Michael Lee-Chin: Do well. Do good. Be happy

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Michael Lee-Chin’s entrepreneurial ascendance is a particularly Canadian version of the classic rags-to-riches tale. Born in rural Jamaica to a teenaged mother, the eldest of nine siblings, Lee-Chin made his way to Canada on a combination of talent, timing and no small amount of chutzpah. (For instance, when his one-year scholarship at McMaster University ended, he persuaded Jamaica’s prime minister, no less, to have the government fund his next year’s studies.)

After graduating, he started a career in the burgeoning mutual-fund industry, and his entrepreneurial life took hold. He finessed an initial $500,000 investment in Mackenzie Financial into a multi-billion-dollar empire. Today, as chairman of Portland Holdings Inc., his many assets in Canada and the Caribbean include a minority stake in AIC International Investments Ltd., which he founded, and controlling interest in Jamaica’s National Commercial Bank (NCB).

Today, Lee-Chin is as well-known for his philanthropy as he is for his business acumen. And his generosity is no mere PR play. As he recently explained to PROFIT editor Ian Portsmouth, giving back is not the privilege of successful entrepreneurs—it’s their duty.

What was it like to grow up in Port Antonio?

Back then, it was a town of about 8,000 people. It’s a seaside town, very rural. Everybody knew everyone, so as a child, we were very safe. We could roam around as we pleased. For fun, we’d take slingshots we’d made ourselves and shoot birds. Or we’d make yo-yos from discarded bus windows, which were made of Plexiglass. We were very, very creative and self-sufficient.

My parents were budding entrepreneurs. They ran a very small dry-goods store. At the age of 12, I had to take over the shop after school for three hours while my dad went out to sell Singer sewing machines. I had to do things like make change, cut cloth and close down the store, all by myself. So I had to shoulder responsibilities very early.

How did your upbringing condition you for success?

Had a statistician come to Port Antonio on the day I was born in 1951 and calculated the likelihood that a child born to an 18-year-old orphan would go on to graduate from high school, his answer would be “not likely.” But I did it; of my class of 120 in primary school, I was one of two to go on to high school on a full scholarship.

And what would be the likelihood of that same child saving enough money to travel to Canada to go to engineering school? And then graduate from engineering school and go into business in Canada to compete against major financial institutions? That statistician would say it would be easier to win the lottery.

There are a lot of factors that have gone in to me being here. It’s a function of my confidence, which is a function of my experiences during my formative years, which is a function of the country in which I was born.

Those of us who are blessed really have a responsibility to realize that our success is not a function of our efforts only. It’s the culmination of many factors, including our own efforts.

What traits do you display now that you can directly attribute to your childhood?

I’m very competitive. It was drilled into me, and my eight siblings, that we should always be the best at whatever we do. That comes from my parents. They set very high standards for their children, and for themselves.

In addition, my childhood—specifically, my position as the oldest of nine kids—taught me to be an advocate, the spokesperson for those who are more shy or less confident. I think that is extremely important. When I see injustice, I’m not going to sit back and take it. That applies to life, and business: whatever you’re selling, you have to be an advocate.

You took a big risk in borrowing $500,000 to invest in Mackenzie Financial in 1983. What would you be doing now if that investment had tanked?

The life of an entrepreneur is not linear. We will have setbacks. What matters is how you dust yourself off, get back up and go forward.

About 15 years ago, I took driving lessons at the racetrack in Shannonville, Ont. The driver showed me how to enter the corners and alight from them, and then left me on my own to do it. I took the first corner too fast, then braked too heavily. As I left that corner, I thought, “OK, I’m now going to do a post-mortem that corner.” Then, all of a sudden, the second corner came up on me, and I screwed that one up because I wasn’t prepared for it. When I left that corner, I was thinking about it, and the third corner came up on me. I screwed it up, too. I went there to learn to drive, but a came away with a life lesson: Once you have alighted from the corner, drop it and focus on the next one. Easy to say, hard to do.

I invested in Mackenzie before my experience at Shannonville. But it that investment had tanked, I know I would have dropped it. I would have had to, or it would have paralyzed me from thinking about the next corner.

As an avid philanthropist, what is your philosophy on the relationship between altruism and business?

