Mr. Vin Lee
Chairman of the Board/CEO
Vin Lee is an American businessman, art collector and philanthropist. He is the chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Beverly Hills based luxury-goods holding company Grand Metropolitan. The Group’s holdings include Finlay Enterprises (diamonds and jewelry), Heilig-Meyers (furniture and home decor), IMASCO Ltd. (tobacco and liquor).
Since the early 1990s, Grand Metropolitan and its individual divisions including Heilig-Meyers, Finlay Enterprises, and IMASCO Ltd. have raised over $10 million for charities and not-for profit organizations including Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, American Red Cross, and Hurricane & Tsunami Relief.
The Cormier Family traces its roots back to the Brittany region of France, with the earliest mention in the Middle Ages. The name Cormier is actually derived from the Old French word, “come,” which referred to the fruit of the sorb or service tree. It was given to someone who lived near such a tree or who sold its fruit at the market. Over time, the Cormier Family prospered and a descendant was raised to the peerage as Lordurgh of Brittany in 1480.
For several centuries, however, the King of France had sought control over the rebellious, Brittany lords, many of whom were more loyal to England. The Battle of Saint Aubin du Cormier was the decisive conflict or “guerre folle” between rebellious feudal aristocrats and Charles, then the French king, who marshaled his knights to quell regional feudal independence once and for all and concentrate absolute power in Paris. The combined rebel forces in Brittany were decisively defeated, paving the way for the creation of a unified French state, existing to this day.
Throughout the 1700s, the Cormier Family branched out across the globe, with one faction working it’s way through French Provincial Canada into Quebec and Ontario. On January 06, 1881 Harry Bullard Lee was born in Norwalk, Canada. He would relocate with his family to the United States and be drafted in 1917 into World War I fighting for the Americans. His marriage to Rinnie Mathewson had produced a son, Horace Mathison Lee in 1915. The first Lee born in America and Vin Lee’s paternal grandfather. Horace Mathison Lee’s father-in-law was the founder/owner of The Coolidge Inn and Bar built the year that the Volstead Act was overturned ending Prohibition in the United States. Vin Lee would echo his grandfather’s endeavor a half century later with the Beverly Hills Cigar Club.
St. Aubin du Cormier Vin & Spirits is the private label family of liquors available only in bottle service through private clubs.
Vin Lee was born December 13, 1969 in North York, Ontario. He moved to the United States in 1970, but would return to Canada to study fine art and animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario in 1987, passing on his acceptance to Walt Disney’s California Institute of Arts in 1986.
In the mid 1980s, Time Warner was expanding its cable footprint throughout the United States. In order to woo subscribers and influence community leaders, it helped create curriculum and facilities in local high schools. A studio was built on campus including cameras, sets, and a designated channel to broadcast sporting events, concerts, and student projects. In his early teens, Vin Lee created computer graphics on a Commodore Amiga 1000 for the public access cable channel. This helped earn him, through a grant from the Michigan Education Association, the opportunity to tutor under a Hanna Barbera director from 1985-1987. During this time he produced a three minute hand drawn animated film that was used as a treatment for a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon.
In 1987, he was invited to use his commercial design and graphics background to create marketing merchandise for retailers during the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Experiencing a bit of hubris he would go on to create a one panel comic strip that was submitted to dozens of comic strip syndicates including Hearst Corporation’s King Features Syndicate, E.W. Scripps’ United Feature Syndicate, and Washington Post Writers Group. Consistently met with rejection, he attempted to create a family of characters for an animation series, partnering with a group of grocery chains for their breakfast cereals, and PBS.
After a chance conversation with SEGA chairman David Rosen, Vin Lee was encouraged to return to his roots of computer graphics and animation. Commodore International’s founder Jack Tramiel had purchased legendary video game company Atari Inc. from Steve Ross’ Warner Communications. Renamed the Atari Corporation, the company was developing a new lineup of games based on the unreleased Atari Lynx and Jaguar platforms. Through a Vice President of Time Warner, Vin Lee was introduced to Mr. Tramiel and his team. Lee proposed development of an introductory game based on a cartoon jaguar mascot character he had created. The 2D scroller would introduce the new platform, complimentary with purchase of the game console similar to that of Nintendo’s Mario Brothers and SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog characters. The Atari Jaguar was lauded as the first 64-bit gaming system, so Lee proposed “Byte Me!” as the slogan for the edgy new campaign. Management rebuffed the entire program citing the slogan was offensive. The Jaguar was introduced in 1993 under a $500 million manufacturing deal with IBM. Atari struggled to attain a substantial user base ultimately disappearing from store shelves.
