“Being wealthy can be very expensive,” Vin Lee reveals with a twist of irony. “It comes with an expectation to have the best of everything.” I recently connected with the “King of Luxury,” as Beverly Hills Magazine has dubbed the entrepreneur and owner of Grand Metropolitan, a luxury groups portfolio of 130 brands including jewelry behemoths such as Finlay Fine Jewelry. Established in 1787, Finlay was at one point the largest operator of leased jewelry departments (in stores such as Macy’s) in the world, generating $1 billion a year in revenue. Finlay currently owns and operates 20 of the top 50 jewelry brands in the US including Samuels Diamonds, Lundstrom and Diamonds on Rodeo.
Remarkably Vin Lee has skillfully navigated his path through a minefield of mergers and acquisitions to acquire a gem of a luxury portfolio including Heilig-Meyers furniture, world renowned art broker Gallery Rodeo, Beverly Hills Sports Car and Cigar Clubs and Pushkin Caviar. It’s not a journey for the faint of heart. A key to his success has been acquiring distressed companies of immense value through timing and tenacity, some coups requiring decades. A conspicuous luxury lifestyle has afforded him entry into top social circles of the world, including European royalty and Hollywood superstars. Providing the diamonds, champagne, cognacs, caviar and cigars at red carpet and VIP charity events has opened doors to the circles of the rich and famous, an expensive process, but one with potentially very lucrative results.
Vin Lee graciously shared his remarkable life story. “My passion for fine art is in fact where it all began. Although I had a modest childhood, my parents exposed us to much of what life had to offer, from travel with private planes and chauffeurs to VIP suites, sporting and cultural events. We were introduced to many famous and influential people. But we were required to work for whatever it was we wanted. My brother and I both worked full-time during college.
“TV and film in the 1980s highlighted the ‘conspicuous consumption’ Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, from Miami Vice to Beverly Hills Cop to Wall Street. Forbes became my bible, both the Forbes 400 as well as those aspiring spending their money on luxury goods. I didn’t want to just be part of that club, I wanted to be the one who owned the clubhouse.
“As a young man I was awarded patents for mechanical billboards. In the late ‘80s, billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga’s Blockbuster Video was expanding at a rate of 1 store per 18 hours. My mechanical movie poster displays caught his group’s interest and became my first success and springboard for further expansion. I learned from this role model who executed industry roll ups in three different markets: home video, garbage collection and auto dealerships.
“A roll-up strategy is the process of acquiring and merging multiple smaller brands in the same industry and consolidating them into a large company, allowing the latter to pool their resources together, cut down on operational costs, and increase revenues. Creating a portfolio in this manner has turned Grand Metropolitan into one of the largest luxury goods conglomerates in the world.”
Vin Lee has also achieved impressive international success as a designer. “I was influenced early on by the ability of some brands to be identified simply by their design: Louboutin, Yurman, Mont Blanc, Movado, Rolex. Customers price shop by hopping from location to location often citing the brand. I wanted to create such a unique design for our companies. I created the tennis earring or ear climber which went mainstream, copied around the globe. Our clients included Prince, P. Diddy and Christina Aguilera. Our big break came during the Cannes Film Festival when we were able to dress the daughter of the French President with our diamond suite. Today, you can find our pieces on red carpets around the world during award season. Manufacturers all over the world now create them in everything from alloy and synthetics to platinum and diamonds. Superstars from Jennifer Lawrence to Kellyanne Conway have worn them at film premiers and state functions.”
What about balance between work and life? “I’ve have missed so much of life while I was flying around building Grand Metropolitan, that I don’t want to miss anymore. While attempting larger and larger acquisitions, the stress of supporting multiple million dollar residences, private travel, expensive cars, the best of everything became too much for me. Just in the last decade I have clocked more than 500 flights, leaving me a stranger with most of my family members. But over the last several years I’ve made significant improvements in my lifestyle. Now I split my time between Beverly Hills and South Florida, my adopted home for almost half my life. My family is there and the beaches are glorious and private. I live in a very tiny beach town (pop. 800) absent of the Los Angeles or New York glamour and glitter, far away from the politics, traffic and taxes. The Florida Keys are my sanctuary from the rest of the world.”
Vin Lee’s plans for the future? “After COVID-19, the industry has had a chance to recharge and consider that the experience for the client is paramount. The big test will be this coming holiday season. We’ll reopen with the vast majority of our retail converted to our digital platform Lichtensteins, offering Grand Metropolitan goods from our Finlay Fine Jewelers, Heilig-Meyers Furniture, Pushkin Caviar, and ORCOFI brands. We’ve always had a long term plan for each of our 7 brand groups. In 2020 we began negotiations to acquire the bankrupt Lord & Taylor brand as well as Art Van Furniture and Bailey Banks & Biddle Jewelers. Ultimately I hope Finlay to transition to a full financial institution based out of Monaco supporting the $130 billion diamond market.”
Living large and dreaming big, it seems Vin Lee has now found a satisfying balance in life and work, allowing him to really enjoy the luxury lifestyle he cherishes and serving as an inspiration for the world.