In a market where even the definition of luxury is questioned, Vin Lee, CEO of Grand Metropolitan, sets the record straight.
Cigars. Cars. Wine. Art. Products don’t define Vin Lee, but they are a good starting point to understand the man who many say has been redefining luxury for the past three decades.
These are his passions, discovered and built upon over a lifetime of exposure to some of the finest things life has to offer.
“Perhaps this is why I have such passion for the industry,” Lee said in an exclusive chat with BOSS Magazine.
His first ride in a private helicopter was at 12 years old. In his 20s, the Agusta 109C was Lee’s favorite occasional form of transport. He’s raced vintage sports cars and tasted some of the finest cuisine from around the world. Lee has a small stable of exotic cars, and a collection of art that is now part of Gallery Rodeo. His passion for cigars and cognac is personified in the iconic Beverly Hills Cigar Club, which he founded.
Lee, unsurprisingly, is an entrepreneur. His first business 30 years ago was also his first investment in luxury: a jewelry company.
“My original goal was to create an American luxury goods conglomerate with emphasis on jewelry, home furnishings, fashion, and tobacco and spirits,” he said.
Today that goal has been realized and his dream continues to grow. Grand Metropolitan, his personal holding company, has in excess of 130 brands in its luxury portfolio—some that reach back as far as two centuries and have accumulated over $250 billion in revenue collectively in that time. Seven of these nameplates are billion-dollar brands with a dozen or so in the hundreds of millions.
As the privately-held organization, Grand Metropolitan may not be as familiar as some of its contemporaries such as Berkshire Hathaway, LVMH, Kering, or Richemont. But that doesn’t mean it packs any less of a punch.
Since the turn of the century, Grand Metropolitan has acquired brands throughout North America representing over 5,000 locations, more than $5 billion in annual revenue, and generations of loyal customers in the tens of millions.
In early 2017, Finlay Enterprises and Heilig-Meyers—both tentpole brands under Grand Met—merged into Beverly Hills’ Hadid. Lee’s tobacco interests, IMASCO Ltd.—owners of retail and wholesale cigar operations as well as the renowned Beverly Hills Cigar Club—have brought the holding company across red carpets and velvet ropes into VIP events around the planet. Pushkin Caviar furthered those relationships and established staying power.
We don’t have the space to detail every one of Grand Metropolitan’s impressive acquisitions or smart business moves. But we do want to address the gilded elephant in the marble-furnished room: what luxury means to you and me in our modern world.
The Changing Face of Luxury
According to Lee, the credit card was the turning point from the more traditional understanding of luxury to the overdone and accessible model of luxury that became almost commonplace in the U.S. in the 1980s.
“This financial vehicle was unleashed in the 1960s. In just one generation of consumers, the credit card slid most luxury goods within the grasp of social climbers, thus creating an epic plague of instant gratification around the world,” he said.
Before the tiny slip of plastic took over people’s wallets, luxury represented something more mysterious, elegant, and unreachable. The era of the consumer credit card transformed that.
Industry-leading luxury conglomerates like LVMH, Richemont, and Kering established a new way for businesses to come together and offer luxury goods during the 1980s by capitalizing on the growing consumer base willing to afford—or pay a high interest rate on—items that were once out of reach.
”My generation was brought up under this plastic fantasy where one could purchase a bottle of Louis XIII cognac, a Cartier Tank timepiece, or a pair of Christian Louboutin patent leather pumps with the swipe of a card,” Lee reminisced.
“You didn’t have to be in the top one percent of the population to enjoy the things you thought they were buying. Luxury was once defined more by materialism. Chauffeured Rolls Royces escorting shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive, with drivers filling the trunk with all manner of Jimmy Choo, Cartier, and Tiffany while passengers sip champagne and Grey Poupon.”
The Delusion of Luxury
Lee also argued that today, the term ‘luxury’ is often watered down, sometimes just indicating a marginally superior product with a significant premium in price.
“Marketers love to slap ‘luxury’ on their products or services with the hopes it somehow elevates them above their competition,” he stated.
Even worse, he explained, was that many companies take normal items and dip them in precious metals and bedazzle them in exotic gemstones, which may add zeros to the price tags, but not value.
Perception of Luxury
On top of the cheapening of luxury items by overzealous marketers, other influencing factors are making people question the relevance and importance of a luxury market in these confusing political and economic times.
“It isn’t a particularly good economic time in our country’s history to be too demonstrative with one’s spending,” Lee admitted. ”Certainly this year we have had more than our share of threats and tragedies around the world.