In 2005 an ad campaign featuring the headline “Byte Me” was honored with the Paragon Award, given by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations.
Concurrently that same year as Lee began entree into the business world, Bernard Arnault started LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton SA., Johann Rupert founded Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, and François Pinault’s Pinault SA (Kering) was listed in the Second Marché of Bourse de Paris.
During the 1980s, AutoNation billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga’s Blockbuster Entertainment was expanding at a rate of one store per 18 hours. In the regions where competitors dominated, Blockbuster Video would acquire not only those Mom & Pop retailers, but also the regional chains. This was the first time that Lee had been exposed to the term and the financial mechanisms of an industry rollup. Vin Lee created Cinemagic Marquee and pitched Blockbuster management on his patented trilon illuminated marquees being manufactured by partners in California and Mexico. This dramatic increase of marketing real estate coupled with movement and lighting was a boon for marketers, concessionaires, and retailers. Cinemagic has participated in dozens of innovations that were employed by the entertainment field.
Vin Lee was then invited to demonstrate his technology to billionaire media mogul Sumner Redstone and his management team at the Newton, MA headquarters of National Amusements, parent company of Viacom (Paramount Pictures, MTV Newtworks, BET, Nickelodeon). National Amusements passed on the program citing it too expensive for their theatre chain and entertainment properties. Over the next few years, Lee worked with some of the largest companies in the entertainment industry. Billionaire Phillip Anschutz’s Regal Theatres, AMC Theatres, Walt Disney Complex, Blockbuster Entertainment, Universal Studios City Walk, Fenway Park, Boston, MA, Circus Circus, Las Vegas, NV, Ripleys Believe It Or Not Museums would all implement Lee’s patented marquee signs.
Those patents and the technologies they include evolved into the $6 billion global mechanical billboard industry we see today on the sides of buildings, trucks, and highways all around the world. Members of the C-Suite from Kmart Corporation introduced Vin Lee to Handleman Company, the largest rackjobber in the world. Handleman Company managed music, movie, software, and book inventories for over 21,600 locations around the globe. The goal was to integrate Lee’s marquees in big box retailers floor plans.
Vin Lee also created the video wall preview network, private-label popcorn, and a vendor exclusivity program. The VE program was pitched to Lodgenet (SONOFI), On Command Video, and Marvin Davis’ (owner of the Beverly Hills Hotel) Spectravision. During the 80s a popular nomenclature was that “Content was King”. Blockbuster Video had proved that in fact distribution can reign supreme over content suppliers. A single company given proper reach could control an entire industry with an industry rollup. Volume discounting, vertical integration, and vendor exclusivity work synonymously to achieve scale, a theory Lee would employ for 20 years when building Grand Metropolitan.
Invention and Innovation
In 1989, Vin Lee experimented with varied new technologies. Using an advanced glass laminate remains opaque until an electric field is applied, he began designing a new sunroof for the automotive industry. Familial connections allowed Vin Lee introduction to billionaire auto mogul Heinz Prechter of ASC American Sunroof Corporation, originated in Los Angeles, then headquartered in Lee’s home town of Southgate, MI.
Mr. Prechter studied the design and the technology quickly offering that the costs would just be too prohibitive. Estimates were that the implementation of the technology would drive prices above $1,500 per sunroof at a time when $300 was standard. Heinz Prechter offered that it was just too expensive for any practical application in the American automotive industry he served. Two decades later in 2010 Mercedes-Benz introduced the first Magic Sky Control sunroof as the latest upgrade to the upcoming 2012 SLK. Mercedes-Benz claimed that the glass would even block UV and infrared light in opaque mode, providing a cooler car interior during heat waves.
Mercedes-Maybach S 600 offered the Magic Sky Control Panoramic Roof with SPD-SmartGlass in its simultaneous world debut in China and the USA.
After Heinz Prechter’s discouraging rejection about his designs being too expensive, Vin Lee decided to embrace his penchant for luxury, shelving the sunroof project. He began testing certain natural botanicals in effort to create a spritz shampoo and personal care line for the salon and spa market. His work would lead him to also developing fragrance from natural oils that would become part of Orcofi. This would be his first introduction to Beverly Hills, CA as well as a chance encounter with billionaire John Paul DeJoria, founder of Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron Tequila. While partnering with a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon on the development, Vin Lee would also get his first real taste of the fine art world, mingling with collectors and gallery owners.
