Lee-Chin: A gift of the possible
Date: Sunday, June 03 @ 14:02:27 MST
Nervous he had lent his name to a "white elephant" design of superstar architect Daniel Libeskind, Michael Lee-Chin would travel from his 11-hectare Flamborough estate every fortnight to watch engineers and steelworkers try to make sense of the ground-breaking innovation at Bloor St. and Avenue Rd.
But as the exquisitely angular creation emerged from the façade of the ROM, pride replaced anxiety.
Sitting in the corner office of his National Commercial Bank headquarters in New Kingston, Jamaica, nearly two years ago, Lee-Chin didn't let on he had doubts about the architectural wonder that was feted on Saturday June 2 in a free concert.
Governor-General Michaëlle Jean dedicated the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, and Torontonians rushed in for a free viewing of the bare galleries as architectural art.
"You know what you should do," the Jamaican-born bouncer turned billionaire said two years ago. "I do this every other weekend. On a Saturday or Sunday, I take my family down and I just stand there on the sidewalk and look at it ..." He paused, collected himself. "And I cry."
Why so emotional?
"It's an improbable event," he said, sipping coconut water in the boardroom of Jamaica's second-largest bank, one he bought for a bargain-basement $220 millIion.
"I've come from far" down the economic ladder. "I go down there every two weeks to inspire myself and also to keep myself grounded."
Two years later, Lee-Chin can't get enough of the Crystal. He tells everyone within shouting distance to see it lit up at night.
"It's the most magnificent sight I've ever seen," he gushed at a media briefing Thursday, before pausing and adding, "here in Toronto."
Lee-Chin, with a fortune currently pegged at $1.6 billion, only this week admitted to having doubts about the Libeskind design.
"I was nervous about having my name on a white elephant. But the more it unfolded, I became more comfortable," he told reporters. "Initially I was nervous because it is bold, it's out there, not the tepid extension of the ROM. It's a quantum leap into the 21st century," he said, throwing on his salesman cape.
Ask a man who arrived from Jamaica in 1970 without the funds to finish his engineering degree at McMaster University what the $30 million ROM project means to him, and you unleash a torrent of emotion – as well as a discourse on hope, poverty and the bittersweet Jamaican-Canadian connection.
Lee-Chin, 56, seems acutely aware of his roots.
He's Jamaican, he's black, he's Chinese, he's Canadian – probably in that order – and he embraces them all.
He's invested hundreds of millions in his native land, promises to keep his bank's profits in the country, donates 1 per cent of its credit-card purchases to scholarships and school supplies, and is treated as a hero on his frequent visits.
He finds motivation in the story of his African ancestors, and his improbable existence considering the death rate of slaves on the way to Jamaica and on its plantations. The idea that he has thrived and earned a fortune is overwhelming at times.
"I can't let them down," he says.
His wealth was created in Canada, working the mutual fund trade outside the Bay Street establishment.
Where others might downplay their cultural and ethnic "otherness," he sees it as a catalyst. Of all the institutions seeking philanthropy – Lee-Chin has also given millions to the University of Toronto and McMaster – it is the ROM that has tapped into the search for a legacy that drives him now.
In Jamaica, Lee-Chin is a frequent visitor to Emancipation Park, an idyllic public space with stately palms, gorgeous bougainvillea, a track and a public stage that puts Nathan Phillips Square to shame.
Jamaica's elite go there to exercise under the gaze of the sculpture Redemption Song: a naked bronzed African couple, unchained.
The park's civility is almost enough to make one forget Kingston has one of the world's highest murder rates, with drug lords and gunmen controlling central ghettos. Lee-Chin goes there without feeling a need for security.
What he fears more than walking in Jamaica is a shooting in Toronto. "Every time it happens, all of us we cringe. Every time it happens, we say, I hope it's not a Jamaican. It's embarrassing."
We talk about the Rude Boys phenomenon that took over Jamaica in the 1970s, the law-and-order gun courts, the tough sentencing – and still a descent into lawlessness. The conclusion is that Toronto must nip its problem in the bud or the murder rate will grow to mirror Jamaica's: a slaying every six minutes.
Lee-Chin takes lessons from the business world to craft a solution to the poverty and despair he says lead to crime: "If people perceive themselves as having very little opportunities to be fulfilled, then it cheapens their life and outlook. The solution is to reverse it; make sure they know opportunities abound."
Is it that simple? Just show up and brighten the outlook?
"Which of us, given the choice, would opt to be a gangster?" Few, he says. "Where in that continuum from baby to gangster did we go wrong? Is it lack of parenting, lack of values, lack of role models, lack of opportunities, is it how we see ourselves?"
He's put his money where his mouth is. He says he's dedicated his bank to a cause that "transcends making money. The mantra of the National Commercial Bank is building a better Jamaica. If this bank is going to be everlastingly successful, it has to take on the ailments of this society."
He defines those ills as high crime and violence, a high interest rate, weak currency, not enough wealth for a medical and social safety net. If his bank helps create wealth for Jamaica, interest rates will fall, the dollar will strengthen, there will be money for schools and healthcare, crime and violence will drop. Lee-Chin tackles the subject in speech after speech to island audiences.
"I wouldn't be where I am, if not for Jamaica. My formative years were here. I wouldn't have the confidence that I have if I wasn't born here, because growing up here I knew I could become anybody I wanted to become. There was no ceiling on top of me."
When he ran out of money at McMaster (he worked as a bouncer then), Jamaica gave him a scholarship.
"I wouldn't have become an engineer, I wouldn't have done what I did, had a hand not been held out to me. I have to remember who helped me when I needed help. The people of Jamaica helped me," he says. "I can't forget that. I would be ungrateful if I forgot."
It's the same reasoning that drives his philanthropy in Canada.
"I came to this country and developed a business that I probably couldn't have done anywhere else. That's the reason why I am the way I am. I did what I did at the ROM because I wanted to be an inspiration to every single immigrant, to every single person, every Canadian, that whatever you put your mind to achieving, you can achieve it in this country.
"When you walk into the ROM, and you see the name, you say, `Who is this man? His name sounds like an immigrant person. Holy shoot, he's one of us.'"
Some in Toronto's various black communities wonder if his generosity would not be better dispensed in neighbourhoods wracked by poverty and crime.
"I never made that quantitative assessment," he counters. Put a Jamaican name on the ROM and barriers are broken, his countrymen's reputation "burnished," he says.
"What is the price tag on that? If you can inspire young people to leap over Mount Everest, irrespective of where they are from, what's the price tag? Is it better to spend $30 million on a specific project (say in Jane-Finch or Rexdale) or is it better to inspire people, to give them confidence?"
Besides, two years ago, no one had asked him to finance community building projects. Today, nearly $800 million poorer thanks to the falling value of his flagship company AIC, has he had such requests?
"Yes," he says, not elaborating.
For today, the ROM is the star, the object of debate and dedication, the catalyst for the celebration kicking off Luminato.
The Toronto Star
City Hall columnist