Visionary investor, bridge builder between communities and cultures, philanthropist, Canada’s first university chancellor of Chinese ancestry, benefactor of the University of British Columbia, Robert Lee helped shape the built environment of Vancouver through astute financial judgement, persistence and remarkable interpersonal skills. He made his way from the city’s Chinatown, where he was born in 1933 and where his father cut his hair by placing a rice bowl on his head, to the exclusive British Properties where he raised his own family with his wife, Lily.
The early years of his career as a real-estate broker coincided with the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong to Communist China in 1997. That looming event worried Hong Kong’s wealthy business people, and greatly increased the allure of Canada. Having spoken Cantonese from childhood with his immigrant parents, Mr. Lee became the lynch pin between Asian investors and Vancouver commercial real-estate owners.
Mr. Lee died on Feb. 19, in Vancouver General Hospital of glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, at the age of 86.
While he amassed great personal wealth, his proudest achievement brought him no financial gain. It was the creation of UBC Properties Trust, over the opposition of pessimists and naysayers, which enabled his beloved alma mater to blossom from a provincial commuter campus dotted with parking lots to a high-density university village of apartment buildings, townhouses around courtyards, shops, bike repair places, restaurants and cafes. These new developments, built on land leased to developers for 99 years, have brought in an enormous amount of money to beef up the university’s paltry endowment fund. UBC’s $2-billion endowment now exceeds that of McGill University ($1.65-billion) and is inching toward that of the University of Toronto ($2.5-billion).
“You wouldn’t believe the criticism. A lot of people just thought we were commercializing the university, ruining it,” said Martha Piper, who was president of UBC for 10 years beginning in 1997. “When I came there were no places to eat after classes or have a drink and be part of a community. We needed that. Look at Oxford: There is no town and gown. It’s all one thing.”
Mr. Lee, whom everyone called Bob, had first proposed leasing out some of UBC’s vast land holdings for market housing when he joined its Board of Governors as a volunteer in the mid-1980s. He noted how the university was underutilizing the prime lands at the western tip of the city that the provincial government had given it in the early years of the 20th century. But it took a decade for the concept to bear fruit.
“He was an amazing man – so generous with his time and expertise. I never heard a negative word from him about anyone,” Dr. Piper recalled in an interview.
Robert Horne Lee was born in Vancouver on June 2, 1933, the fifth of seven children of Chinese immigrants Ron Bick Lee and King Choon Gin. Fleeing poverty and disorder, his father had arrived in “Gold Mountain” in 1911, aged 19, from a village in the Pearl River Delta. Three years later, the man who would become Bob’s father went home to an arranged marriage but couldn’t bring his wife to Canada under the exclusionary immigration laws of the time. For 14 years King Choon Gin remained behind living with her mother-in-law until she was able to cross the ocean under a false name. By then Bick had established the export-import business Foo Hung in Chinatown on Vancouver’s East Pender Street, where each of his children, once they were old enough, was expected to pitch in on weekends and summer holidays. Here his second son, Bob, learned the rudiments of business by watching his father, the way he kept meticulous records and knew everybody, respected everybody and was respected in turn.
In Chinatown your clan and your family came first. Bick was the president of the Lee Benevolent Association, which had its headquarters in the Foo Hung building. His main supplier in Hong Kong was his brother Yick Bun Lee, who arranged regular shipments of bamboo ware, tea, rice, Chinese herbs, mah jong sets, and other Asian necessities. In Chinatown, people did not do business with strangers.
As opportunities arose, Bick also quietly bought real estate in the neighbourhood. He worked 14 hours a day and prospered, taking his seven children on outings every Sunday in his glossy black sedan. He moved them to the Fairmont neighbourhood on the other side of False Creek where the schools were better; after school, they went to Chinese classes.
According to family lore, recorded in the book titled Robert H. Lee, produced by the Echo Storytelling Agency of Vancouver, the young Bob Lee was a mediocre student and in 1951, barely qualified to enter UBC.
One evening, now in the commerce program, he went bowling with friends and met Lily Dong, a beautiful nursing student raised in Alert Bay where her Chinese parents ran a grocery store. She was 16, having skipped a grade in high school; she was later voted Homecoming Queen. The two soon became an item.
In August, 1957, they celebrated their marriage with a glittering reception at the Hotel Georgia, and banquets at two Chinese restaurants. Carol, first of their four children arrived the following year.
