the man...the mom...the myth
A Chinese-Jamaican leaves his dirt-poor, fatherless roots behind to build a $2-billion empire and give away $30 million in cash to charity. Everyone loves the Michael Lee-Chin story. It drives his mother crazy 00:00 EDT Friday, May 30, 2003
The socialites, politicians and zillionaires had gathered at the Royal Ontario Museum. Michael Lee-Chin should have been there in his Bruno Magli crocodile shoes, diamond-pavé cufflinks and Louis Vuitton tie, flashing his megawatt smile and flaunting his half-black, half-Chinese pedigree. Alas, a scant three hours earlier, the guest of honour had sent regrets. It was the first time anyone could remember a no-show from someone giving away $30 million in cash.
"An urgent personal matter has called him away," ROM Foundation chairman Jim Temerty announced that morning in April. Hilary Weston, former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, wife of billionaire Galen Weston and chief ROM fundraiser, gave her speech anyway, calling the immigrant from Jamaica "the Tiger Woods of investment banking."
Actually, Lee-Chin isn't an investment banker. He sells mutual funds, lots of them, through his company, AIC Ltd. Pressing on, Weston announced that, in return for his "tremendous generosity," the new Daniel Libeskind-designed addition would be called the Michael A. Lee-Chin Crystal, and its four-storey atrium, the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court, after Lee-Chin's mother.
Then David Palmer, president of the ROM Foundation, read Lee-Chin's remarks in absentia. "We were poor. My first playpen was a cardboard box. Mother-today, from the cardboard box to the Crystal Court, it's been quite a journey, and I couldn't have done it without you." ROM CEO William Thorsell looked damp-eyed. The crowd of 200 applauded and moved into the Eaton Court for champagne.
What on earth could have kept Lee-Chin from his moment in the sun? His mom, it turns out. At the time, everyone talked about a "family emergency," but no one has said, then or since, exactly what the problem was. Gloria, as everyone calls her, had flown in from Jamaica, but on the day of the big event, she refused to budge. "Because of SARS," she tells me a few weeks later, referring to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Toronto. "I'm 70. It's contagious."
When I visit her in Jamaica, I find that Gloria is wealthy in her own right, with a marquise-cut diamond on her hand, a Mercedes-Benz in her garage, two houses in Florida and, in Jamaica, a villa, a condo, a shopping mall and the country's largest supermarket chain, which alone grossed $192 million in 2002. Gloria has never been to the ROM. Asked if she's pleased the atrium will be named after her, she shrugs. "I don't know what to think. He brought the drawings to show me." And so, a champagne reception and her billionaire son's money notwithstanding, that was that.
This is the story of Michael Lee-Chin, the man, the myth and his mom. It's about a boy so street-smart that, at 17, he talked a mugger out of stealing his watch. It's the story of a man who has $2.2 billion in assets, his own bank and a $60-million Global Express jet just like Bill Gates's, but, at 52, is chastened the moment mom casts a stern glance his way.
The Michael Lee-Chin myth, as everyone knows, goes like this: The son of an uneducated, unwed, mixed-race teenager, he grew up poverty-stricken and fatherless in Jamaica. Against all odds, he managed to enroll in engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton. He soon ran out of money, but sweet-talked Hugh Shearer, Jamaica's then-prime minister, into giving him a scholarship. After graduation, he patriotically returned to the motherland to build roads, then ended up back in Canada, where he sold mutual funds and made his first million.
In fact, Lee-Chin was raised in the middle class. True, his mother never went to high school and had him, alone, at age 18. But he was 7 when his mother married Vincent Chen, and by then "Uncle Vin," as Lee-Chin called him, had been part of his life for years. The yarn about the scholarship is good, but a government agency advanced the money, a routine arrangement in return for a commitment to work for Jamaica after graduation. The young Lee-Chin had written a letter to the prime minister, but he only met Shearer in person seven months ago.
