Vin Lee, The Life of a Successful Entrepreneur

We had the opportunity to sit down with successful entrepreneur, Vin Lee, owner and CEO of Grand Metropolitan and no stranger to the luxury lifestyle. Here is what Lee had to share with us.

Tell us about the Beverly Hills Cigar Club. Is there a physical “Clubhouse” or is it a virtual society with a means to furnish the finest brands its members?

The Beverly Hills Cigar Club is a social club founded in Holmby Hills.  We participate in events all over the globe including Cannes Film Festival, Concours d’Elegance, and Winter/Summer Olympics celebrations.  Closer to home the BHCC hosts and sponsors, in collaboration with our other brands, celebrity charity auctions and red carpet events.  Unlike your local tobacconist shop with a couple of chairs and a plasma screen.  The BHCC is all about access to many of the world’s most exclusive affairs.  Of course, it is also the only place you can enjoy our LOUIXS cigars, rated Top 10 in the world and the “Bugatti Veyron” of the cigar industry.

When I relocated Grand Metropolitan headquarters from South Florida to Beverly Hills/Bel Air almost 15 years ago I purchased a fine jewelry store off of Rodeo Drive and relocated the operation to an 8,000 sf private showroom in Bel Air.  In the build out, I included a cigar room and a wine room, home to thousands of labels and vintages.

A few years later we relocated to a much larger facility, an 11,000 sf private estate on half an acre with much better parking and security.  The two story gallery with hand carved stone fireplaces and crystal chandeliers illuminate the hand painted inlay tile ceiling while outside 20 foot tall hedges dripped with pink and violet bougainvillea ensure privacy from the outside world.

My husband grew up picking shade grown tobacco leaves in Connecticut for premium cigars during the summers. I am curious to know if your specially blended cigars use wraps from the states or elsewhere?

When I first started in the business, my goal was to create a cigar that one could recognize from across the room as significant and distinct.  In the way that Christian Louboutin heels are noticeable from a distance.  We experimented for years with multiple natural options to create a white cigar blending leaf tobacco from all over the globe.   Many people believed that Cuba grown tobacco was the finest in the world.  Then after the embargo it was very trendy to create cigar blends with Cuban “seed” tobacco which was romantically smuggled from Cuba but grown in other regions most often the Dominican Republic.

Tobacco is very much the same as wine, as a culmination of sun, earth, and rain create subtle influences on the flavor and experience.  Our new cigar, launching next year, the Meister Brau, has been developed to the same exacting standards it is replacing the Goldwin.  A 20 year aged Dominican Olor tobacco, two golden Connecticut shade leaves, Connecticut shade binder and draped in an elegant Connecticut shade wrapper.

Cigar bars have been dwindling in numbers yet the ones that remain have a robust following. I know there is only one cigar bar left in Boston proper. Stanza Dei Sigari in Boston’s Italian section, the North End, seems packed most nights. What is the trend in the country, fewer establishments, but a more sophisticated and enthusiastic clientele?

The reason I relish the cigar industry so much is it is a micro-market, with approximately 15 million enthusiasts spending around $4 billion each year. In similar fashion to the fine jewelry and furniture industries it is dominated by independent brands creating inspired advancements and client experiences.

Recent developments have been challenging for players both large and small.  Severe regulation and the overall public rejection of tobacco consumption in general has stunted the entire cigar population of the Unites States.  This month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has thrown down the gauntlet upon the cigar industry and will be enforcing strict new requirements for luxury cigars to enter the market.   I find it fascinating that in today’s culture it is frowned upon to show cigar smoking (which is legal) in film and television, yet encouraged to show the use of cannabis (which is illegal in most states).

The Beverly Hills Cigar Club is very much in support of the public’s opinion on smoking.  We believe that tobacco products should be enjoyed in a sanctioned and licensed atmosphere with like-minded aficionados.  We have secured the rights to own and operate cigar clubs in the top 70 markets of North America.  In addition we have long term plans for private lounges around the globe under our Carlos Murphy brand.

Unlike many of the local smoke shops across America, The Beverly Hills Cigar Club is more than just cigars.  It is a tastemaker for wine & spirits, food, fashion and entertainment.

Regarding Grand Metropolitan Group’s holding of the Bonwit Teller brand, are there plans to bring back the retail stores or remain an online presence solely? If affirmative, where and when will the first location open?

