Remembering Jimmy Lee

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He was indefatigable, unrelenting, exuberant and eventually a senior statesman of the industry, but most of all JPMorgan’s Jimmy Lee was a man who took care of those closest to him, whether it was his family, his colleagues or his clients.

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It’s only natural that when Jimmy Lee passed away recently at the far too young age of 62, the remembrances of him focused on his senior-statesman role as legitimately one of the great financiers of all time.

But if you were following the markets in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, you would have seen him as far more of a builder than an éminence grise – a builder who, by the way, faced some rather challenging obstacles.

First of all, he was putting together his high-yield, leveraged and syndicate loans businesses off a rather shaky platform – Chemical Bank. 

At the time, the world of wholesale banking had a clearly delineated hierarchy. Citibank was the global heavyweight in financing, plain vanilla trading and transaction services; the Wall Street firms owned the M&A space and their traders did all the exotic stuff. Everyone else, ie Chemical, Manufacturers Hanover and Chase Manhattan, were described as nice guys but not as sophisticated as the others.

But if Jimmy saw it like that, it didn’t stop him. He had an indefatigable and unrelenting nature, coupled to an internal sense that brought him to close to countless clients – a sense that is unfortunately in limited supply these days.

There are many stories told about the great man. Two that come quickly to mind are as follows:

• In his senior year at Williams College – alma mater of former Chemical CEO Walter Shipley – Jimmy’s girlfriend at the time applied for a job at the bank. Jimmy reportedly had little interest in a career in finance. For whatever reason, he changed his mind when the young lady got a date and time for an interview. Jimmy went in her place and the rest is history. And he married the girl and spent the rest of a happy family life with her and three children he adored. 

• Shipley and to a greater degree Bill Harrison – two men who engineered the great industry roll-up that brought us JPMorgan Chase – saw something in Lee and sent him to Australia to help run the investment banking operations out there. When that didn’t end well, he came back to the US a bit humbled but more determined. It was then that he started building what would become a crucial element in the bank’s arsenal.

It was Jimmy’s drive, his knowledge of banking and his ability to care about clients that made him what he was

Jimmy was criticized in those early days for being a little too keen on the PR front. Using the talents of a seasoned old PR pro by the name of John Meyers, he managed to grace the covers of countless financial weeklies and monthlies. And while he probably enjoyed every minute of it, he also knew that building his profile was a necessary component of building his business.

You could make the argument that Jimmy’s efforts were considerably aided by two phenomena:

• Harrison’s vision and execution skills in using Chemical as the starting point to create what became the successful JPMorgan Chase. As the roll-up gave the bank a bigger capital base and an expanded client list, Jimmy used both to great advantage.

• There was also the need for more and more capital by corporate America to carry out mergers and acquisition, therefore opening room at the table for the likes of Jimmy. Until the big mergers started coming along in the 1990s, the boys at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley would hive off the juicy M&A fees and leave the much more meagre financing fees to the lowly wholesale banks. Once those same corporates realized they needed finance to carry out their plans, Jimmy saw the opening and drove many a truck through it.

There is another characteristic of Jimmy that you have to be in awe of – his persistence. While he was building up his loans business, some of his investment banker colleagues in New York spoke of him almost with a sense of ridicule. That those same Wall Streets are now remembering him with admiration and respect is a far cry from the days when he was an unwelcome upstart, a man with brown shoes in a blue suit, a poseur of the highest order. 

But at the end of the day it was Jimmy’s drive, his knowledge of banking and his ability to care about clients that made him what he was.

Banking can be a grey sport, but Jimmy was nothing if not full of colour. It should be pointed out, however, that behind his exuberant persona was an incredibly hard-working individual who built a lot from very little; who saw promise where others didn’t; and, most importantly, who took care of the people who helped him achieve the success he enjoyed.

The irony is that it is now Jimmy Lee, and not those who disdained him decades ago, who is remembered as one of the finest investment bankers of his generation. He will be missed.