest luxury of them all.