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Can a Billionaire Be Nice?

If you don't think so, Michael Lee-Chin may change your mind.

By Barbara McLintock 5 Feb 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

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Not long ago I had the pleasure of meeting a billionaire. That's with a B at the beginning, not an M.

I have to admit it took me a few minutes even to figure out how many zeroes were needed to calculate this man's net worth. (The answer is nine, in the unlikely event that any Tyee readers think they might be approaching this magnificent figure.) To the best of my knowledge, I'd never had the pleasure of meeting a billionaire before (unless you count Queen Elizabeth with whom I exchanged about 12 excessively polite words once, at a very formal reception for media members while she was here on a Royal Tour.)

I was, to be honest, a little skeptical. The word 'billionaire' did not conjure up warm, fuzzy pictures in my mind. I thought of someone who'd inherited the lion's share of their money and occupied most of their days spending it in conspicuous consumption. I thought of someone who made vast sums by taking advantage of workers, perhaps mainly women and children, in sweatshops in far off countries. I thought of someone who made their millions and millions by exploiting natural resources for their own short-term gain, not worrying about the long-term pain caused.

I'd never even heard of Michael Lee-Chin, the billionaire whom I'd been invited to meet, so that gave me no clue as to whether he'd earned his money or inherited it, or how.

Son of a supermarket clerk

Lee-Chin knocked all my preconceptions into a three-cocked hat. He is an entirely self-made man, the son of a supermarket clerk and a salesman. As far as I can determine, he has made his billions without ever exploiting a single worker, a single tree or oil-patch - at least not directly. And he is now using much of his wealth to try to improve working and living conditions in his home country of Jamaica.

On one level, the story of his life reads almost like a fairy tale of the Great Canadian Dream Come True. You know … anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, talent and hard work will out, Canada really is the land of milk and honey for honest and industrious immigrants. Lee-Chin is a charismatic story-teller, and his is a genuinely inspiring tale. Especially at this time of year, it's encouraging to think that in even a few cases, those hoary chestnuts can come true - even if we all know far more cases where the weight of poverty and struggle overcomes the individual, rather than vice versa.

Lee-Chin was one of nine children born to a lower-middle class family in Jamaica. His mother sold Avon cosmetics and clerked in the local supermarket. His father was a salesman as well. He had a natural inclination for business: he remembers at the age of nine wondering how you could go from working as a clerk in the supermarket to owning the whole thing.

In 1970 he came to Canada to go to university (McMaster in Hamilton, Ontario). Originally he studied civil engineering and worked briefly as a road designer; then he returned to school to take graduate studies in business. He could afford university only because he was given a scholarship by the Jamaican government; even so, he was working for $2.50 an hour in the campus pub to make ends meet.

That, according to him, was where he heard the information that ended up changing his life. A customer at the pub had found himself a part-time job selling mutual funds and every night would tell Lee-Chin how he'd made $200, $300, even $400 in a single day. Lee-Chin decided that was the business to be in. He hasn't really looked back since.

Making money from money

He became a financial advisor and portfolio manager, and in 1983 borrowed $500,000 to invest in a financial corporation. The stock value in that corporation climbed from one dollar to seven dollars a share in four years, giving Lee-Chin the money he needed to expand and grow.

And that is how Lee-Chin has managed to become a billionaire without any obvious exploitation of workers or natural resources. The only thing he has dealt with in his businesses is that strange abstract concept called "money" - money in investments, money in stocks and bonds, money in insurance companies. Putting up money to make more money. Investing other people's money so you can make more money.

Presumably somewhere down the line some of those companies in which Lee-Chin has invested have themselves invested in still other companies that have employees, and make use of natural resources and maybe even exploit or abuse both. After all, at its most basic level, money is not just an abstract concept. It is based on the law of supply and demand - and what is supplied and demanded is goods and services, not pieces of paper with the queen's head printed on them. But the number of levels between Lee-Chin and any such exploitation makes it seem very far away from the rarefied atmosphere at the Victoria Conference Centre where he is explaining his philosophies to a group of businesspeople and investors.

He doesn't agree with most of the standard advice on investing. In particular, he doesn't agree with the idea of "diversifying" into all sorts of different companies and industries on the assumption that some of them will make money. He says you do better if you stay with a few companies and industries that you love and that you can learn about in depth and so make good investment decisions about them. That's why he's stayed with money.

Giving back to Jamaica, his birthplace

In Lee-Chin's hands, money moves from being an ephemeral concept from Economics 101, and becomes his plaything, his pet, his master, his slave.

Now, he says, he is ready to start using money - the money he has and his financial skills - to start giving back, not just to the community but to his home country of Jamaica.

Jamaica is a country that has not done well in the past 25 years. The unemployment rate now exceeds 15 per cent. Those economic difficulties have led to an increase in civil unrest and crime which in turn has led to a fall-off in tourism and foreign investment. So eighteen months ago Lee-Chin bought a controlling interest in the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica.

"It is using a bank as the instrument of commercial and social development," he says. He is starting educational initiatives to make post-secondary education available to more Jamaican young people. The bank is supporting families and businesses that needed help after devastating floods hit parts of the country last year. Most of all, he says, he wants to use the bank as a means to bring foreign investment into the country.

"I would never be here except for that scholarship that the government of Jamaica gave me," he said. "I owe them … it is time to be giving back."

It's almost enough to make a billionaire seem warm and fuzzy.

Barbara McLintock is contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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