Grand Traverse Resort
In 1980, Bloomfield Hills attorney Paul Nine built the six-story Grand Traverse Hilton Hotel. Three years later Jack Nicklaus would build The Bear Golf Course on that property. The following year Arnold Palmer created the Legend at Shanty Creek, continuing with Tom Weiskopf, Gary Player, Chick Harbert and Gary Koch. Robert Trent and Rees Jones, Tom Doak, Rick Smith, Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills and Pete Dye all staked their claim designing fairways across northern Michigan. This boom saw Michigan rise to the forefront of the golfing world for new golf course development.
Grand Traverse Resort, renamed in 1983, put the Grand Traverse region on national and international travel maps. GTR hosted the Society of American Travel Writers, National Governor’s Conference and national golfing events like the Michigan Bell Skins Game and the Ameritech Senior Open Championship. Growth continued with more condominium clusters, a sports complex and 25,000 sf Governor’s Hall Conference Center. More land was acquired bringing total acreage to over 1,400 acres. But all of this growth and extravagance came at a cost. In 1992 the resort developer filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, and a year later General Retirement System of the City of Detroit, GTR’s principle lender, took over ownership. Their $40 million loan had become unreconciled and grown to over $80 million.
Vin Lee was granted a 3 year contract to turn around the Grand Traverse Resort. Arresting the debt and improving on 20 years of operations would take 18 months. In order to drive occupancy outside of golf and off-season Lee repackaged GTR to emulate the offerings of Golden Doors, Canyon Ranch and the Evian Royal Palace in Switzerland creating The Spa at Grand Traverse Resort, The Midwest’s Best Vacation Destination. Lee created a celebrity and amenity driven infomercial campaign across 30 regional and local markets to bring visitors to the resort. Partnering with cable companies and luxury brands offset the costs of the $10.6 million media buy running in 6 states. Through a relationship with Airbus Helicopters, then named Eurocopter Group [formed in 1992 from merging helicopter divisions of Aérospatiale and Daimler-Benz Aerospace AG (DASA)], Lee occasioned Grand Traverse Resort aboard a Eurocopter AS 365 “Dauphin II” from his Bloomfield offices off Orchard Lake Rd.
With renewed and increasing revenue, the Pension Fund continued to expand the resort adding condominiums and appropriating luxury home sites. In 1995 they announced new golf courses designed by Gary Player and Lee Trevino. Two years later groundbreaking took place for the new Gary Player course named the Wolverine (The mascot of the University of Michigan, Vin Lee’s alma mater). That same year KSL Recreation Corp took ownership and renamed it the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, adding a 100,000 sf spa complex in the area of the Sports Complex. California based KSL (KSL Capital), now owned by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, holds $3.4 billion in assets including ClubCorp. which owns or operates more than 150 golf and country clubs and business, sports and alumni clubs worldwide. The KSL business model was an inspiration to Lee that would serve Grand Metropolitan well in the future.
Caesar Golf Company
The golf industry would be thematic throughout Vin Lee’s life. After Grand Traverse Resort, his first West Coast offices would be in Century City overlooking the Los Angeles Country Club, while his CA residence would be minutes from Bel Air Country Club. Eventually, Lee would also live on a golf course in FL that would lead to the creation of the Featherie and the Caesar Golf Company. From inception, the company focused on breaking all of the rules of golf, creating a line of high quality products designed not around power and distance but around precision and control. Vin Lee believes that strategic shot placement will improve both performance and score.
The Caesar Featherie, named for the first golf balls used by royalty, was designed as a precision par 3-4 course ball. The industry’s very first dimple-less golf ball found itself breaking through the old stigmas held so long by golf enthusiasts. The smooth surface, high tech composition and superior construction provided accuracy never before seen in the short game. The company debuted at the Orlando PGA Show and was featured in 100s of media including print, television, and radio.
The modest success of the smooth golf ball would lead to brand extensions in clubs and merchandise. Always directed towards vertical integration, Vin Lee approached Progolf Inc. about acquiring the bankrupt chain of 116 locations.
Pro Golf International, Inc., a 97%-owned subsidiary, which owned 100% of the outstanding stock of Pro Golf of America, Inc., and 80% of the stock of ProGolf.com, Inc. (ProGolf.com). Pro Golf of America, Inc. was the franchisor of Pro Golf / Pro Golf Discount retail golf stores (Pro Golf stores). ProGolf.com drove traffic to its franchisee stores and sold golf equipment, and other golf-related and sporting goods products and services over the Internet.
Pro Golf of America, Inc. is a franchisor of golf only retail stores, with over 116 stores in the United States, Canada, Europe and Puerto Rico, as of December 31, 2005. In December 2006, the company boasted: “With 40 years of experience, Pro Golf was the oldest, as well as the largest golf retailer in the world. Pro Golf had been named the #1 Franchisor in the Golf Stores category by Entrepreneur magazine 13 times in the last 16 years. They had also been named the Top Golf Retailer by Franchise Times Magazine for the past 12 years.”
