The Face Of American Luxury
We speak with Vin Lee, CEO Of US-based luxury goods giant Grand Metropolitan, which owns, among Other organizations, the Beverly Hills Cigar club. An expert on everything luxury, from Cars and watches to smokes and spirits, Lee explains his views on the Middle East luxury market, as well as his recommendations On great Cigars.
The story goes that, when you went to buy your first luxury watch, you ended up buying the jeweller, sowing the seeds for your luxury empire today. But did you actually get the watch? And what was it?
I am certainly flattered that you would consider Grand Metropolitan an empire. When I was 22, on the eve of closing a $50 million deal, I wanted to mark the moment with a fine timepiece. My broker referred me to DuQuets, a local fine jeweler that I had never heard of before. I walked out many hours later having made my first investment in the world of luxury— albeit very modest by today’s standards.
It took me three years to get my watch, an 18-karat Gold Rolex Day Date President with a diamond dial. I just couldn’t justify taking product off the shelves. It was more valuable to me in inventory.
Presumably you have a hefty collection of fine timepieces now—which are your favourite?
You don’t need to drive the Ferrari when you own the dealership. You don’t need to wear the watch when you own the jewellery stores. You don’t need to be a member when you are the owner of the club.
At one time I did have a personal collection of 23 fine timepieces. Today, I only have a few pieces that mean a great deal to me.
My father and I have matching stainless steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejusts with blue dials. He wears his to the club and presumably board meetings, but always to lunch with me. I also have a Rolex Daytona Cosmograph Two-Tone made famous by Paul Newman selected from my first jewellery store in the early 1990s.
There’s a Breitling Bentley Motors Chronograph, which I chose when I closed the Finlay Enterprises transaction. And the Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref. 5002P is perhaps the most significant watch I have ever owned.
I was hoping to trade it for the two-tone 2008 Bugatti Veyron on James Edition. Finally, I have an 18-karat Yellow Patek Philippe 3979 Minute Repeater 150th Anniversary Model. I wear this if I have important meetings where subtlety is required.
You’ve clearly made a name for yourself in the United States luxury world. Have you had much experience with that world in the Middle East?
My first introduction to the business world in the Middle East was in 2004 with Tarneeb [the card game]. One of my close friends was developing IT for the online version of Tarneeb and approached us about handling the PR and a possible investment from Grand Metropolitan. And in 2015, after three years of correspondence, we closed a small intellectual property transaction with Qatar.
Over the last few years, we have taken counsel with luxury consultant Von Striker of Striker Yachts, an advisor to many royal families across the Middle East since the turn of the century.
Striker Yachts and Donald Starkey, with his 30 design awards and based in Dubai, has designed some of the world’s most prestigious super luxury yachts such as Roman Abramovich’s Luna, Prince Turki bin Mohamed bin Fahd Al Saud’s Nourah of Riyad, and Sergio Mantegazza’s M/Y Lady Marina.
What’s unique about the US market compared to, say, the Middle East?
Actually I believe that the Middle East has a lot of similarities to both the New York and Beverly Hills luxury markets. These locations have a significant cultural presence that spotlights high-profile lifestyles and influences from thousands of companies from all over the globe.
Much in the way that European luxury capitals such as Paris, Milan, and London are founding locations and headquarters of many leading luxury badges, the American marketplace is rich with aspirational clients, both national and international, who often visit for the shopping experience.
Are you a motoring man? Which cars do you like as daily runabouts, and which do you prefer to drive on track?
I grew up in the Motor City, and am very much a motoring man. In fact, Grand Metropolitan will be participating in the Atlanta Concours d’Elegance newly minted this year at Chateau Elan. I used to track race vintage sports cars before my time became so consumed by Grand Metropolitan.
My Top three on the track are Porsche 930 turbo slantnose, Ferrari Testarossa 512 TM, and Ferrari F40 LM. As for touring around town, the Ferrai 612 Scaglietti and Ferrari 458 Italia Speciale have both enjoyed prominent spots in my personal garage.
I was fortunate enough to be at Fiorano Circuit when they were testing the LaFerrari prototype. The same year I had a private tour of the Lamborghini facilities at Sant’Agata Bolognese by founder grandson Fabio Lamborghini with a bottle of Sangue di Miura and some Cohiba Behike.
It was a pivotal moment in my career as I walked around the Aventador LP 700-4 Roadster, realising I was in such fine, world-class company.
