The Disruptors is Pursuit’s feature that showcases thought leaders and CEOs who are changing the way we do business, how we perceive the entrepreneurial landscape, taking ideas to the next level. It is where innovation meets a created market where none existed before.
From top-line cigars, to fine jewelry, furniture, caviar, and rare art, Vin Lee has bought and sold it all. He’s rubbed elbows with the elite’s elite, and his brands are the epitome of “high class.”
Vin’s the CEO of Grand Metropolitan, founded in Beverly Hills, California. The group’s assets and brands are in the luxury goods industries, with a primary focus on jewelry and home furnishings.
Grand Metropolitan manages a portfolio of 100 luxury brands, including Finlay Enterprises and Heilig-Meyers Furniture – both of which have each been leading employers and influences in their industries for over a century, with more than $200 billion in cumulative revenue. (Heilig-Meyers has raised tens of millions of dollars for charities including Cystic Fibrosis.)
Vin’s own creative jewelry pieces have been worn by celebrities, diplomats and royalty; adorned by stars at American Music Awards, Golden Globes, Hollywood Film Awards, and Billboard Music Awards.
Vin Lee shares ideas with Pursuit:
- What’s your proudest moment with Grand Met?
So much of what we have achieved the last thirty years has made me very proud of the company, and all those people that have made it into what it is today. Just keeping the lights on this long is an accomplishment. With each passing milestone, we continue to raise the bar.
What does give me a thrill, even after 20 years, is seeing my earrings on beautiful women walking the red carpet or on television, especially when it wasn’t a placement we made. It is self-serving, but on par with when the daughter of the President of France wore them at Cannes.
- Boiled down to its elements, what’s Vin Lee’s keys to success?
I do what it takes to get what I want. I never quit.
I know the value of the assets we bid on, and never take on debt or raise my offer to an uncomfortable level just to close the deal. It often takes years to complete negotiations. We spent 4 years on Ellerine, 8 years on Finlay, and 17 years on Samuels.
I saved $75 million by waiting for Samuels, and in the end I was right about their valuations. The people who took control after my bid failed used money taken in the largest bank fraud in Indian history, $2 billion.
- Something you might have done differently in your career?
Until 2018, I thought that my failed attempt at buying Samuels Jewelers in 2001 was the biggest mistake of my career. It turns out everything worked out as it should have. But I could have done much better in managing my personal life. I compromised a lot of time with family with endless travel from coast to coast each month for 15 years.
- A fun or interesting story about a celeb you befriended?
Living in Holmby Hills, Beverly Hills Cigar Club and Bel Air Country Club have brought me into social circles with a great many people. Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Jordan all cigar fans. I could tell you about being on a jet with Jane Fonda or Megan Fox, a yacht in Venice with Brad and Angelina, or smoking cigars, ironically, with a certain ex-president at Milken in Beverly Hills. I have also rubbed elbows with Bill Gates, Elon Musk, the Hangover Boys and two James Bonds.
My PR firm has represented Playboy Enterprises for years, and my house is down the street from the Mansion. Michael Jackson, Hadid, and Petra Ecclestone were all neighbors as well. So clearly Grand Met has granted me access to some of the world’s most amazing people. Hale Berry and I share security. I partied with Van Halen on Eddie’s 50th in the Hollywood Hills. Jenna Jameson took the downpayment from the deal we participated in, when Playboy bought Club Jenna and bought a house down the street from his. Real estate plays a big role in this world, which is how I met Prince at his place in L.A. I was in the market for a new home, but it was too small with poor parking.
We were introduced to Sean “Diddy” Combs through mutual friends. “Diddy” was filming videos for his new album Press Play with a host of celebrities, including Christina Aguilera, Fergie and Nicole Scherzinger. He said if I wanted in, to bring $250,000 in cash in a bag to the set on Friday. I asked my team to relay the message of “XXX XXXXX. We don’t pay for access.”
He respected the move, and invited us to host VIP events for openings of Sean John, including Miami during Super Bowl weekend. If you treat people the same way, you will often succeed. But not always.
- A tough business lesson you had to learn?
If you have ambitions to do something great with your life, you can’t expect everyone around you to make the journey with you. They won’t be able to. Starting a business is very similar to having a destination wedding in a foreign country. It strains all of your relationships, especially family, when you need their support and encouragement the most.
If you are successful, and you buy the dream house and toys, not everyone will be happy for you, and most everyone will have their hand out. It’s a daily occurrence. I have had relatives that I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years ask me to buy them a house.
Keep your personal life separate from your business life.