The transaction failed as management stubbornly attempted to be made whole for over a decade of mistakes. There were no financial controls set in place within Pro Golf. Franchisees paid what, when and if they wanted too. Management had no centralized purchasing program. Vin Lee determined after 3 days at the corporate offices in his old home town of Farmington Hills, MI that there would be no benefit to Caesar Golf to follow through on the purchase as there was no way to restore the chain to its formal glory as well as reconcile the debt and a purchase price of over $15 million. Pro Golf liquidated after years of controversy, litigation, and conflict rendering most of the franchisees bankrupt.
Celebrating the GTR contract, Vin Lee went to DuQuet Jewelers to purchase a Rolex President. After a few hours with the owner, he walked out having invested in the company. DuQuets was one of the top regional jewelers in suburban Detroit, MI. It was owned and operated by brothers, Charles and Allan. DuQuets, and it’s subsidiary American Jewelry Manufacturers, had at one time two affiliated manufacturing facilities and a cumulative 5 retail showrooms across Southern Michigan. AJM was contracted by many mall-based chain retailers to do their shop work. Vin Lee’s goal soon became to expand outside of the Michigan area and across North America at a time when the Zales Corporation was consuming many of the smaller chains in the country.
DuQuet Jewelers specialized in creating one of a kind works of art for Detroit’s elite. Often engaging the creations of the “Picasso of Gems,” world renowned Bernd Munsteiner casting in platinum or 18K gold and adorning with diamonds. Several times each year black tie events showing off the new seasonal collections were held at such prominent locations as the Dodge Brother’s Meadow Brook Estate, Albert Kahn’s Cranbrook House and Gardens, and even aboard the legendary Star of Detroit Cruise Liner. It was at this time that Vin Lee personally entered the art scene with Park West Gallery trading jewelry for art.
In 1995, DuQuet Jewelers flagship location was robbed on December 25th night. The thieves had vaulted the building and excavated the snow laden rooftop with mining axes and drills, dropping down into the sub ceiling to disconnect the alarm system and motion sensors. Never finding the main vaults hidden behind false walls the losses were negligible to the overall operation but hundreds of original design molds were destroyed. Although the thieves were never caught, the robbery itself created the need for a larger more secure location for Vin Lee’s assets. In 1997, Vin Lee signed a lease with the owners of an 11,000 sf free standing bank building with a AAA rated walk in vault and multiple floor safes.
Partnering with several of the largest jewelry manufacturers in North America, Vin Lee created The Diamond Channel. TDC became the largest online jewelry database in the world with over 46,000 SKUs each with over 128,000 different design selections. A client could log in from any location and select the piece of their choice in any one of 6 different metals with over 70 different precious and semi precious gemstones available in 4 different quality ranges. The piece would be custom made to their specifications and shipped overnight from 7 different facilities in the U.S.
During this period several jewelers; wholesale, manufacture, and retail, filed for bankruptcy or went through significant restructuring. Zale Corporation (Signet Corp), Town & Country, Michael Anthony Jewelers, and Aurafin (Berkshire Hathaway’s Richline Group) all shuffled ownership and debt. Signet Group, the world’s largest jewelry company and owners of Jareds, and Kays, slashed 300 locations. This would ripple through the entire economy with inventories dumped for pennies on the dollar and the price of gold sinking to $250/ounce the lowest it had been since 1978.
Winkelman’s Department Stores
His true passions and focus were ultimately on his family assets as well as Cinemagic Marquee, Grand Traverse Resort, and his investment in Winkelman’s. In 1928 two brothers in Detroit, Michigan opened the first Winkelman’s department store. Over the next seventy years more than 100 stores were added in locations across the Mid-West and for much of the twentieth century, Winkelman’s had been synonymous with fashion and style. In the late 90s, partnered with a Winkelman heir, Vin Lee took over as interim Chairman/CEO of Winkelman’s after the parent company Petrie Stores filed for bankruptcy liquidation.
Billionaire Milton Petrie’s eponymous Petrie Stores Corporation, a major retailer of women’s apparel, operated including Petrie’s, Stuarts, M.J. Carroll, and Rave. During the economic downturn of the early 1980s Petrie acquired Joseph R. Harris (1979) G&G (1980); Franklin Stores(1981) Hartfield Stores and Ranch Shops (1982) Whitney Stores(1983) Miller-Wohl (1984) and Winkelman Stores (1985). While top line revenues increased, profits weakened and debt prevailed.