It took us many years to prepare for Bonwit Teller & Co., The Specialty Shop of Originations.   We had to assemble our portfolio of 125 brands with leadership positions in 7 industries to be properly positioned.  My vision for the 21st Century Bonwits embraces the new economy and social media platforms built high upon the legacy of an iconic brand.   I have long admired retail powerhouses like London’s Harrods and Selfridges, Moscow’s GUM and Paris’ Hediard.  Grand Metropolitan is planning on creating the American version of these.

We have been in conversation with Mr. Florian Martigny and his Hong Kong based Luxify.  A partnership with Bonwit Teller would create a $30 billion offering for American and European customers with tens of thousands of aspirational items that includes a selection of Hermes Birkins and Lindys, a rare bottle of 1981 Chateau LaFite Rothschild,  a vintage 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB, even a Gulfstream G650 that sleeps 5 and has 2 bathrooms .  We wish to provide luxury goods unavailable at our competitors’ locations.  Grand Metropolitan is reorganizing our portfolio brands under the Bonwits moniker.   This will give the company access to Finlay Fine Jewelers’ 30 jewelry brands, Heilig-Meyers’ 30 home furnishing brands, and another 50 other luxury brand offerings like our Pushkin Caviar and LOUIXS cigars.  In addition, we have plans for branded products under the Bonwits nameplate such as fine linens, stationery, confections & sweets, and floral.

Vin Lee owner and founder of Grand Metropolitan

Baubles come in many shapes, sizes and colors. What’s hot in jewelry design these days?

Vin Lee Jewelers, my eponymous label created the tennis earring (also known as the ear climber) presented at Cannes Film Festival and part of a suite worn by the daughter of French President Francois Mitterand on the red carpet.  This inline diamond earring created to trail the silhouette of the ear has been seen on celebrities, royalty, rock stars and emulated by designers all over the world.  At a recent screening of Hunger Games in Paris, Jennifer Lawrence was seen wearing one.  This design has also started showing up on film and television with recent cameos on STARZ  hit series’ Power and Survivor’s Remorse.

In our mainstream operations, people have embraced the precious and semi-precious gemstones as acceptable intimate alternatives to diamonds.  We maintain an inventory of about 100,000 cts.  In many cases, diamonds are considered as accent stones flanking incredible fantasy cut semi-precious stones caste in brilliant precious metals.  This melee is becoming higher and higher in quality than often the center stones itself.

They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, what say you?

Diamonds have always been pretty good friends to me too.  One of the hottest trends today in the fine jewelry market is colored diamonds.  I was just privately offered a 4 carat red diamond by a Vancouver broker representing the sellers.  The owner is looking for a $50 million sale price.  By comparison, the “Oppenheimer Blue”, was sold by Christie’s Auction House for $57.6 million.  The stone was an impeccable 14.6 carat.    Competitor Sotheby’s sold the 12 carat “Blue Moon Diamond,” in November for a record breaking $48.5 million.  Sotheby’s also includes the $31.6 million “Unique Pink,” a 15.4 carat fancy vivid pink stone among its title setting hammer strikes.  The rising tide raises all ships.

The diamond market is much like the fine art market in that record setting transactions create trends among the consumer markets.  You will find more and more brides blushing with vibrantly colored diamonds sliding on their fingers on that special day.

Now for a bit about you…

Besides enjoying a good stogie, what are your hobbies?

Most of my life my main passion was exotic cars.  I loved showing as well as track racing and was constantly negotiating with dealers around the country.  But since the economic downturn of 2008, my attention has shifted to collecting fine art.  When precious metals commodity markets shot up in stark contrast to a torpedoed art market, we were able to step in from an advantageous position.  Beverly Hills based Gallery Rodeo is really my private passion.   It allows me to pull together my education in a social setting with fine wine and food.

When you go on vacation, do you prefer action or low-key?

To be honest other than a few long weekends, I have not been on a vacation in 18 years.  But with homes in CA and FL for almost 15 years, where does one go?

Certainly, the older I get the quieter I prefer it.   I bow out of the majority of events we participate in for this very reason.  In places like Los Angeles, it is very hard to go anywhere without being suffocated by the crowds and traffic.  So when I can escape to an abandoned beach or bougainvillea bluff overlooking the sunset with a basket picnic, I embrace it.

What are your favorite hotels and resorts? What is most important to you when choosing where to stay?

