Burlington based entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Lee-Chin has realized remarkable professional and personal success; however, it is his business philosophy and an intrinsic value-system that sets him apart from his peers.
As President and Chairman of Portland Holdings, a privately held investment company that manages public and private equity and has an ownership interest in a collection of diversified businesses operating in sectors that include financial services, insurance, media, tourism, agriculture, real estate development and biotechnology, Lee-Chin is a leader with a sense of purpose. In fact, Portland Holdings’ philanthropic mantra, “prosperitas cum caritate”, or prosperity in care, is boldly emblazoned in its crest.
“The ‘cum caritate’ is what really is a lot more edifying and rewarding. But you need the prosperity to do that. They go hand in hand,” says Lee-Chin. “Those who can, should. I can; that’s the reason I do.”
Lee-Chin’s storied career began humbly. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, in 1951, Lee-Chin is the son of Black and Chinese-Jamaican parents. His mother sold Avon and worked as a bookkeeper, while his stepfather worked as a clerk in a grocery store. As a teenager, he worked as a landscaper before landing a job cleaning the engine room on the Jamaica Queen cruise ship. In 1970, he came to Canada to study civil engineering at McMaster University, where he graduated in 1974. When finding a job in the engineering field proved difficult, he began selling mutual funds door-to-door.
“As an immigrant, I had no fall back. I was on my own. If you know you’re on your own, you always put your foot on the accelerator. My foot is still on the accelerator,” says Lee-Chin, thinking back to the job that required him to meet with families at their kitchen tables. “I’d ask myself, what is the highest value-add I can give this family? The answer was always a resounding, make them wealthy.”
Michael concluded early in his career “to be successful at any endeavor, one must identify a role model, get their recipe, follow it and never change it. The same holds true for wealth creation. If one wants to create wealth, we must emulate the investor role models like the world’s wealthiest and most successful investors and institutions.”
At the time, Lee-Chin did not know anyone personally who was wealthy, so he observed from afar, using a methodical approach. “I observed and studied wealthy people,” he says of his tactics, which included creating a hypothesis from his observation, testing the hypothesis, codifying it, and hardwiring it. “Simply put, emulate the people who have wealth,” he says.
Michael determined that the investor role models apply a framework for wealth creation. “Even wealthy people don’t analyze how they became wealthy,” says Lee-Chin with a laugh, suggesting he’s cracked the code. “If you can’t define what you’re doing, if you’re not conscious, it’s arbitrary,” he says. “Everything I do has to meet five criteria.”
Lee-Chin encourages investors to think of one wealthy person they know, and undoubtedly, this person will meet his five criteria. They’ll own a few high-quality businesses (not many); They’ll deeply understand those businesses; Their businesses will be in long-term growth industries; They’ll use other people’s money to invest in these businesses; And they’ll have a long-term attitude, meaning they plan to hold on to their company, or companies, for a long time, possibly intergenerationally.
“If you practice consistency, the only outcome is wealth,” says Lee-Chin of his criteria. “What I did was commit myself to live it, breathe it, try to understand it, and don’t vary from it.”
At 27, he concluded that mutual funds as we know them are actually managed in a way that is contrary to how wealth is created. “Your mutual funds should have some resemblance to the principles of wealth creation,” he says. “Consumers are buying something that has no resemblance.”
Shortly after, Lee-Chin borrowed $500,000 from the Continental Bank of Canada to buy Mackenzie Financial Corporation stocks. In 1987, he founded Portland Holdings and used the profits from the sale of the shares to acquire AIC Limited, a small Ontario-based investment firm. Over time, he grew the firm’s assets from $800,000 in holdings to more than $15 billion at business peak.
“I said, I’m going to start a fund company that is consistent with the wealth creation framework used by the wealthy” says Lee-Chin. “AIC Limited grew to be the largest privately-owned asset management business in Canada.” He went on to sell AIC Limited in 2009.
It was Lee-Chin’s private investments that sheltered him from the volatility of the public markets during the global financial crisis of 2008. Realizing that the typical investor had a portfolio of only public securities, he determined that all investors should have access to similar investment opportunities as the wealthy. The experience inspired the start of a new investment dealer, Mandeville Private Client Inc. in 2012 with the tagline “The Wealthy Invest Differently.”
Michael continues, “Making Clients Wealthy is Mandeville’s mission and we are committed to doing just that by democratizing access to quality private and alternative investment opportunities typically reserved for the uber wealthy.”
There have been many personal milestones along the way, among them Doctor of Laws degree’s from a number of distinguished universities in Canada and abroad. In 2008, Lee-Chin was awarded the Order of Jamaica, one of the country’s highest national honours, for his contributions in business and philanthropy. From 2011-2016, he served as Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University. In recognition of his exceptional achievements and lasting legacy in the province and in Canada and beyond, Michael was appointed to the Order of Ontario, in 2017.
Long known for his generosity, Lee-Chin and his family have made a number of sizable donations to Canadian institutions, including $5 million to McMaster University to establish the Michael Lee-Chin & Family Institute for Strategic Business Studies at the DeGroote School of Business. In 2003, his extraordinary pledge of $30 million to the Royal Ontario Museum’s Renaissance ROM Campaign launched the transformation of the museum and is memorialized through the naming of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a dramatic structure dominating the corner of one of the busiest intersections in downtown Toronto. In 2004, Lee-Chin pledged $10 million to the University of Toronto to establish the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Rotman School of Management. His contributions to healthcare have included the creation of the Michael Lee-Chin and Family Short Stay Unit at the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation, the construction of The Hyacinth Chen School of Nursing at Northern Caribbean University, and The Michael Lee-Chin & Family Patient Tower, a seven story state-of-art redevelopment project at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ontario.
In 2002, Lee-Chin made his largest investment when he acquired the National Commercial Bank Jamaica Limited (NCB) and its subsidiaries. NCB Financial Group is now the largest bank in Jamaica with 37 locations and over 5,000 employees in 22 countries. He has also guided Portland Holdings through a number of acquisitions in the Caribbean, including the Trident Hotel, Trident Castle, Reggae Beach, and Blue Lagoon, all located in Jamaica.
“In 2002, on the 27th of March, I was in Kingston, Jamaica, buying the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica. I thought to myself, how did I get here? The son of a clerk in a supermarket,” recalls Lee-Chin. “It’s possible because I was born in an era where I could own a pencil, a pen, a pair of shoes. 250 years prior I would have been owned. I didn’t choose my era. I was blessed.”
Lee-Chin credits his mother and her strong values for his success. “No person is an island unto himself. We all are standing on the shoulders of many people,” he says.
Creativity and perseverance are free and they are essential elements to being successful. They come from being purpose driven.
Photography by George Pimentel