Lee leveraged jewelry assets to take a controlling stake of the iconic retailer and usher it into the new economy working with the founding family. Crain’s Detroit Business reported on the $20 million venture. After failed attempts to consolidate struggling Michigan-based women’s specialty clothing retailer Gantos and Jacobsons with Winkelmans, Vin Lee left the business in the hands of the Winkelman family and relocated to Atlanta, GA.
Montgomery Wards, Service Merchandise, and Heilig-Meyers Furniture
In the late 90s, retailing giants Montgomery Wards, Service Merchandise, and Heilig-Meyers’ assets were presented to Vin Lee in his hotel suite in Atlanta, GA by a California based broker involved in the bankruptcies of each company. Montgomery Wards’ profile didn’t match with GrandMet’s luxury growth profile. After months of discussions with Service Merchandise (then the country’s largest non specialty jewelry merchant) management and consultants, it was determined that it was too far in debt to pursue.
Founded in Goldsboro, North Carolina, a few steps from L.D. Giddens and Son Jewelers, Heilig-Meyers became of great interest to Vin Lee. The largest publicly held furniture retailer in North America, attributed 12% of its $2.7 billion in annual revenue to jewelry sales and finance making it also one of the leading jewelers in the United States. Heilig-Meyers bankruptcy was triggered after merging with Atlanta, GA based Rhodes Furniture and dozens of other regional brands. Today, under Vin Lee’s direction, the Heilig-Meyers Co. now includes the largest portfolio of furniture retail brands including:
Heilig-Meyers Furniture, Thornton Stores, Granite Furniture, Bruce’s Furniture Stores, Royal Jackson Furniture, Sterchi Brothers Furniture, Reliable Stores, Holthouse Furniture, The Furniture Center, WCK, Inc., Gibson McDonald Furniture, Reichart Furniture, Wolf Furniture Enterprises, McMahan’s Furniture, L. Fish Stores, Nelson Brothers Furniture, J.Homestock, Berrios Furniture, Self Service Furniture, Room Store Inc., Value House Furniture, Star Furniture Co., Mattress Discounters, Rhodes Inc., Marks Fitzgerald, Rhodes Furniture, John M Smyth’s, Homemakers Furniture, Rhodes-Haverty, Weberg Enterprises, Gallery Rodeo, Bukhara Rugs, Nunziato Leathers, Krause’s Furniture, Krauses-Castro, The Sofa Factory, Wickes Furniture, Four Seasons Home, Glick Furniture, ValueHouse Furniture, Kingsley, Sleep Tight America, American Family, American Backyard Collection, Turbo Tech, Four Seasons Home Accents, Phantom Flyer, Diamanell, Mighty Mow, KidStore, RentSmart, Centurion Crown, Room of Dreams, Riverly House, Trees & Hides, Nunziato, Regal Rest, Regal Rest Imperial, and Crossroads.
Grand Metropolitan and IMASCO Ltd. (The Beverly Hills Cigar Club)
Vin Lee acquired Grand Metropolitan after the turn of the century as a holding company for his operations, ultimately establishing Beverly Hills, CA as headquarters and Bel Air as residence. In addition, tobacco assets acquired during this term were consolidated in South Florida. Vin Lee had been enjoying his own private blend of cigars for many years. Upon the encouragement of friends and associates that had received them as gifts, he began producing and storing LOUIXS to age. The cigars were heralded in the media as the “Bugatti Veyron” of the tobacco industry. After failed efforts to acquire private cigar clubs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York, Grand Metropolitan finally established the Beverly Hills Cigar Club in 2004. Within the next decade, LOUIXS cigars would be only available in 100 privately-owned cigar clubs across North America all assembled under IMASCO ltd.
The Diamond Tennis Earring and Cannes Film Festival
In 2001, Vin Lee created the Tennis Earring. A new category of jewelry combining inline diamond bracelets into a double piercing earring or cuff. His pieces have been worn by celebrities, diplomats, and even royalty including family members of François Maurice Adrien Marie Mitterrand, former president of France. The Tennis Earring, sometimes referred to as the ear cuff, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. It has been seen on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and in hundreds of publications around the world.
Later in 2001, Vin Lee made an unsuccessful attempt to purchase Samuels Jewelers, operator of 113 retail jewelry stores in 19 states and the eighth largest retail jewelry chain in North America from a private equity firm. The company employed about 800 people nationwide and was drowning in $75 million in debt, mostly unsecured. Soon after recanting his interest, that company filed for bankruptcy. Since then, a dozen of the largest players and thousands of independents in the jewelry industry have failed.
Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, The Diamond Channel and the Red Carpet
Expanding to the West Coast, Vin Lee acquired assets of a Beverly Hills jeweler, just off Rodeo Drive in the platinum triangle and relocated facility and inventory to a 7,000 sf private showroom in Bel Air informally named The Candy Shop. Just minutes from the Playboy Mansion, The Candy Shop II, an 11,000 sf showroom in Holmby Hills was opened in 2009. Also in 2009, Vin Lee sold certain assets of The Diamond Channel (The Diamond Standard) to affiliates of Jimmy Choo’s parent company, Labelux [(Luxembourg-based JAB Holding Co.), also owners of Bally, Belstaff and Zagliani, founded by Austria’s Reimann family who also own 80 percent of Paris based celebrity fragrance behemoth Coty and 15% of London-based consumer giant Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc.
Starting with the Cannes Film Festival, Grand Metropolitan soon participated in red carpet and celebrity events around the world. The VIN Grand Metropolitan Gifting Suite featured hundreds of brand partnerships under one roof. Celebrities use the suite as a marshalling area between screenings and press junkets while sampling luxury wares. Through a relationship with Dick Clark Productions, Vin Lee Jewelers (Finlay Fine Jewelers) began to dress the stars during the American Music Awards, American Country Countdown Awards, Golden Globes, Hollywood Film Awards, and Billboard Music Awards. Collaborations with luxury brands are common like sharing a suite at the Beverly Hills Hilton with billionaire fashionista Manny Mashouf, CEO of BeBe Stores during the Academy Awards.
The group also participates at the G20 Economic Summit, World Economic Forum at Davos, Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills. In addition, Grand Metropolitan brands have hosted and sponsored events with NASCAR, Formula 1, Concours d’ Elegance, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and Bike Week in Daytona Beach. Grand Met sponsors events @ PGA Tour, NFL Super Bowl, and various music/entertainment venue VIP lounges and brand expansion marketing campaigns.
Finlay Enterprises, Finlay Fine Jewelers
In 2007, Vin Lee approached investors about making a personal investment in Finlay Enterprises (parent company of Finlay Fine Jewelers) the largest company of leased jewelry departments boasting 1,100 locations. Investor groups held large stakes in both Zale and Finlay. In Q1 of 2008 Zale Corporation sold the Bailey Banks & Biddle upscale jewelry chain to Finlay Enterprises for $200 million. Finlay Fine Jewelry Corporation returned to operating freestanding luxury stores with 104 specialty retail stores under six different nameplates. In addition to Bailey Banks & Biddle, the firm also sold fine jewelry under J.E. Caldwell, Carlyle & Co., and Congress Jewelers. During 2008, Friedmans, Crescent, Whitehall, Marks Bros., and Lundstrom Jewelers all filed for bankruptcy.
Steuben Glass and Wickes Furniture
That year Vin Lee approached Corning Incorporated asset Steuben Glass about acquiring the bankrupt iconic company. Lee wanted Steuben to provide the glass creations St. Aubin du Cormier would present in its bottle service. Also he felt that Orcofi would be able to package its line of fragrance within Steuben glass. This would allow the American legend to still maintain operations without being reliant on retail sale of its craftsmanship and keep the factory and its loyal artisans working. The winning bid instead went to Schottenstein Stores, former owners of Shifrin-Willens Jewelers and Filene’s Basement. Coincidentally, the new owners also counted Value City Furniture, DSW, and American Signature Furniture brands amongst their holdings.
Wickes Furniture, one of the nation’s largest furniture retailers, also filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008. Lee led Grand Metropolitan into discussions to acquire Wickes in the same year they introduced their Cindy Crawford Collection (Now offered by Rooms to Go Incorporated). Wickes Furniture, founded in 1971, grew to be the largest furniture retailer in the United States by the early 80s. The company is now part of the Heilig-Meyers family of brands.
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and Las Vegas Cigar Club
In 2008, Billionaire real estate developer Ian Bruce Eichner would default on his $3.9 billion Las Vegas resort development then named the Grand Hyatt of Las Vegas (The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas). Deutsche Bank AG would begin foreclosure proceedings stating MGM Mirage, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Hyatt and Hilton were in talks to acquire the property. During this transition of ownership, Vin Lee was invited to tour the construction site with the intent of building facilities for the Las Vegas Cigar Club in a 8,000 sf facility overlooking the Las Vegas Strip as an anchor for the development. The intention was to incentivize 26,000 social club members to frequent the Cosmopolitan with private scotch lockers and plush surroundings. Lee’s introduction to the project came from an associate of bespoke tailor Astor & Black, an affiliate of the Schottenstein family. The project stalled over smoking ordinances and the space was forfeited to Lion Capital’s British fashion retailer AllSaints Spitalfields.