Having graduated from UBC with a degree in marketing and finance in 1956, Bob Lee noticed that his white classmates were receiving multiple job offers while he received only one, from Canada Packers. He felt hurt, but took the accounting position offered. A year later, his father suffered a heart attack at 65 and demanded that Bob return to look after the family business. (Told by doctors that he would live no more than 10 years, Bick lived to 102. )
Bob took over management of his father’s assets, transferring them to a family holding company for estate-planning purposes. When he discovered that his father had a large amount of cash, he invested it buying several buildings – a wrong move that turned out to be a learning experience. He didn’t buy real estate again unless it yielded revenue.
Bob had ambitions beyond the family business and after three years, he had a difficult conversation with his father. Bick accepted his decision to leave.
He took a course in appraisals in 1961 in the U.S., and started working at H.A. Roberts, a company that handled sales, insurance, mortgages, and property management in commercial real estate. At first he had no clients but soon he learned the business and built relationships. Bankers started to refer Asian investors, since he was the only commercial real-estate expert who spoke Cantonese.
In 1964, Bob got a lot of publicity when he sold the 263-unit Imperial Tower in Vancouver, then owned by future mayor Tom Campbell, to a shipping magnate from the Philippines, though the building had not been for sale. The next year, he sold one of the largest buildings in West Vancouver, the Bayview Apartments, to a Hong Kong investor. In 1967, he was appointed to the board of H.A. Roberts.
He befriended other self-made real-estate stars such as the engineer Jack Poole and developers Peter Wall and Peter Redekop. When the latter two set up Wall & Redekop Realty in 1968, they invited Mr. Lee to be the third partner. Having earned the trust of Asian investors, Mr. Lee soon brokered the sale of Capilano Mall in North Van, to Charlie Shon of Okinawa, Japan, and of the Lord and Lady Simcoe towers and Princess Patricia Apartments in Victoria to a Hong Kong client. When Wall & Redekop went public in 1969, Mr. Lee became president of the firm.
In 1979, when he had been 11 years with the company (now named Wall Financial) and his own assets had grown substantially, he struck out on his own, founding Prospero International Realty, now run by his son Derek. Its focus is on buying, selling and managing commercial properties in B.C.
The new venture got off to a rocky start, with the recession just around the corner. In the mid-80s, real estate was not selling – not in Vancouver or Montreal or Houston, Tex., where Bob Lee also had property. He was forced to move Prospero from its sleek offices back to the old Foo Hung building, which his family still owned.
The market did recover, and the third act of Mr. Lee’s life was about to begin. In 1984, he joined UBC’s board of governors. “Times were tough for universities in the 1980s,” recalled Ms. McCaw, vice-president of development at UBC, who had first met him then.
When Mr. Lee proposed the leasing of university land for 99 years to developers for market units, the board assured him it was insanely risky: Local developers wouldn’t consider building on land they didn’t own outright and the public would never buy into it. After endless discussion the board agreed to a pilot project of 11 building lots to be called Hampton Place. But when the lots were offered to B.C. developers, there were no takers. Bob called a prominent developer friend, a member of the Tso family in Hong Kong, who was immediately interested and took the first lot.
Four years later, in 1992, at a meeting of the UBC Real Estate Corporation (later called UBC Properties Trust, which Mr. Lee chaired for 27 years), the builder made an announcement that caused the room to erupt in cheers: Thames Court, the first phase in Hampton Place, although only half finished, had completely sold out. Mr. Lee later called it the best moment of his life.
He became adviser to the university’s ambitious president David Strangway, a geophysicist hired away from U of T who had worked for NASA. Dr. Strangway supported the land lease idea. He wanted to add new research institutes, hire the most brilliant profs, and cultivate links with universities around the Pacific Rim. “Bob was giving him the resources to sustain that,” said Dr. Piper, who followed Dr. Strangway. The leases increased the endowment by $1.7-billion, and are still selling.
“The land endowment is now a cash endowment – it’s an asset for the university in perpetuity,” Ms. McCaw said. “After that, other universities were calling us: Tell us how you did it?
“Bob was a connector and a brilliant relationship builder. He introduced the Chan family to [Dr. Strangway] and they ended up giving $30-million to build the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. But he worked behind the scenes. He did not seek the limelight. He made everyone feel special and he had time for everybody.”
For four years, Mr. Lee served as UBC’s chancellor. He helped fund the graduate school of business and alumni centre (both named for him), gave generously to the YMCA, Vancouver General Hospital, the Chinatown Foundation, the Robert and Lily Lee Family Community Health Centre on Vancouver’s east side, and many other community organizations. Honours rained down including the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, and an honorary degree.
In addition to Lily Lee, his wife of 62 years, he leaves four children, Carol, Derek, Leslie and Graham; eight grandchildren; and three siblings, Maye, Mary and Bill.