In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong landed in Jamaica destined for indentureship.
Without contracts confining them to field labour, they were free to choose an occupation which – for the majority – was retail grocery business.
Among the group was Michael Lee-Chin’s paternal ancestors who, he said, motivated him to become an entrepreneur.
“My inspiration goes back to my forbearers who travelled from China to Jamaica,” said Lee-Chin at a media conference last week to announce that he is this year’s recipient of the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs (ACCE) Lifetime Award. “They owned a shop and when you think about what they had to do after been displaced from their homeland and culture and being parachuted into a totally unfamiliar environment, what I have had to endure during my journey is minimal.”
Lee-Chin also paid tribute to his grocery clerk parents for his success, adding they worked for nearly 29 years without taking a weekend off to put him and his eight siblings through university.
ACCE president, Alan Kwong, said the organization is honoured to have Lee-Chin as the recipient of this year’s award.
“His outstanding accomplishments as a business leader and philanthropist speaks for itself and his many contributions – both to the Chinese-Canadian community and the overall community – are truly deserving of this award,” said Kwong.
While working as a bouncer for $2.50 an hour after graduating from McMaster University with a civil engineering degree, Lee-Chin ran into an Investors Group mutual fund salesman who boasted of the exorbitant daily commissions he made.
Lee-Chin grasped the opportunity and spent two years with the company as a financial adviser before joining Regal Capital Planners in 1979 and working his way up to regional manager. In 1983, at the age of 32, he borrowed funds to purchase $500,000 of Mackenzie Financial stock. After four years, this stock appreciated seven-fold and he used the profit to make his first major acquisition, AIC Ltd., which was a small Ontario-based investment firm.
At that time, Advantage Investment Counsel (a division of AIC Ltd.) had nearly $800,000 in assets under management. Within two decades, AIC grew from less than $1 million to $15 billion in assets under management and was servicing over a million Canadians.
In September 2009, AIC’s retail investment fund business was sold to Manulife Financial, making Portland Holdings – of which he’s the chairman – one of the largest shareholders worldwide.
The holder of a portfolio of investments in the Caribbean, Lee-Chin has made several large donations, including $30 million to the Royal Ontario Museum’s expansion and renovation campaign and a $10 million gift to the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
He said his life as a successful entrepreneur has been absolutely fulfilling.
“One has control over their life and they get the opportunity to exercise their passion,” said Lee-Chin, who in October 2011 was installed as Wilfrid Laurier University’s eighth chancellor. “You also get to experience the joy of conceptualizing a strategy and idea and watching it flourish and you get the chance to make a difference in people lives. On the other hand, being an entrepreneur is not easy because there is no security and life is no linear. You always have to be on and that can take a toll on your family.”
Royal Bank of Canada sponsors the award which recognizes individuals who have, through their lifetime, made significant contributions to the betterment of the Chinese-Canadian community.
“Michael Lee-Chin is making a difference in our communities and is helping to make Canada a more dynamic and successful country,” said Tina Sarellas, the bank’s regional vice-president of commercial financial services.
Previous ACCE Lifetime Achievement Award winners include Ryerson University chancellor emeritus, Ray Chang; former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson and ex-Alberta Lieutenant Governor, Norman Kwang, who in 1948 became the first Chinese-Canadian professional football player when he turned out for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League.
The awards ceremony takes place on Saturday, March 23 at the Markham Hilton Suites Hotel.
By RON FANFAIR