For many years I have preferred to drive a subtle SUV around town and to meetings. In Bel Air, my Range Rover was outfitted with bulletproof armour and a refrigerated armrest. I drive an understated SUV in South Florida as well.
Of course, one of your major interests is cigars, given Grand Metropolitan includes the Beverly Hills Cigar Club. Are you a cigar connoisseur yourself, or do you view it simply as a business interest?
I admit I have a great fondness for cigars, both as a lifestyle and as a business. As with anything, moderation and manners are important. So it is important for me to only enjoy cigars in private or with aficionados. I do not like imposing on other people.
For the last 15 years I have had cigar rooms in my residences stocked with hundreds of boxes from my collection and inventory. Before I founded Grand Metropolitan, even before I bought my first jewelry company, I took a season off to play golf.
The links are the ideal environment for really savouring a cigar. Ask Michael Jordan. In the early part of my career I would office out of a local pool hall on afternoons, when you could legally enjoy a cigar and billiards. And I never sit down at the tables without a cigar between my knuckles.
I find it to be a very soothing and elegant experience. The art of cigar smoking is meant to be relaxing and leisurely, slowly appreciating the efforts of the sun, the Earth, the farmer, and the roller. Just like fine wine, a cigar is the result of time, patience, and understanding of nature.
Which are your favourite cigars, and why?
I actually enjoy this question a few times a week from people all over the world. In 2003, after an unsuccessful two-year battle to acquire Samuels Jewelers Inc., the eighth-largest U.S. retail jewelry chain with 113 stores in 19 states, I wanted to get into the cigar business.
I worked with a local tobacconist in South Florida to create a private blend for my own humidor—the way that Fidel Castro had privately commissioned Cohibas. I wanted a cigar of distinction that was substantial enough to enjoy through an entire round of golf or a night of poker.
The criteria also included a mild subtle flavor and a wrapper identifiable from across the room. LOUIXS has been referred to as the “Bugatti Veyron of the Cigar Industry”. It has been ranked at number seven of the top 10 cigars in the world.
The Rothschild clan drinks more than just Chateau Lafite, as I do enjoy a wide assortment of cigars from other firms. Arturo Fuente’s Opus X is one of my very favorite cigars, especially when paired with 1959 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. If you have the unique opportunity to enjoy three fingers of Baron Otard 1972 Petite Champagne Vintage Cognac, I would encourage you to accompany it with a 2012 Cohiba Behike BHK 56.
Closing out an evening after an ounce of Iranian golden almas and lighting up Gurkha’s His Majesty Reserve by Kaizad Hansotia is a seductive nightcap. Each box of HMR is infused with an entire bottle of Louis XIII Cognac. It is an outstanding way to enjoy a moonlit night soaking in the hot tub at 3:00am.
While these brands do have strong distribution, not all markets can support them. So let me also suggest some global cigars that are very widely accessible and provide a genuinely consistent experience year after year.
The Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado is one of my favorite smokes for walking the beach. Two other notable brands, available at most tobacconists, are Montecristo White Court and Romeo y Julieta 1875. We will be launching our new cigar, Meister Brau, to compete with these exceptional brands that will be available through the Beverly Hills Cigar Club.
Have you ever thought of expanding the Beverly Hills Cigar Club to new territories like the Middle East?
Actually we have a very aggressive expansion plan formulated. It was started in 2012 with Anschutz Entertainment Group in discussions to brand their VIP lounges in all 120 stadiums and arenas around the globe, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles and London’s O2.
Do you foresee Cuban cigars becoming more popular in the US once American relations with Cuba have fully cooled? What’s the Beverly Hills Cigar Club’s attitude towards Cuban sticks?
Ever since President John F. Kennedy scalped a lifetime of Fidel Castro’s Cohibas, moments before he signed the embargo, America has craved “Cubans”. I admit to the thrill of walking into cigar clubs and shops in Milan, Moscow, and Frankfurt and grabbing an armful of Cohibas.
But the reality is there are thousands of very high-quality cigars on the market that have been legally available in the United States.
At the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting event, a little known California winery shattered the global impression that France produced the finest wines in the world. Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena offered its 1973 chardonnay to a skeptical audience, and changed the wine industry forever. During this black-out period of Cuban cigars on America’s shores, the same phenomenon has occurred. The Beverly Hills Cigar Club, while energized by the prospect of offering Cuban cigars, is more excited about the prosperity these improved relations will bring to the Cuban economy and its people.