Still, why let the facts spoil a good rags-to-riches tale? "I can see all these Canadians conjuring up images of Michael, bare-assed and barefoot in the mud hut. All of us who knew the story and are related, we just smirk at it," says his uncle Anthony Lee-Chin, who is a year older than Michael and grew up with him in Jamaica. "It makes for good PR and press releases. I'm in that business, so I know what you do in terms of marketing." Anthony is vice-president of marketing for a Mississauga, Ont., wine and spirits company. "The cardboard-box story does sell, you have to admit."
In the days after the ROM announcement, Lee-Chin recouped his squandered promotional opportunity. Any reporter who called-and many did-were promptly invited to AIC's headquarters in Burlington, 40 minutes west of Toronto. Many were instantly seduced. For one thing, Lee-Chin is undeniably photogenic, with Chinese eyes, warm brown skin and an uncanny ability to hold a wide smile for the camera. Then there's his showy lobby, a little piece of Jamaica with flowering orchids, tropical ferns, and two caged parrots named Calypso and Fantasia, who are trained to say "buy" and "hold." It almost makes you forget that AIC's flagship Advantage fund lost 32% in the year ended March 31.
Many have swallowed his dusty old Horatio Alger story, now refreshed with the cardboard-box-to-the-Crystal-Court twist. "My mother was an orphan," says Lee-Chin, recounting how his biological father, Aston Lee, vanished before he was born. At 19, he met Lee for the first time, in Mississauga. "I can remember the evening I went. I can't remember the emotion I felt," he says, his voice growing quiet.
Lee-Chin will have you think the relationship remains strained, but in fact father and son are on good terms. They would meet at least once a week for Sunday dinners with Uncle Anthony. It turns out that Aston has his own entrepreneurial talent: After retiring from a factory job in Toronto, he bought a fleet of intercity buses in Jamaica.
In the text of his ROM speech, Lee-Chin mentions others close to him, especially thanking "my wife." That's not Vera Lee-Chin, to whom he remains legally married, despite separating from her in 1990. Vera is the mother of Michael Jr., 24, Paul, 21, and Adrian, 18. "My wife" refers to Sonya Hamilton, Lee-Chin's girlfriend and a former AIC employee, who is a mix of black, white and aboriginal, and who lives with their fraternal-twin daughters, now seven months old. Lee-Chin resides separately in Flamborough, Ont., on an 11-hectare estate he bought in 1996 for $1.5 million from Michael DeGroote, former CEO of Laidlaw Inc.
Asked about the estate, Lee-Chin says, "It's just an estate." In fact, in addition to a cut-stone English manor house and eight-car garage, it has a pool, tennis court, a pair of two-bedroom cottages, a maple-sugar shack with a fireplace, a sporting pond stocked with trout and bass, wildflower meadows, a bridge and groves of hundred-year-old trees. Despite Lee-Chin's love of flash-he owns a silver Mercedes-Benz and a red Ferrari-ask about his private jet or helicopter and he bristles. "I've been, to this point, a mystery person. I don't want to be stark naked in front of people."
That's a Freudian choice of words from the most body-proud CEO in Canada. Lee-Chin has a V-shaped chest, faultless pecs and washboard stomach, thanks to 80-pushup workouts in his home gym. He claims his weight, at 220 pounds, is unchanged since university, and declares himself 6 foot 4; his mother puts him at 6 foot 3.
Lee-Chin spins himself as a Bay Street outsider who doesn't socialize with old money. Still, he was tickled to find his photo next to the Westons' in the latest Forbes billionaires list, ranking him 303rd worldwide. Through AIC, Lee-Chin is the second-biggest shareholder in Loblaw, after the Weston family. And though he met Hilary Weston for the first time when she called on him in February, six weeks later he was joining her on the beach for caipirinhas, lobster and asparagus with truffle sabayon at a shindig to promote Windsor, the Westons' 300-villa development in Vero Beach, Fla. That was three days after his no-show at the ROM.
