‘It is all for mom’
Michael Lee-Chin’s life’s work a tribute to late mother
Jamaican-Canadian billionaire Michael Lee-Chin cannot, without contradiction, be described as a hard-nosed businessman, but his knack for picking winners and his golden business touch have created worldwide footprints – and he seems to be just beginning.
In a chat with The Sunday Gleaner last week, the 71-year-old shared the story of his humble beginnings, born to a teenage girl whose mother died shortly after giving birth to her, and whose father was a deserter.
Eighteen-year-old Hyacinth Gloria Chen gave birth to Michael Lee-Chin on January 3, 1951 and both were cared for by the helpers of the family who became their adoptive parents.
Later that year, the destructive Hurricane Charlie ravaged Jamaica, and Hyacinth received the chance of a lifetime – to migrate to England to study nursing – but as she told Michael later, the choice was simple. She made it without regret, staying in Jamaica with her beloved infant son 'Mike'.
Hyacinth Chen was denied a high school education, even though she was successful in the primary school-leaving examination, winning a scholarship to Wolmer's Girls' School. Her adoptive mother viewed it a waste to educate girls in the 1940s.
Despite her harsh circumstances, the young mother had high expectations of herself and for her boy. She worked three jobs, becoming a supermarket clerk; a bookkeeper studying on her own, and that skill landed her a job at the Bonnie View Hotel in Port Antonio, Portland, where she would begin her second job. She also sold Avon products and was known as the Avon lady.
Hyacinth later met and married Vincent Chen, the man who would become Michael's stepfather. He, too, would take three jobs to care for all their children.
A decade and half later, the teenaged Michael, with circumstances quite opposite to his mother at that age, would receive a scholarship from the Jamaican government after writing to then Prime Minister Hugh Shearer.
He was begging for help to complete studies in civil engineering.
LETTER TO THE PM
He impressed upon PM Shearer that greater investments needed to be made in the country's youth for them to achieve their dreams.
That letter landed him a meeting with Prime Minister Shearer, and when it ended he had a scholarship.
Decades later – and with a colourful life in-between – Lee-Chin is now the chairman and chief executive of Portland Holdings, a privately held investment company in Ontario, Canada.
The McMaster University-trained civil engineer is ranked number 12 of 15 top black billionaires by the highly respected Forbes magazine for 2022, with an estimated US$1.7 billion net worth.
Lee-Chin's status has put him in the company of others like himself and lesser, but he has never forgotten his humble beginnings. He eyes new frontiers daily and is passionate about his next big investments in nuclear energy and cutting-edge cancer treatment capabilities, while celebrating his first foray locally, the National Commercial Bank (NCB).
For all he has achieved, the accolades received, the impact he continues to make, the billions he has made, Michael Lee-Chin is just mommy's son, Hyacinth Chen's firstborn, whom she cherished to her dying days.
He credits it all to the woman who would not leave him to be cared for by a grandmother or strangers, whose love and devotion to her family still propels him towards the eighth wonder.
Today, he would do anything to have one more hug, one more dance, see her smile, kiss, and hold her in the flesh. The pain of losing her in January of this year is forever raw.
His north star is a tribute to her memory and doing good by doing well.
The business mogul is today associated with at least seven United States billion-dollar companies and during The Sunday Gleaner interview last week, 39 minutes after technology threatened to be the protagonist, Lee-Chin's patience was unnerving.
His calm demeanour was disarming, as he was charming, but it is clear he was not a politician. He sold no hollow, but rather told how his humble beginnings and the ensuing challenges became the lighthouse to his present.
Parents, hardships, family, school and children
“I am blessed to have had a mother who led by example, she did not desert me. She didn't have much but cared, set good examples, and did everything possible to steward us. She and my stepdad worked three jobs each and did everything to look after their children. They both dedicated their lives for the next generation, so, for those reasons, I don't forget where I am coming from,” Lee-Chin stated.
“She was my best friend and I am very fortunate to have had a mother for 71 years. Every opportunity I get, I honour her. We had that fantastic relationship,” he said, choking up, as the tug on his heart is still present.
“I miss her and I cry every day, because of the hole that is left. Whatever I do, I make sure that she would still be proud. I do things that would make her so proud, and that gives me fulfilment. I see myself as the dividend of her investment, and the sacrifices she made in me and her children,” he said.
Lee-Chin takes 'honour your parents' quite serious.
His weakest moments came after his mom's first cancer diagnosis in 1996, and after treatment and remission, it returned in 2006. He took her to Canada for more treatment, and after a short remission, it returned a year later.
He refused the doctor's prognosis that they could do nothing else for her, and found another doctor who put her on a cannabis treatment. It transformed her from palliative care and “extended her life”, causing her to swear by marijuana; as did Michael and Vincent.
Hyacinth Chen wanted nothing and instead gave everything, said Lee-Chin. He, too, was abandoned by his biological father but was loved and cared for by his stepfather, who, along with his mother, accompanied him on every vacation. It mattered not in whose company he was, as long as it was a vacation they would be there. Objections would result in an immediate severing of those ties.
Nine months since her passing, Lee-Chin continues to honour her in death, and lives for her blessings daily.
The Hyacinth Chen Nursing School in Mandeville is a degree-granting institution in tribute to what she was unable to achieve. It opened in 2008 on the campus of the Northern Caribbean University (NCU) and is run by the Seventh-day Adventist.
