Few men ever master Wall Street. Jimmy Lee did.
From his table at the Four Seasons and his Park Avenue office, he launched hundreds of deals with five words: “Let’s go see the guy.” That was Jimmy-speak for let’s go cut a deal, let’s go make some money, let’s win them over with a blend of charm and sheer force of will. He was hard to resist. And he didn’t stop until he won.
“He was at the top of his profession,” Carlyle Group co- founder and co-CEO David Rubenstein told me yesterday. “He didn’t have to fly around the world to get the IPO, but he did. He was always trying.”
Lee, who died Wednesday at the age of 62, never found fame beyond the tight confines of the Street. Within those concentric circles of money and power, he was a legend -- a back-slapping, old-school rainmaker who helped usher in a new era of American capitalism.
For decades Lee was, in effect, the wallet of Wall Street. Few ordinary Americans understood what he was doing, yet what he did changed countless lives for better and worse. Lee pioneered the market for syndicated loans, in which banks band together to lend money, rather than make loans on their own. In doing so, he helped finance deals that remade entire industries and upended some of the mightiest companies in the land.
By the time Lee rose to the vice chairmanship of JPMorgan Chase & Co., he was in his way as powerful as anyone on the Street. Michael Milken may have pioneered the junk bond market, but Leeharnessed even richer powers. More often than not, Lee carved out a spot at the center of every major deal.
A conversation with Lee was never linear. His life was his work: sprawling, constant and always moving. But once you knew Jimmy Lee, you were golden. His client roster reflected a century of American business, from General Electric Co. to Dell Inc. to Twitter Inc.
He was ahead of the curve in using new technology -- his office was a collision of genteel banker decor and TV and trading screens -- and in bagging 21st century clients (Facebook Inc. and Alibaba Group, to name two).
Yet, for many, the secret to his success was that he was remarkably old school. Lee preferred phone calls to e-mails, and face-to-face meetings most of all. Powerful executives routinely made pilgrimages to his office down the hall from Jamie Dimon, to his table at the Four Seasons, to his home on the Connecticut Gold Coast. More often, Jimmy made his own pilgrimages to win the deal.
David Knowlton, who worked with him before starting his own boutique investment bank, and heard his share of “Let’s go see the guy,” says he was all handshakes and backslaps -- a banker from an era that, today, seems to be fading rapidly. Lee could work a room of any size.
John Coyle, who worked with Lee at JPMorgan for 13 years, told me Lee “would call you up and congratulate you on a big win, or pat you on the back for a big loss.”
“He wanted everyone to be as excited as he was, about everything,” said Coyle, who now runs North America for the private equity firm Permira.
Lee’s role in the modern buyout business is difficult to understate. For many, he was the Rosetta Stone. He could reel off stories about major players like Stephen Schwarzman, who over time became one of his closest friends. As both grew into Wall Street statesmen, they took turns introducing each other at award ceremonies. Lee once took Schwarzman to a Mass with the Pope at Yankee Stadium.
Schwarzman was one of the many Lee helped nurture. There was also Henry Kravis and George Roberts, of KKR & Co. fame, as well as David Bonderman at TPG. Lee met Carlyle’s Rubenstein two decades ago, when the Carlyle Group was a small Washington firm giving leveraged buyouts a shot. In the midst of advising Carlyle on deals, Lee finally persuaded Rubenstein to trust him with Carlyle’s most important one -- the firm’s initial public stock offering.
Just last week, Lee hosted a front-row table at the Waldorf Astoria in Midtown, where Alibaba founder Jack Ma spoke to a packed ballroom. In the Waldorf lobby, Lee ran into Rubenstein, who was at the hotel for another meeting. Lee recounted the highlights of Ma’s speech, talked about the big deal he was spearheading for GE -- and then he was gone, back to his office across the street.
“He was a force of nature,” Rubenstein said Wednesday. “He was unforgettable.”