It was Hilary Weston who asked for the $30 million. Weston, who comes from poor Irish stock, shrewdly figured out Lee-Chin's hunger to make his mark. "Of course, I understand that aspect of it," she says. "I was an immigrant, obviously." But Lee-Chin is no stranger to the ROM. He has been a foundation board member since 2001. In 2002, AIC sponsored a museum exhibit of archeological finds from Sichuan, China. What's more, Lee-Chin is managing $9 million of the museum's endowment through an AIC subsidiary.
Weston says she isn't sure how the extra naming opportunity for his mom came about, but adds, "It was a question of how best to honour and please him." She also did not know until she made the pitch that Lee-Chin had grown up on the fringes of Weston wealth. Galen's brother, Grainger, had owned the best hotel in Port Antonio, where Gloria was a bookkeeper. When Grainger's cruise ship docked on Sundays, Gloria and Vincent served the tourists at the duty-free counter of the local grocery store. At 13, Michael was a yard boy at Grainger's hotel. At 15, he slaved aboard the ship at one of the dirtiest jobs, swabbing oil in the engine room.
So maybe it was a bit delicious, after all, to stand up the likes of Hilary and Galen, not to mention federal Transport Minister David Collenette, Ontario Culture Minister David Tsubouchi and various grandees such as Bluma Appel, Patrick Gossage and Jack Cockwell. "I was giving away $30 million, and I wasn't even there," Lee-Chin says, with a half-mortified, half-pleased smile. He then turns to the topic of his childhood deprivation, how Gloria had to work three jobs to keep him in asthma medicine. "She raised me alone," he says. "My first playpen was a cardboard box."
Ah, the cardboard box.
"What is there to tell? Michael had the usual childhood," says Gloria, a tiny, sturdy woman with short grey hair, bifocals that glint in the sun and skin the colour of dark honey.
This is her first interview. She doesn't want to talk, "but Michael's insisting," says Gloria, who is not in a particularly good mood. The persistent myth of Lee-Chin's impoverished upbringing irritates her, especially the tale of the cardboard box.
"A lot of people say to me: 'Aren't you proud of Michael?' Of course I'm proud. But I'm not going to jump and click my heels because he's a billionaire," she says. "If I see something he does that I'm not in agreement with, I'm going to tell him."
Gloria lives in the centre of Jamaica, in Mandeville, a breezy hillside retreat once favoured by retired colonial civil servants. On this afternoon, she is holding court on her villa terrace, wreathed in sunset-coloured bougainvillea. Like a scene out of The Godfather, Gloria's curved driveway is jammed with a million dollars worth of her children's gleaming SUVs. They have arrived, one by one, for the weekly board meeting of the Super Plus Food Stores chain. (Despite her own Mercedes, Gloria shuns conspicuous wheels and drives a Toyota when she goes shopping.)
She and Vincent have nine offspring: her Michael, his Colin (from a previous relationship), a daughter and six more sons. Michael's siblings, among them an Air Jamaica pilot, two computer scientists, a lawyer and a gynecologist, run the family's 28 supermarkets. Three more stores are being built.
A buffet of soy-sauce chicken, spicy beef and Cantonese lap cheung sausages is laid out on the counter of Gloria's lemon-yellow kitchen. A neighbour has brought apple pie and banana bread. Cellphones beep as the children, several in-laws and half a dozen hired executives fill their plates and sit at the extra-long dining room table. Uncle Vin, a tall, dignified man, eats quietly, leaving the shoptalk to the kids. In the kitchen, a houseman washes the dishes.
Although only 4 foot 11, Gloria towers psychologically over everyone. At one point, she enters the dining room to see if her kids are using the coasters she'd set out on top of a starched tablecloth. Oops. One son, who shall remain unnamed, hasn't. Under mom's gaze, he tries to slip his teacup onto the coaster, tipping it over in his panic. There is silence as liquid seeps into the cloth. Gloria leaves the room.
If anything, her story is more remarkable than Lee-Chin's. Half-Hakka Chinese and half-black, Gloria managed to send all nine children to universities in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. Gloria herself was supposed to go to high school. Her uniforms were all sewn when her adoptive Chinese mother put her to work in a grocery store, owned by the extended family of Aston Lee. (Michael's paternal grandfather, who emigrated from China, was surnamed Lee and his personal name was Chin, but in Jamaica, the names were combined: Lee-Chin.)