It takes cash to care. That’s a quote I first heard from the former Prime Minister of Jamaica. You can’t be philanthropic unless you’re doing well.

Has it been a conscious decision to be so visible as a philanthropist, or is it just an extension of your personality?

I wouldn’t be able to inspire others if I wasn’t profiled. If I were anonymous, no one would know my story; people who are underprivileged wouldn’t have an inspirational role model. Being anonymous has a downside: you’re not giving others the opportunity to be inspired by your life. And that’s not a good thing for society, because in society we need role models.

What have you tried to instill in your children about privilege and how they need to live their lives?

After my third son was born, I remember looking back at him and his mom in the back seat of the Rolls Royce I was driving to take them home. I contrasted that with my mother’s situation after my birth: she had to walk me the entire two-mile trip home. And that’s why I’m the person I am. So I remember thinking, “Mike, be careful that your success doesn’t impede this baby’s fulfillment in life.”

My prime responsibility to my children is to make them independent, contributing human beings. I’m wealthy. They are not. I have high standards of expectations for them. And that means leading by example. I could have retired at 40. But how can I expect them to be earnest, hard-working, persevering people if they don’t see their dad working hard, too?

When did you first consider Canada home?

In 1974, any foreigners in Canada were allowed to apply for residency. I applied, and received it. That’s when I felt it was my country. My formative years were in Jamaica, but my successful years in business started here. Canada is not perfect, but relative to all other countries, it is as close to nirvana as it gets.

Many of your business and philanthropic efforts are based in Jamaica. What is your aspiration for Jamaica as a nation?

Jamaica is a blessed country. It has natural resources, it’s beautiful, it’s an English-speaking nation in the Eastern time zone. But we as Jamaicans have not optimized all of our God-given attributes. I’d like to see Jamaicans re-calibrate their expectations.

What do you believe is your role in accomplishing that?

I can lead by example.

The goal of all our businesses in Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, is to make the country wealthier. To do that, you have to re-invest economic profits. And you have to re-invest human capital.

For instance, when we bought NCB I said, “We will not repatriate any profits from Jamaica to Canada until the country is wealthier.” And we offer a credit card that has 80% market share in Jamaica. Because we own it, we don’t have to remit to Visa or Mastercard the 1% transaction fee they charge. I decided that we would take the 1% we’d be paying otherwise and invest it in education. So every time citizens use their card, 1% of what they spend will go to their children’s education.

That gave the organization purpose. No person can become successful unless they have a purpose that they’re fervent about and committed to in the long run. A business is no different, because it’s a conglomerate of people. So we made the mantra of the bank “Building a better Jamaica.” When we took over the bank, it made $6 million in profits. Last year, it made $130 million. This year, it will be more.

If you build businesses that are eminent by any standard, it allows bright young locals to say, “I can get my economic, professional and social fulfillment right here.” In doing that, you stem the brain drain, and you are re-investing in the country by virtue of creating economic opportunities there.

Businesses should take a long-term perspective. Look at how you can use your organization as a vessel to create success for people around you, and success will rebound back to you.

What has being a successful entrepreneur given you that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?

Access. That’s a function of having built a good reputation, of differentiating myself and serving customers well. For example, when we visit Mexico City, I am able to get us an audience with the most prominent businesspeople in Mexico, the most relevant policy-makers, even the president. No one would have met with us if I had a bad reputation.

What is your most prized possession?

My jet [a Bombardier Global Express high-speed jet]. Last week, in one week, I flew down to Mexico City and spent a day there. Then I went to Colombia, and spent three days there. From there, I flew directly to Trinidad at my leisure. Then I flew to the Dominican Republic, then to Jamaica. That would have been impossible if I’d had to fly commercial—for one thing, there is no direct flight from Colombia to Trinidad.

Without the jet, that trip would have taken two weeks, and I would have accomplished a lot less. It gives me an opportunity to be a lot more efficient.

What do you think when you see the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto?

I think to myself, “My gosh. This is a bold outcropping from a traditional edifice.”

Is that what you are?

Exactly. It’s not a natural extension. It’s unique. It’s confident. And those qualities are what make it interesting to me.

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