Gallery Rodeo and Parke-Bernet Gallery
With gold prices climbing ultimately to highs near $2,000, Vin Lee began converting precious metal and gemstone inventory into works of art by Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rodin, Klimt, and Dali under his Gallery Rodeo and Parke-Bernet art gallery brands taking advantage of a soft art market and overextended collectors and galleries.
Finlay Enterprises, and Société Nouvelle d’Achat de Bijouterie (Sonab)
Crushed under the debt of the Bailey, Banks, & Biddle acquisition and $550 million line of credit from GE Capital, Finlay Enterprises filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. Grand Metropolitan participated in the auction process through 2010 and acquired certain remaining assets of the company including Finlay brands in 2011. Finlay operated France’s largest leased jewelry operations since its 1994 acquisition of Société Nouvelle d’Achat de Bijouterie (Sonab), which included 104 locations in such leading French stores as Galeries Lafayette and Nouvelles Galeries.
Vin Lee’s Finlay Enterprises now owns 30 of the top 50 US jewelry brands:
Finlay Fine Jewelers, Bailey, Banks, and Biddle*, Caldwell Jewelers, Carlyle & Company, Congress Jewelers*, Diamond Park, Finlay Strauss, Jay B. Rudolph, New York Jewelry Outlet, Park Promenade, Luxuria Fine Jewelers, Société Nouvelle d’Achatde Bijouterie (SONAB), Lundstrom Jewelers, Marks Brothers Jewelers, Whitehall Co. Jewellers, L. Luria & Son, Friedman’s Inc., A.A. Friedman, Crescent Jewellers, Bucceli Gem, Ephraim Brasher, Japy Freres, Jean Goujon, Missirs, Wicked Woodies, L.D. Giddens & Son, Shifrin-Willens Jewelers, Merksamers Jewelers, Haute Bijouterie, Sweeneys Jewelers, Fine Jewelers Guild, Ceylats Fine Jewelers, Diamonds on Rodeo, Diamonell, Gotthelfs Jewelers, Henricks Jewelers, Vin Lee Jewelers, Zemil Jewelers, Bailen Jewelers, DuQuet Fine Jewelers, Goldmans Jewelers, Stockdale Jewelers, Shreya Jewelers, Silvermans Fine Jewelers, Wingrove Jewelers, Woodstock Jewelers, Coral Jewelers, Higinbotham Fine Jewelers, Jewelry Banker, Krisselmeyer, Ziaris.
*sold to investors
Beverly Hills Sports Car, Ferrari S.p.A., and Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A.
In 2012, Vin Lee began expanding Grand Metropolitan’s reach across the globe. Traveling Europe, he was honored to have met with officials from Luca di Montezemolo’s Ferrari S.p.A. in Maranello, Italy including touring the factory and experiencing the unreleased LaFerrari on the Fiorano test grounds. Similarly that day in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy, Vin Lee toured the Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. museum and factory under the guidance of Fabio Lamborghini, nephew of Ferruccio Elio Arturo Lamborghini, the founder of the eponymous exotic car manufacturer, introducing him to the families stable of iconic vehicles and his private label wine Sangue di Miura. Vin Lee had always been a sports car enthusiast, track racing vintage Ferraris and Porsches. His first introduction to Concours d’ Elegance lead to the creation of Beverly Hills Sports Car.
Milan Fashion Week
During the Milan Fashion Week and Milan Film Festival, he began negotiations and relationships with designers and fashion houses for his recently acquired Orcofi Holdings. Finlay Fine Jewelers and Orcofi couture can be seen on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, Grammy’s, and Independent Spirit Awards. The Beverly Hills Cigar Club participates in many celebrity and charity driven events including Sundance, Cannes Film Festival, Concours d’ Elegance, and film premiers creating access for synergies across Grand Metropolitan’s portfolio of brands including St. Aubin du Cormier liquors and LOUIXS cigars.
G20 and Russia
In late 2013, Vin Lee embarked on a 5 country tour of Eastern Europe focusing on the Baltic States and Russia during the G20 Economic Summit. The main goal of this endeavor was to open discussions and show support within diamond groups on the eve of Alrosa’s (Russian Diamond Federation) public offering.
Throughout 2014, Grand Metropolitan began to extend its interest around the globe. While conflicts between Russia and Ukraine began escalating, Vin Lee suspended his second tour through Europe. The sale of certain Southern California assets including his stake in Ceniza Lounge, allowed Lee to add works by Willem DeKooning, James Whistler, and Paul Cezanne to his Gallery Rodeo Collection. That same year, bids for pieces by Rothko, Pissarro, and Lichtenstein fell short leaving the collection just shy of its goal of 100 works of art in 2014.
