JPMorgan vice chairman James Bainbridge Lee, Jr., better known as “Jimmy,” loved Wall Street. And Wall Street loved him too.
On Wednesday morning, the legendary investment banker unexpectedly died from a heart attack while exercising in his Darien, Connecticut home. He was 62.
His loss is the end of an era.
While the rest of America may not have ever heard of Lee before, he was widely viewed as the most influential investment banker of his time. He handled some of the biggest M&A deals (United-Continental merger) and initial public offerings in history (Visa, General Motors, Alibaba). He’s also credited as a pioneer of the syndicated loan market — where Wall Street’s banks would work together to provide a loan to a single borrower.
“Jimmy was a master of his craft, but he was so much more — he was an incomparable force of nature,” JPMorgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon said in a statement.
Lee’s sudden death sent shock-waves throughout Wall Street. Some of the biggest names in finance and corporate America have expressed their sorrow. It’s not just because Lee had worked with them either. Lee was considered a friend and mentor to many of the industry’s titans.
A proud father
Above all, though, Lee prided himself on being a husband and father. Lee would always tell you that his greatest accomplishment was his family.
“[You] asked me many questions about how I got successful in business. I guess I am a little. But I am much prouder of being a good dad and husband!” Lee wrote to me in an email last fall.
His view of putting family first goes back to the death of his own father.
Lee was born in 1952. He grew up in New, Canaan, Connecticut. His father owned the
Lee Hat Company.
Shortly after, in the fall of 1967, Lee enrolled in all-boys prep school, Canterbury, in New Milford, Connecticut. It was where his father went to school.
At Canterbury, Lee immersed himself in sports. He was the captain of the hockey team, co-captain of the track team, and a football player.
“I was never the most talented guy on the team, but I have a passion for overachievement,” he told Forbes back in 2000.
He went on to attend Williams College in Massachusetts where he double-majored in economics and art history. By the way, it was the only school where he applied.
An unintentional job interview
Lee’s move to Wall Street wasn’t intentional. In 1975, Lee joined Chemical Bank as an intern in the firm’s management training program. The interview for the position was meant for his then-girlfriend, Beth, but she couldn’t make it, so she insisted that Lee take it instead.
“The interviewer asked me if I wanted this job. I simply told the truth, ‘No, I definitely don’t want this job. I’m just trying to keep my romance alive here.'” he said.
He ended up in the job anyway.
Lee also ended up marrying Beth. They had three kids — Alexandra (Lexi), James (Jamie), and Elizabeth (Izzy).
In the early 1980s, Lee’s career at Chemical Bank began to take off after he helped form Chemical’s loan syndication unit. That unit eventually became the core of what is now JPMorgan Chase’s investment bank.
The deal that didn’t happen
In 2001, Lee was approached by Pete Peterson and Steve Schwartzman to come on as president/vice chairman of private-equity firm Blackstone. This was before the firm’s IPO. It was a job that would have paid him “billions, literally.”
A contract was negotiated and a press release was ready to go the next day. Lee went to see then-JPMorgan Chase CEO William B. Harrison to inform him of his decision to leave. Lee, who had been working with Harrison since 1981, viewed his boss as “father figure” and a mentor. Ultimately, he was convinced to stay.
Lee said that one of the reasons he turned down the Blackstone job was because he wanted to watch his three kids play sports.
“All three were accomplished student-athletes, and I didn’t want to miss one of their games, and I didn’t,” Lee once said. “If I took the Blackstone job, it would have meant family taking a backseat. No games to watch. I made a huge choice — family first, no matter what.”
At that time, Lee’s eldest daughter was a freshman at Williams, his son was a high school junior, and his youngest daughter was a fifth grader. He knew that they needed him. When Lee was in high school, he ran a kick-off return 90 yards for a touchdown in the final seconds to tie a game against the Cranwell School, and thus ruining one of Canterbury’s rivals’ perfect, undefeated season. His father wasn’t there to see it.
“[I] vowed if I ever had children and a family that I would be as good a dad as I could possibly be. So I was constantly making trade-offs in my career where I would end up paying the price of working that much harder, but that enabled me to see a soccer game, see a hockey game, coach a baseball game,” Lee recently told his friend Alexandra Lebenthal in her publication, SAYRA magazine. “I’m a huge believer that now that the children are older they remember those moments, so I feel I really made good on the promise.”
He continued: “But this sort of stuff is binary — it’s a zero-sum game. If you’re going to try and see the soccer game, that’s three hours of work that you’re not going to do then. That work has not gone away. You just have to do it at one in the morning or whenever.”
It was something he lived by.
One last conversation
My last personal interaction with Lee was in late April. Lee’s office was on the 48th floor of JPMorgan’s Park Avenue headquarters just down the hall from Dimon’s.
Inside, photos of his family were featured prominently. The office walls were also covered in thank you notes and photos of the many company executives that he advised. The shelves were lined with deal mementos and newspaper/magazine articles. He even had his employee badge from Chemical Bank on one of the shelves. On the coffee table, Lee kept a copy of his friend Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” and another one of his favourites, Bill Walsh’s “The Score Will Take Care of Itself.”
In our 45 minute conversation, we talked about the industry. We also talked a lot about family and life. He was clearly passionate about deals and JPMorgan. He loved working there. He loved the people he worked with.
When Lee talked about his family, though, he would just light up. He shared the story about how he met his wife during undergrad at Williams in an English/Literature class. He even re-told the Chemical Bank interview story. He talked about his daughters and his grandchildren. The last thing he said was how proud he was that his son, an MBA candidate at Columbia, just received an offer at a great firm.
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