Aston, who is also half-black, left for England after Gloria got pregnant. At 18, she had Michael. "I gave him his father's name, but I wanted to give him my values," she says.
Gloria hired someone to look after her baby while she worked in the grocery store. In her spare time, she sold Avon products to Jamaica's middle class. She didn't, however, have a third job selling Reader's Digest, as Lee-Chin likes to say; she once sold seven subscriptions to friends to win a free one for herself. She also took a correspondence course in accounting and, two nights a week, did bookkeeping for Grainger Weston. At 25, she married her supermarket co-worker Vincent, another half-Chinese half-black. Like Gloria, he held other jobs, selling Singer sewing machines and working at night as a movie projectionist.
"Michael was exposed to business at an early age," says Gloria, a devout Roman Catholic. He helped out at the grocery store. At 12, he took the long-distance bus from Port Antonio to Kingston, alone, to pick up her Avon orders. He got his first lessons in cold calling, following Uncle Vin as he sold sewing machines around the island.
Gloria and Vincent worked hard and saved harder. When he took the Singer job, she opened a store selling fabric, in an early attempt at convergence. Singer promoted Vincent to regional manager, and in 1968 the family moved to Mandeville, where a discovery of bauxite, the principal ore used in making aluminum, had set off a boom.
Today, Gloria is retired, but her children still consult her on major decisions. So does Donovan Lewis, Lee-Chin's best friend in Jamaica. It was Lewis who advised his friend to buy National Commercial Bank, the country's second-biggest bank. Lee-Chin said absolutely not, citing the bank's bad loans, not to mention Jamaica's crushing national debt.
"So I took it to his mom," says Lewis, 54, one of Jamaica's richest men, with a hilltop mansion, a financial-services business and two children studying overseas.
Gloria already knew about the bank. She scanned the financial statements, noted its 52 branches-many on prime real estate-and spotted another convergence opportunity. Like the Westons have done with Loblaws and PC Financial, she imagined installing banking services in every Super Plus store. She spoke to her son. He changed his mind.
There was, too, an emotional cherry on the sundae. Forty years earlier, when Michael was 10, Uncle Vin had applied to be a teller at the Bank of Nova Scotia Jamaica. He was rejected, family members believe, because in those days only light-skinned people landed that kind of white-collar job.
"Dad shrugged it off, but Mom was bitter about it," says Wayne Chen, 44, the third son and CEO of the Super Plus chain, who now sits on the board of National Commercial Bank. "Back then the saying went, 'If black, stay back.'"
Lee-Chin refuses to link that long-ago humiliation to his purchase of National Commercial Bank. But Bank of Nova Scotia is its fiercest competitor.
A rude clatter shatters the bucolic afternoon. "Yes, that's the helicopter," says Gloria, unimpressed. Lee-Chin took AIC's 14-seat corporate jet to Jamaica, and sent his Sikorsky S-76 helicopter ahead to use for local hops. It takes only 18 minutes by helicopter from Kingston to Mandeville, but 90 minutes by car along twisting two-lane mountain roads.
We watch the bird land in a meadow. Then Lee-Chin alights, followed by his executive assistant, Diana Colalillo, and two pilots. He strides in, hugs several siblings, then bends over to kiss mom, who wants to get one thing straight.
"It wasn't a cardboard box. I don't know this cardboard box," she says.
Lee-Chin backs against the terrace railing and shrinks under his mother's gaze. "But I didn't have a crib," he insists. "I played in a cardboard box."
"It was a board box," Gloria says with exasperation. "You couldn't buy a crib in those days."
"Okay, a board box," her son says, slightly relieved.
"I don't want them," she says-waving her hand at the invisible horde of lazy scribes who have dutifully recorded the myth-"to portray me as this poor little person."
She rises on her tiptoes to brush a ladybug off her son's forehead. Once, she says, in an aside to her guests, she tucked a napkin under his chin in full view of his two helicopter pilots. "No matter how wealthy he is, he's my child."