The Hyacinth Chen's Crystal Court at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada is another monument to her sacrifice. And as far as Michael Lee-Chin is concerned, he will never be done honouring her.
Rising to the challenges, selling mutual funds in a foreign market, personal and professional pledge
“It wasn't the business head of my parents that sent me into business. I went to university to study civil engineering,” Michael Lee-Chin told The Sunday Gleaner.
With meagre savings from working as a bellhop on a cruise ship and a lab technician at the then Alumina Partners of Jamaica, he managed to save $2,000, which was enough to get him through the first year at university in Canada. A landscaping job saw him save $600, but he was short by $1,400 for his second year and knew he did not have enough time to work and save the rest. That's when he wrote the letter to PM Shearer.
The scholarship covered the rest of his tuition and he was able to send money home. On completion, he returned to Jamaica, as he was bonded for two years, and returned to Canada after.
“I came back to Canada in 1976 and couldn't get a job in Canada. I sent out 100 applications for an engineering job and got 100 rejections. I was working as a bouncer at the students' pub, and had three non-engineering job offers. The first was to become a soap salesman, the second was to be a long haul truck driver, and the third was to sell mutual funds,” he shared, stating that it was difficult for immigrants to plant a foothold very quickly. He was told he had no Canadian experience, which made it difficult to get a job.
“Fortunately for me, I didn't get a job in engineering. I therefore switched from my profession and went into the securities industry. When I got into that industry I made a commitment to myself. I said 'Mike, you are in Canada, you are away from home Jamaica, you are selling mutual funds. You are not in engineering, what you studied in school. So since you are outside Jamaica where you would rather be, you are outside of engineering, Mike, just go for it. There is a term, pedal to the metal, I am not gonna hold back',” he recalled.
Not temperate in his aspirations, Lee-Chin went full throttle. The then 26-year-old was selling securities to an audience he did not know.
“I had to knock on doors. In 1976 Canada was not as cosmopolitan as it is today. I didn't look or sound like a Canadian financial adviser, I had a big Afro, so I was in dissonance to the work I was doing,” he explained.
Working full time all day, Lee-Chin scheduled two appointments each day after work – one at 7 p.m. and the other at 9 p.m. He told himself that no one would outwork him, while feeling gratitude that he would be invited to present the mutual funds he was selling. He adopted the motto 'always wanting to not make them regret purchasing'.
“Make them wealthy,” was Lee-Chin's promise, while searching for the formula, which, if practised consistently, would reap success. By 1980 he figured it out. He wanted to connect the dots between every wealthy person who created wealth.
He codified his findings, stating them as:
1. Own a few, not too many, high-quality businesses.
2. Understand those businesses.
3. Make sure those businesses are in strong long-term growth industries.
4. Use other people's money to create the wealth.
5. Note their attitude towards how long they will own the businesses. They will own it for as long as it remains high quality and the industry in which the business is operating remains in a strong long-term growth state.
Lee-Chin began to live what he codified.
“I borrowed $500,000 at the time to invest in one stock that fulfilled all those five attributes. The stock was in McKenzie Financial Corporation. The stock went from $1.00 in October of 1983 to $7.00 by 1987. So $500,000 became $3.5 million in four years. And that really consolidate my confidence that my philosophy is right,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
He also made an investment in one of billionaire Warren Buffet's companies.
Following this formula, Lee-Chin has been picking business winners, and making money.
Today, he is absolutely sure that investment in cancer technology and nuclear energy are the right way to go. Both are personal to him, as his mother died from the disease, and his best friend is currently undergoing treatment for it. He is well down the wicket to create a footprint there.
INVESTING IN NCB, TAKING BANKING BEYOND FILE JACKETS
A firm believer in positive growth for Jamaica, Lee-Chin faced demoralised and dejected staff and customers, along with high levels of inefficiency, when he took over NCB in 2002. He became the face of the bank, held meetings with customers, walking the floor and thanking them.
He believes Jamaicans are natural, talented and beautiful and the country is endowed with an abundance of natural resources but these have not been successfully converted to sustained economic growth.
Still, he believes in investing here and calls NCB the “best investment I have ever made”, as it allowed him to do well and do good. Through the bank's foundation, more than $2 billion has been given to philanthropic causes, with hundreds benefiting.
Lee-Chin is associated with seven businesses he calls unicorns, each worth more than $1 billion. As chairman of Jamaica's Economic Growth Council (EGC) – which was tasked to turn around the country's economic growth prospects after decades of stagnation – he earned no friends among public sector workers when he said senior civil servants were the main obstacles to growth in Jamaica.
His bold declaration of five per cent growth in annual gross domestic product (GDP) in four years has been reassessed downwards, if not abandoned, for a number of reasons, including the devastating impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The owner of the scenic and beautiful Trident Hotel in Portland, Lee-Chin has no desire to make the property his home, but has outlined plans to make it even better.
Michael Lee-Chin's seven unicorns:
1. Asset management to AIC
2. National Commercial Bank (NCB)
3. Columbus Communication (FLOW)
4. Inter Energy Holdings (the largest independent power producer in Jamaica and Central America)
5. ITM in Munich Germany and PRRT or TRT – both in cutting edge cancer treatment
6. Australian company Telix Pharmaceuticals
7. Guardian Holdings
See conclusion to the Michael Lee-Chin story next week…