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December 14, 2023 at 9:37:56 AM

Private Jets Don't Have Elevators


Vin Lee, Luxury Mogul After The Fall

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December 14, 2023 at 9:37:56 AM

Ignite Business Insider shares the stories of businesses that are making an impact in their local markets. We highlight their stories in order to inspire entrepreneurial growth and to let readers learn more about businesses across the world that are growing and scaling.


Vin Lee


Grand Metropolitan

Thank you for taking the time to sit with us and share your story. Can you share a little bit about you and your company?

I appreciate the opportunity. I am CEO of a family office in Beverly Hills called Grand Metropolitan. We are one of the largest luxury goods conglomerates in the world with emphasis in jewelry and home furnishings. In addition, we have considerable presence in the cigar, fine art, and caviar industries.

A question so many people are interested in, is how you got started. Can you share a little bit about what you were doing before this, and what that moment was like for you when you decided to start this new journey?

I got my start as an artist in high school that created a treatment for what would become a Saturday morning cartoon in the 80s. Then I went on to design merchandising for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. While studying business at University of Michigan one of my patents became integral to the $6 billion/year mechanical billboard industry leading me to invest in Grand Traverse Resort and my first jewelry company.

Let's take a little bit of a detour, and rewind the clock a little bit. What did you want to be as a kid? And how did that influence the person you are today?

We grew up in an affluent community in Michigan. So we were always in close proximity to wealthy and famous individuals especially in the automotive industry. s I mentioned, as a child I had shown some talent in the arts and was encouraged my parents and teachers. Often I was hired to do projects for people by my parents friends or people in my church. I had studied Calligraphy at a very young age and took college courses in illustration in middle school.

Have you fully let go of that childhood dream? And where do you see yourself going in the next ten years?

Fortunately, I found out in college that much of my talent was overshadowed by most of my classmates. I discovered this early enough to course correct but late enough I believe to be a disappointment to those around me. But as a saving grace, today we own Beverly Hills based Gallery Rodeo, one of the most prominent fine art galleries in the world as well as a respectable collection of works by Picasso, Klimt, Rodin and many others. In ten years, I hope we are operating Chateau Hediard, our new Spa & Resort project steps from the doors of Disney. It is in the preliminary stages now of negotiating to acquire the largest resort on Florida. Remodel should take 3-5 years.

Now, I have found that with successful people, there is always someone pivotal as either a mentor, parent, teacher, or someone that you look to for advise, that helped set you on this path. Could you share who that person was? And what impact that had on the person you are today?

My father introduced me to Howard Hughes as a young boy and I was even fortunate enough to tour it when it was housed in Long Beach on a visit to the California Institute of Arts. I had been accepted at the age of 15. But throughout my formulative years I had the opportunity to meet many billionaires including A. Alfred Taubman, Sumner Redstone, and H. Wayne Huizenga. Honestly I got more of an education from those men than any course at U of M. Later on I would rub elbows with Eike Batista, Phillip Anschutz, and Michigan Alumni Tom Gores, who is a fellow resident of Beverly Hills and a client for many years. These men ultimately taught me to be a buyer in life not a seller.

What was one take away that you learned from that person? And how did it translate into your business today?

I think it was Sumner Redstone, billionaire owner of Viacom, that I was most influenced by. At the time he was the heir of National Amusements, a movie theatre company in a tiny Boston suburb who had just bought much larger Viacom for $3.4 billion. At the time I had no concept of either that level of wealth or deal-making. "How could a tiny company buy such a behemoth one?" So I asked him. Within a few years he would buy Paramount for $10 billion and later CBS for $37 billion. I was taking notes the whole time I was building Grand Metropolitan. In addition to Sumner I had the honor of working with H. Wayne Huizenga, owner of Blockbuster Video, when we were building our mechanical billboards for his stores. He taught me about industry rollups and volume discounting. From that education, I created our Vendor Exclusivity algorithm that we use still today, 30 years later.

When we work with businesses, we focus a lot on their "Why?". What is your "Why"? What is the driver behind your company, and why you and your team wake up each day and give it your all?

Initially as an artist I wanted to create things that no one had ever seen or experienced before. During the late 1980s when I started my business, contemporaries such as Bernard Arnault, Francois Pernault, and Johann Rupert were formulating luxury conglomerates LVMH, Kering, and Richemont respectively. These men were not only fabulously wealthy and successful, they were surrounded by the most beautiful and talented people in the world. "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous". But I didn't want to just be a part of the club, I wanted to own the clubhouse and be the one hosting the parties.

Let's dive deeper into your products and services. You already gave an overview, but how do your products or services help your customers? And what makes them different from your competitors?