Although I haven’t had a real vacation in almost two decades I have travelled extensively throughout North America and Europe.  I have registered over 500 flights since the millennium.  Much of my travel has involved renting private residences for extended stay.  This occurred prior to the advent of AirBNB.  Transportation is more important to me than lodging and amenity.  But I do admit to secretly being a foodie.

The closest thing I have had to a vacation in recent years was taking a jet to Napa Valley for a tour of several wineries and private art auction.  I stayed in a suite at the Villagio Inn & Spa armed with a fistful of 1992 Opus X and two bottles of 2007 Cristal from the V Wine Cellar.  A brand new Audi R8 convertible glistened in the parking lot as a parade of hot air balloons floated by.   The night ended with a quiet stroll back to the Villagio after wagyu, foie gras and “oysters & pearls” at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.

When I was at the Kremlin after G20, I enjoyed my visit to the Hotel Metropol Moscow.  The property was a short stroll through a large parking lot of exotic cars to Gum Department store on Red Square.  In Italy for Milan Fashion Week and a Ferrari California, the Hotel Principe di Savoia, part of the Dorchester Collection.  The Sultan of Brunei owns the Dochester Group, and I am loyal to their exceptional standards of style and customer service.

I have had some of my fondest memories at The Resort at Pelican Hill overlooking its epic Coliseum Pool, the Huntley Hotel and its penthouse lounge with longing romantic views down Santa Monica, and St. Regis Monarch Beach with it’s chauffeured Bentley Continental Flying Spur.  Beautiful surroundings and delicious food are a wonderful enjoyment, but the company you share it with is much more important.

Takeout from Fatburger roadside or Domino’s Pizza in bed was far better than any business meal I had at Café Pushkin in Moscow.

Are you a wine guy or more into spirits?

Actually that is a very interesting question.  I have a modest collection of rare and vintage cognacs including the collector set of Courvoisier that Russian Art Deco artist Erte’ (Romain de Tirtoff) created with Baccarat. These eight works of art contain a blend of rare Grande Champagne cognacs, some from the 19th century.  I tend to have a bottle of Dewars 18 or Laphroaig on hand to cap off the night.

While I do not often enjoy a glass of wine, I have had an extensive inventory over the years.  Grand Metropolitan does a great deal of entertaining especially through the Beverly Hills Cigar Club, so the bottles tend to stack up.  A favorite personal escape from my youth is the Olde World Wine Cellar at the Hotel Frankfort in Northern Michigan.  It was here that I was first introduced to Spatlese Riesling and Gewürztraminer along with walks on Lake Michigan near the lighthouse.  This modest awakening also brought Pouilly-fuisse and Vouvray to my palate.  While each season was capped off with DP-PB&J (Dom Perignon and Peanut Butter & Jelly on a French baguette) from the Arboretum in Harbor Springs.

Now in my 40s, I became a big fan of the ’61 Chateau Petrus, LaTour and the LaFite Rothschild.  But I am more of a collector than a consumer.  I recently gave my Dad a bottle of the famed Chardonnay from a pilgrimage to Chateau Montelena for the holidays.   Wine just like cigars has a way of bringing people together and can define a moment for the rest of your life.

Describe the perfect evening out with friends. Where would you go, what would you eat and drink and which cigar would you smoke?

Hmmm, this opens up all kinds of possibilities.  I did a six-week tour of the Baltic States after the G20 in Moscow.  I found myself in Old Town, Riga, Latvia one crisp sunny evening.  The concierge had boasted about this boutique restaurant called the 3 Pavaru but doubted I would be able to get a table there.  A nice casual stroll through the cobblestone walkways that wound their labyrinth around the many couture shops eventually led to this unassuming alley where umbrella tables had somehow mushroomed up.  Each was adorned with glass fishbowls floating fresh cut flowers.

In my scotch-taped Latvian I convinced the waitress to introduce me to one of the eponymous three “chefs” who quickly found me a table in the back of this not-as-of-yet-open-for-dinner restorans.  The next two hours were a culinary orgy of foie gras, duck confit, caviars, pate’, and chanterelles.  The artist serving the food would literally paint the sauces directly onto the white parchment covered table alongside the accompanying basket of fresh breads.   The rest of the delicacies were offered on marble slabs.

Leaving 3 Pavaru was like saying good bye to old friends.  The whole staff really loved their work.  I walked back through those narrow streets stopping at Tabakas Nam for a box of Cohiba Siglo IV to cap the night.  The only thing missing was her.  That would have made it the perfect evening.


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