"Speak the facts," he says. "How many jobs you had?"
Gloria scowls. He reminds her that she once worked for 29 years without a vacation. She scowls harder.
"Mom, Mom," he pleads. "You're being sensitive."
"But I am, Mike," she says. "People might think that you're coming from way down, being dirt-poor....We were always middle class, even as a single parent. I never considered myself poor. We were never poor."
Asked what gifts her son has given her, Gloria hesitates.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Lee-Chin finally offers, looking embarrassed.
"I have my own money," she says firmly.
But in 1996, when she had colon cancer and was hospitalized in Miami, he flew down every second week. Once, he left a pair of cowboy boots beside her bed. He told her, "These are kick-ass boots. Whenever you feel sick, remember to kick ass." And she did.
Port Antonio, a fishing village with an arc of white sand beaches, was the destination of Jamaica's first tourists who arrived a century ago aboard banana boats. Last June, the government completed a $24-million marina here for luxury yachts. "There's untapped potential," says Lee-Chin, who hopes to lure developers to his birthplace.
Port Antonio is home to Titchfield High School, founded in 1786 on the site of a British fort. Two antique cannon still aim at long-gone pirates of the deep. In 1962, Lee-Chin was one of only two students in his Grade 6 year to win a scholarship to Titchfield. A two-minute stroll away is 27 Fort George St., where Gloria moved when Michael was 8. Previously-before she married Vincent-she rented rooms in other families' homes. The new house was only a two-bedroom clapboard, but the street was prime real estate, favoured by prosperous Jewish and Syrian merchants. In 1966, the family moved around the corner to 4 Musgrave St. In disrepair now, with a leaking roof, it had been one of the most elegant houses in Port Antonio. Its grandeur is still apparent in 14-foot-high ceilings, wraparound verandas and filigree trim in the style known as carpenter gothic. The house even had a name, Clitheroe Lodge, according to bronze plaques on the wrought-iron gate.
"In those days, this was really top of the line," says Heron Jones, a next-door neighbour who says he works as a tour guide. "This was the upper-middle class."
In Kingston, the working class gets its exercise walking to work. The elite prefer Emancipation Park. By 6 a.m., the track is filling up with doctors, lawyers and politicians, including Jamaica's minister of labour and social security, Horace Dalley. Lee-Chin jogs here when he's in town. And since he bought 75% of National Commercial Bank for $214 million in 2002, that's been at least one week a month.
On this sunny morning, he's hands down the best bod at the track, sporting teensy grey silk shorts that show off his toned behind. "He had an obsession with abdominals," says his old pal Gordon Hamilton, 50, overweight and panting from exertion as Lee-Chin strides easily past. Hamilton, who owns a construction company, hadn't seen Lee-Chin in years until he bought the bank. "First thing, I asked him, how are your abdominals? I was shocked. He still has them."
In the mid-1970s, Hamilton, Lee-Chin and Donovan Lewis would work out at the same Kingston gym. Lee-Chin had graduated from McMaster and returned to Jamaica with his blonde wife, Vera, to serve out his time as a civil engineer with the department of public works. Lewis and Lee-Chin supplemented their regimen by jogging through Kingston, admiring the high-rise towers and dreaming of getting rich.
"Michael was always picking my brains about the stock market," says Lewis. One day, he took Lee-Chin to the stock exchange. It was an epiphany. "I could see his mind racing. He said, 'My dream is to be a successful person.'"
Lee-Chin began moonlighting. He bought crabs and lobsters and resold them to supermarkets, shipping the cargo in his souped-up gold Volkswagen Bug. On Friday afternoons, he would sometimes play hooky and head to the gym. Lewis remembers that "he would strut around like a proud peacock. He never failed to remove his shirt and exhibit his washboard." Afterwards, they'd head to a local seafood shack. "I have never seen an individual who could pack more food," says Lewis. One time, "Michael ate approximately six whole lobsters, mixed with crab, steak and Red Stripe beer." As they drove off that day, Lee-Chin decided he wanted more. They turned around. He ate two more lobsters, quaffed more beer, went home for a nap, then headed back to the gym.