“I have seen a great deal of negative feedback on social media as it concerns very pricey luxury goods. Comments about ‘wasting money’ or ‘Do you know how many people you could feed for that kind of money?’”
Despite these increasingly loud viewpoints, the luxury market is on pace to grow substantially. Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2022, the personal and experiential luxury market will be worth $1.3 trillion. That’s a 34 percent increase from 2015.
There’s a facet to the luxury market, too, that consumers tend to forget: the human side.
From Lee’s standpoint, every Ferrari in the driveway of a multimillion dollar home employs a number of talented individuals. That house also buoyed the local construction industry.
“The money spent on such lavish lifestyles is being put back into the world, not sitting in a vault with Scrooge McDuck swimming through it.”
The Luxury of Time
To experience luxury in our modern world, Lee believes experiential substance and a personal connection with the goods and services you allow to enter your life create a sense of purpose over simple conspicuous consumption.
If you haven’t already noticed, luxury is a difficult term to assign a definition. Varying cultures around the world see luxury through hundreds of different lenses, changing the meaning depending on which part of the world you’re in.
“I would like to offer that ‘luxury’ is also defined by a myriad of factors around the world,” Lee said. ”Many people, in fact most people, wouldn’t consider a Prada bag, Gucci boots, or a Lamborghini as luxury but simply a waste of money or something beyond the world of possibilities.”
A wealthy millennial man in India, for example, would define luxury far differently than say, a young professional woman in NYC.
And Lee would define it differently for himself.
“For myself personally, luxury is the ability to get a good night’s sleep. Privacy and security are also vital. The luxury of walking the beach during the day and spending time with friends and family [also ranks high],” he shared.
The luxury of time is something he has in common with the most studied generation in history: millennials.
Time is the number one luxury item on the list for a majority in this scrutinized generation. To them, every second counts in today’s fast-paced career-driven society, so sharing wonderful experiences with people they care about is top priority.
Tech as Luxury?
Most companies the size of Grand Metropolitan have complex marketing strategies geared specifically towards millennials. However, Lee shared that Grand Met doesn’t break down its target markets based on age or generation. To Lee, it doesn’t matter your background or your age, if your definition—and wallet—line up with Grand Met’s understanding of luxury, you’re in.
“The consumers with the least amount of discretionary income and certainly varied interests coupled with waywardness and self-discovery are difficult to convince to making multiple high end purchases. But what I have learned about millennials is that it is a mistake to put them in a category or exclude them from one.”
Lee is more than aware that technology drives the decision making power of this generation, and that most of Grand Metropolitan’s luxury portfolio is built upon commodity rather than technology. Although this includes precious metals and stones, tobacco leaf, wood and fabric furniture craftsmanship that can be enhanced by tech advancements, the base product really relies upon old-world artisan skill and artistry.
The company’s strategy doesn’t eschew technological innovation in the buying and selling model, however.
“With the new economy, many of the largest companies in our society are based on technology with the capabilities of exponential growth through various mobile and online platforms. We have spent almost two decades building into that same model.
“As proof of the success of Amazon, LVMH’s 24 Sèvres, and Richemont’s Net-A-Porter, Grand Met has been compiling brands to be available online exclusively on our Lichtenstein’s Department Store platform. In addition, like France’s Hediard, London’s Harrods, and Russia’s Gum, we will be offering Lichtenstein’s branded merchandise only available directly from us.”
A Continuing Legacy of Luxury
Grand Metropolitan has accomplished a lot since Lee founded the luxury portfolio. But he believes that the brand is still a long way from where he wants to see the company develop.
“I believe in the power of the brand name,” he stated, “especially those brands that have served us well throughout our whole lives. I cannot imagine how a true luxury product can be created without history or legacy to serve us over time.
“My greatest task is creating the architecture of the organization meant to illuminate each brand in the best possible light.
“Consumers are more likely to relate to our portfolio brands that have been in their homes and communities for many decades. Hadid, for instance, has a much more recognizable presence in the retail markets which is now the parent of Heilig-Meyers Furniture and Finlay Fine Jewelers. Each of these companies owns and operates 20-30 retail brands that have been instrumental either nationally or regionally across North America to tens of millions of customers over several generations. Reinforcing this history and the goodwill created over many lifetimes within their communities is paramount.”
For Lee, true luxury is only attainable by the minority, and aspirational for the majority.
“It takes 13 hours to build a Toyota, but six months to create a Rolls Royce. Often it can take two to three years on a waiting list to take possession of one. That is aspirational.”
Discovering the luxury of time, however, is attainable: and that’s where most of us will find true value. But if you’re part of the one percent, look no further than Grand Metropolitan for luxury.