A lot of people don't understand luxury goods. They believe they are a bunch of overpriced items that rich people buy to show off their money. The truth of the mater is that the majority of those people buying Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Boulmiche are not in the 1%. That's why they are called aspirational goods. Grand Metropolitan owns Finlay Fine Jewelers, Heilig-Meyers Furniture, and Menu Plaisirs. Our portfolio of about 60 brands makes us the largest privately-held luxury group in America and 4th in the world.

Let's unpack that even further. Let's pick one aspect of your business. What makes it so unique? And how does it change you or your customer's experience?

The Beverly Hills Cigar Club. It is a members-only private club starting at $50,000 a year. (membership has been closed since founding). BHCC services about 2,000 VIPs that are some of the most influential people in the world. Playboy ranked us in the TOP 5 Must Have Memberships. Our flagship cigar, the LOUIXS is TOP 7 in the world and considered the Bugatti Veyron of the industry. But what makes this experience worth it for our membership? Aside from Strottarga and Pushkin Caviar, Gallery Rodeo, and Beverly Hills Sports Cars (All Grand Met operations) they get unfettered access to some of the most elite events and functions on the planet, from studio afterparties for red carpet awards shows to Cannes, Milan, and Monaco. You can't just buy your way onto a yacht with Brad and Angelina in Venice or a Superbowl Party with Diddy. You have to be invited, part of the club. And today I own the clubhouse.

Let's dive into your customer's journey a little bit. Can you share with us, how do your customers discover you and your brand? What are their next steps? And what is the experience you would like to see your customers go on, when working with you and your brand?

Many of our brands are legacy or heritage banners, some more than two centuries old. Finlay's Bailey Banks & Biddle Jewelers created the crest of the United States and most of the medals awarded to our military in this great country's history. Heilig-Meyers Furniture brands have been around also since the 1800s some of which were the largest in the world in their own right before combining to create the largest furniture company on the planet in the late 1990s. Our fashion icons have been prominent since the 1970s with Boulmiche being famous as the boutique Julia Roberts was snubbed by in Pretty Woman, and Morty Sills has a ringing endorsement from the master himself, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.

Let's rave about your customers for a minute. Can you share a story about one of your clients or customers, that either touched your heart, or made an impact with you and your team?

I don't have a lot of access to showroom floor customers in any way. But let me share a different kind of experience we are known for. One of my first attempts was to acquire Samuels Jewelers around 2002. The company had 200 locations under 7 different brands and was the 5th largest in the country. I spent two years and millions of dollars trying to close on the financing of this company with an agreeable seller. I had to ultimately make the choice of quitting and ending up broke or keep banging my head on the wall trying to find a banker to monetize a $114 million deal I had with a third party. I chose to quit. Losing everything including a personal relationship in the madness. But paying my debts and keeping my name and integrity. Thirty days later the company would file for bankruptcy tossing thousands of people out of work. During the bankruptcy proceedings an Indian man named Nirav Modi showed up with a big checkbook and bought Samuels up without any of the debt as well as several other firms my company had designs on. He and I would go toe to toe for years as I rebuilt and bang heads on the red carpets of Beverly Hills. The problem was his money was not real nor were most of his diamonds. It was all fraudulent. He had liberated $2 billion from PNB Bank in India and went on an assault of the American jewelry market. Today we own Samuels and everything else that he had acquired and were strong enough during the pandemic to keep everyone employed and insured. I'm very proud of that.

Everyone likes an inside scoop. What detail or secret about either you, or your company, is something most people might not know?

I don't know how much of a secret this is, but I personally don't care that much about money. Private jets don't have elevators. I have been given some auspicious titles in the media and while its flattering its not really what I am about. I do not take any income out of Grand Metropolitan and never have. Since I lost the use of my legs after a heart attack during the pandemic, no more sports cars, big fancy mansions, yachts. I really don't even get to enjoy much of our fine home furnishings because its too hard to transfer in and out of a wheelchair. Hence the subtle shift of our focus towards hospitality recently.

Final thoughts. What feeling or benefits would you like your customers or clients to take away when working with you and your team?

While my responsibilities are primary to keep the company healthy so that vendors, staff, and associates all can live out their own dreams and ambitions for family and lifestyle, I want our clients to feel beautiful when they purchase beautiful items from us. There is a lot of talent and care that goes into each piece of jewelry, every cigar or bottle of champagne and all of the home furnishings we create.

Last question. How can people find out more about you and your company?

Thank you so much for sitting with us and sharing your story.

Thank you for allowing me to brag a little bit about the people I get to spend my time with. They are the ones that keep bringing beauty into this world to share with others.

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