Over dinners at Kingston's Pegasus Hotel, Lewis and Lee-Chin would feast on lobster thermidor and cajole management into letting them use the pool. Even then, Lee-Chin cut a flamboyant figure in aviator sunglasses and a bushy Afro. At poolside, he'd prance around in a Speedo-style suit. When he felt all eyes were on him, he'd climb onto the highest diving board, flex his muscles, bounce a few times and dive. He missed once, and executed a spectacular belly flop. "I knew it hurt," said Lewis. "His stomach was red. But Michael swam to the end of the pool and just smiled at all the girls. Then he went right back up and did a good dive."
In 1976, with a year remaining in his engineering commitment, Lee-Chin repaid his government scholarship and, already a Canadian citizen, returned to Hamilton. He enrolled in business courses at McMaster and worked nights as a bouncer in a student pub and as a security guard for concerts: Cat Stevens, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes.
A few months later, Donovan Lewis flew in to visit with his wife, Andrea. He was shocked to discover Lee-Chin could offer him only a sleeping bag and a spot on the floor. But the lack of furniture wasn't important; the right car was. The next day, Lee-Chin blew almost all of his and Vera's savings-$12,000-on a nearly new BMW. The thrill lasted all of two hours. That afternoon, Lee-Chin took Lewis to a Rolls-Royce dealership and talked his way into a one-hour test-drive. The dealer even put on a chauffeur's cap and let the two friends ride in the backseat. "We'd get to a stoplight and everybody would look at us," Lewis says. "Michael would wave, like a sheik from Africa."
In 1977, a friend told Lee-Chin about a shortcut to riches called mutual funds. He dropped his business studies, quit his job as a bouncer and took a one-week course in suburban Toronto with a mutual-fund company called Investors Group. The problem was finding customers. "At 26, you don't know anyone who has money," says Lee-Chin.
One weekend that May, he had to kill time before picking up his mother at the airport. Driving his BMW around residential Malton, he noticed everyone seemed to be out gardening. "'Eureka!' I said [to myself], 'Mike, the next person you see, you grit your teeth, put your foot on the brakes and make a solicitation.'" He stopped six times, got five appointments and made three sales, despite his Afro and pink safari outfit-his one and only suit, sewn by Vera.
That first month, Lee-Chin made $10,000. He figured that if it was so easy to sell mutual funds, then mutual-fund companies were the place to invest. In 1983, he borrowed $500,000 from the Continental Bank of Canada (now HSBC), bought stock in Mackenzie Financial Corp., and cashed in at 700% three years later. In 1987, he used $200,000 to buy Advantage Investment Counsel, which he built into AIC, now the country's 11th-biggest mutual-fund company.
From the start, Lee-Chin modelled himself on Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. In homage to Buffett's buy-and-hold philosophy, Lee-Chin even gave the Berkshire moniker to several AIC companies. He hung Buffett quotations on AIC's walls, cites him often in speeches and has declared himself "one of his most successful proponents."
Asked if he's ever met the great one, Lee-Chin says yes. But when pressed, he concedes that he merely sat in the audience at one of Buffett's annual meetings in Omaha, Neb. "I never really had a conversation with him," he says. Asked why not, Lee-Chin shifts uncomfortably in his chair. "It takes two. He's always busy. I don't want to intrude."
Financial reporters may pillory the buy-and-hold strategy today, but it worked well in the bull markets of the '80s and '90s. Instead of diversifying, Lee-Chin bet on a handful of companies, among them TD Bank, Loblaw, AGF Management Inc., C.I. Fund Management Inc. and, of course, Berkshire Hathaway. But while Buffett has weathered the current down-market, Lee-Chin's funds are in the doldrums. It's not just AIC's flagship Advantage fund. If you include the Advantage II fund, almost one-third of AIC's assets under management lost more than 20% in 2002 and haven't made money for investors over the past five years.
