Michael Lee-Chin

Written by ProfitGuide Staff

Executive Chairman
AIC Ltd.
Burlington, Ont.
AGE 57

Career highlights

  • Emigrates to Canada from Jamaica in 1970 to study civil engineering at McMaster University
  • Becomes a financial adviser at age 26; soon advances to the position of branch manager
  • In 1987, uses personal investment profits to buy AIC Ltd., with $800,000 in assets under management
  • His holding company, Portland Holdings Inc., acquires Jamaica’s National Commercial Bank and its subsidiaries in 2002, quickly growing profits from US$6 million to US$86 million; subsequent acquisitions garner Portland companies in media, tourism, health care, telecom and financial services
  • Lee-Chin ranks No. 11 on a list of Canada’s wealthiest people in 2007, with a net worth of $2.8 billion
  • By 2007, AIC has more than $9 billion in assets under management

Many entrepreneurs have a desire and drive to succeed but not much business experience. How important has business experience been to you?
Rodger Hort
Kamloops, B.C.

I started off as a financial planner, so when I got into managing money, I had no direct experience with stock selection for mutual funds. And when I bought the bank in 2002, I had no experience turning around a bank. Being analytical, rational and clinical, having the ability to keep things in context, being purposeful, caring and compassionate, not being arrogant, being energetic and hard-working, and realizing that you will fail but you will pick yourself up by the bootstraps and try again — all of those character traits I would take every day in place of experience.

If you were to advise a budding businessperson, what would you say needs to be his or her most important discipline in life?
Ebenezer Thevasagayam

Our success is a function of the reputation that we have — it’s what you are synonymous with which will endear people to do business with you or not. So, I would suggest to every budding businessperson that they ask themselves, “What is the reputation I want to have five or 10 years from now?” To develop a reputation, define what you stand for, always be transparent in regards to what you stand for, have consistent behaviour over time and walk the talk.

Entrepreneurship can be very tiring and sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated. How do you manage to stay interested and excited about your businesses?
Darlene Repka-Smith
Grande Prairie, Alta.

It’s a challenge every day. You keep motivated by focusing on the long run, being passionate about what you do, making sure your decisions are a function of defined principles and having a strong desire to build a legacy.

Over the years, you have faced many tough challenges in life and in business. How do you overcome your problems effectively?
Jit Hoong Lim
CIBC Investor’s Edge, Montreal

By defaulting back to principles. You have a set of principles you operate within, a framework, and you always make decisions based on your framework — which should have been developed in times when you were lucid, not when things were falling around you.

You have amassed an enormous fortune in your life so far. To what do you owe your success?
Karri Howlett
Karri Howlett Consulting Inc., Saskatoon

Being able to look at what is happening, assess rationally what makes sense, and if what I see doesn’t make sense, having the confidence to act on the strength of my beliefs.

I’ll give you an example. When I first came into the financial-planning business, I noticed a disconnect between how mutual-fund managers behave and how wealthy people behave. Most money managers were making their portfolio decisions based on the principle of diversification — so, your typical mutual fund would own 100 or 200 stocks. But wealthy people do five things: they own a few high-quality businesses; they understand those few businesses; they make sure those businesses are in strong, long-term industries; they use other people’s money to leverage their internal rate of return; and they hold those businesses for the long run. So I thought, therein lies an opportunity. I’m going to start a business that is 100% true to how wealth is created. So we create portfolios that are concentrated, not too diversified.

What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned from afailure? What was that failure?
Vince Lamarca

Early in my career, I decided to make an investment in a pork-processing business. I had no experience in that business, nor did I know the industry or the players. I was totally disoriented, and as a consequence I lost money. The lesson I learned was that I should stick within my circle of confidence. Which is not to say that the diameter of the circle should be static; you have to keep nudging it from the inside and pushing it out — but never step over it.

What specific business areas do you think offer the most exciting potential for new opportunities and change, looking forward to 2020?
Chris Spraakman

We all know that the baby boomers are aging, that the population is weighted heavily towards the boomers and that they’re the ones with the bucks right now. What services will those boomers be demanding in the future? Financial services, health care and recreational services, as well as telecommunication services — there will be increased demand for bandwidth.

Why and how did you decide to become involved in philanthropic activities?
Eric Douay
D-Tour Marketing Inc., Montreal

Buying the bank was a pivotal moment in my life. I come from very humble beginnings. I am the eldest of nine children, and my parents were clerks at a supermarket and both had two additional jobs. Just before writing the cheque, I thought, “How is it possible for the son of an orphan, the son of a clerk, to buy the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica?” It was possible for many reasons that I had nothing to do with.

I was blessed to have been born to parents who had high expectations of me; to have had experiences in my formative years, and also in my business years in Jamaica and subsequently in Canada, that nurtured me to be more confident; and to have been born in an era that made it possible for me to own — had I been born 250 years ago, I would have been a slave. So for all of those reasons, I thought, the probability of my success is infinitesimal. I have been showered with so many blessings that I have a responsibility to those who haven’t, to further the lot of those who are disadvantaged.

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