Ellerine Holdings and South Africa
Ellerine Holdings Ltd., the furniture retail unit of African Bank Investments Ltd. failed Aug. 8 when ABIL forecast record losses amid rising bad debts. It cut funding to Ellerine which was forced to apply for business rescue. Failure to dispose of assets could potentially reduce the amount creditors could expect to receive after the business that owes nearly R1.3 billion is wound down fully. Ellerine was started by two brothers, Sidney and Eric Ellerine, in 1969 and grew to have about 8,000 employees and 947 stores by July this year. Of the six store brands, Ellerine sold Dial a Bed to Coricraft Group Pty Ltd. for 200 million rand ($18 million) and Lewis Group Ltd. agreed to buy the Beares brand for 40 million rand on Oct. 31. While there were more than 50 bidders in the asset-sale process, brands Ellerine, Geen & Richards, Wetherly’s and Furniture City didn’t receive viable offers.
Grand Metropolitan’s own furniture retail unit Heilig-Meyers opened discussions to participate in the process. The company began to entertain offers to sell its Wickes Furniture assets in effort to fund the expansion into Johannesburg, South Africa for both furniture and diamond divisions.
The Handleman Company
Also in 2014, Grand Metropolitan acquired certain assets of the Handleman Company with intent of reestablishing prominence on the shelves of big box retail with new proprietary products. The original company was established as a partnership distributing pharmaceuticals in 1934 and had achieved over $30 billion in revenue since its founding. During the 1950s the company made a decision that proved to be crucial to its future growth: it began wholesaling records. Eventually stocking the racks for major retailers like Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Woolworth, Handleman became better at managing record displays than a large store could be. By 1980 the firm stocked records at over 8,000 retail stores. It was a tough year for record sales, with sales across the entire industry declining. Despite these troubles, in 1980 the company became the largest record and tape wholesaler in the United States, moving past the Pickwick division of American Can.
The number of music retail departments serviced by Handleman had grown to 6,500. The firm serviced even more video departments–7,400, book sales in 2,600 retail departments, and now serviced 4,700 software retail departments. Handleman remained heavily dependent on its two largest customers. Kmart, which was experiencing financial trouble, accounted for 40 percent of Handleman’s sales, while Wal-Mart accounted for 25 percent.
In 1992, Cinemagic Marquee approached the Handleman Company about a partnership offering it’s patented technology for over 21,200 department locations. Grand Metropolitan began negotiations to purchase certain assets of the Handleman Company in 2008. Vin Lee finalized efforts in 2014 and is rebuilding product lines and holdings based on products he designed. Cinemagic Marquee is being folded under the company banner.
This initiative marks the 7th billion-dollar brand in the company’s offerings.
Ceniza Lounge and Renaissance XXI
The beginning of 2015 marked a period of consolidation and focus for Grand Metropolitan. Initially the firm divested itself of its equity in its Ceniza Lounge and Renaissance XXI assets, part of IMASCO Ltd. and Orcofi Holdings respectfully. These transactions allowed for the addition of a Willem de Kooning to be added to the collection at Gallery Rodeo.
On January 15, 2015, President Barack Obama takes first step in lifting embargo on Cuba: U.S. eases travel and trade restrictions. Announcement of new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Barack Obama’s ambitious goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother. They come three days after U.S. officials confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners Cuba had promised to free.
Cuba Embargo and Carlos Murphy
Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo. But the measures give permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cuba and U.S. companies to export telephone, computer and Internet technologies. Investments in some small business are permitted. General tourist travel is still prohibited, but Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses.
Grand Metropolitan tobacco and spirit subsidiary IMASCO Ltd. invested in Club Habanos and began development of it’s Carlos Murphy franchise system acquired in 2012.
Mayhoola for Investments
At the end of the third quarter of 2015, Vin Lee finally closed a three year long transaction with Grand Metropolitan’s Mayhoola asset.
Mayhoola for Investments SPC, an investment vehicle with close ties to Sheikha Mozah, the second wife of the former emir, is the financial vehicle that the Qatari royal family is using to place its offer. In 2012 Mayhoola purchased the iconic Italian fashion house Valentino from Permira for about 700 million euros. Mayhoola is building up a portfolio of high-end brands in Europe. Earlier that year it bought the majority of Forall Confezioni, which produces the Italian luxury menswear brand Pal Zileri and holds licenses for Moschino and Cerruti 1881.