Perhaps that's why Lee-Chin is diversifying. He hopes to use the bank to sell financial services throughout the Caribbean and has begun managing money for the estate of the late Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley. And although he hasn't announced it yet, Lee-Chin is planning to launch a money-management business for sports and entertainment stars. This is a much-picked-over business, and he won't disclose clients. But in a back room at AIC, there's a shiny white board scrawled with the names of up-and-coming players, including LeBron James, dubbed the next Michael Jordan. Recently, AIC sent an executive, Perry Douglas, to Cleveland when James held a press conference announcing his intention to enter the NBA draft.
"My success has been high-profile. When sports clients come here, they see this," says Lee-Chin, gesturing to AIC's panelled boardroom with its velvet curtains and view of the helipad. AIC headquarters occupy an old Stelco research facility that had been vacant for years, with "gold-reflective glass à la Royal Bank," he says. An addition includes an 800-seat auditorium, with a stage and a Steinway grand. The hall was finished in six weeks to accommodate a 2000 speech by Colin Powell, another somebody with Jamaican roots.
Glowing profiles are marketing tools, so his publicist hands out full-colour reprints of articles from Black Enterprise and other magazines. To sell AIC products, Lee-Chin understands that he also has to sell the dream, so even his toys are usefully self-promotional. In his very first month of fund sales, he ditched the BMW and bought a silver Benz. By 1983, he had a navy Rolls-Royce, with a vanity plate: GOAL. "I wanted to give myself some credibility," he says.
Two years ago, he acquired a $20-million Miami Beach mansion, with 12 bathrooms and three teak docks. It proved useful for impressing the Marley family. And last year, a dinner invitation to his Flamborough estate helped persuade Jamaica's finance minister, Omar Davies, that the bidder for National Commercial Bank was nicely solvent.
Although he rarely parts with equity-Lee-Chin retains 94% of AIC-his staff seems to worship him, to the point of a personality cult. Colin White, an AIC publicist, stops a reporter outside Lee-Chin's office. "I want to tell you something, but I don't want Michael to hear," he says.
What? "We love him. We'd do anything for him."
In Jamaica, AIC staff get up at dawn to join Lee-Chin jogging in Emancipation Park. In Burlington, a quotation from Michael Lee-Chin is stencilled in baby blue on the wall of a dining room, alongside those of Einstein, Mother Teresa and Maya Angelou. (Lee-Chin's: "One cannot enjoy success unless it's shared with others.")
"He's the purest person I know," says Kris Astaphan, AIC's executive vice-president and the most powerful executive at the company, after Lee-Chin. Asked what makes his boss tick, Astaphan adds, "He has a mental image in his mind: What would his mother think of what he's doing? Michael would never do anything to disappoint or embarrass his mom." Colin White concurs: "The key to Michael is his relationship with his mom."
Of course, mom was right. In just one year, the value of National Commercial Bank stock has soared 300% to $600 million. That's more than enough to buy a two-building Kingston property called the Mutual Life Centre, a prestigious address Lewis and Lee-Chin had jogged past as young men. Again, Lewis suggested Lee-Chin make the purchase.
One brilliant, sunny morning, Lee-Chin is so proud of his $21-million acquisition that he suggests it as a backdrop for a photo. He has just started flashing his confident smile when a security guard intervenes. One tower, it turns out, houses the U.S. embassy.
"I'm Michael Lee-Chin," he says, his smile unwavering.
Blank stare. "You have ID?" says Carey Davis, who is wearing a U.S. embassy photo ID on his khaki uniform.
Lee-Chin extracts a gold credit card from his wallet. "I own these buildings," he says, his smile slightly tighter. He doesn't mention that he also owns the bank that issued the credit card.
The guard, who has probably heard grandiose claims before, remains unimpressed. For a brief, precarious moment, everything Lee-Chin has achieved in his life is for naught. Seeing him caught in the effort to convince a lowly security guard that he is a very important, very rich man, you finally understand why Michael Lee-Chin is never satisfied, why he always hungers for more.
Copyright © 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.
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