2004 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I do really feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth, and I attribute that to my family."
James Lee was born in New York City in 1952 and grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut. His family owned the Lee Hat Company, the Danbury News Times, and other Danbury businesses. When men's hats fell from fashion, the hat company experienced financial misfortune and Lee's father sold it to Stetson. During this period, Lee's father died. Lee was 11 at the time and the loss of his father was profoundly difficult. Soon after, he was sent away to Canterbury School, an all boys' boarding school, and he never lived at home for any extended period of time again. His mother remarried, but Lee's new stepfather died of cancer when Lee was 17. After Canterbury, Lee went to Williams College where he graduated with a degree in economics and art history in 1975.
In the spring of his senior year at Williams, Lee joined Chemical Bank's management training program. That was the beginning of a 29-year career at the bank and its successor companies. In 1982, he started and built the bank's loan syndications unit, now the largest in the world. Lee was a true innovator and industry pioneer. He eventually went on to build the bank's high yield bond business, acquisition finance (LBO's) and mergers and acquisitions practice. All are among the largest and most respected in the industry. He eventually rose to run Chemical and then Chase Manhattan's multi-billion dollar investment bank. During this period, these businesses won multiple awards. Lee was named vice chairman of the firm in 1994, a position he continues to hold today.
Lee is noted for advising and financing many of the largest and most historic deals in the United States over the last three decades. They encompass a wide variety of transactions – rescue financings such as the three Chrysler restructurings and the US Government acquisition of AIG – major mergers and acquisitions such as Newscorp acquiring Dow Jones – bankruptcies and DIPs such as Federated Stores and United Airlines – hostile tender offers such as Paramount and Disney – helping to create new companies such as Dreamworks – and many of the largest LBOs done since the early 80s.
When asked to define success, Lee remarks, "In the traditional sense, success is having a huge dream and achieving it. But I think it's also having a close and loving family. It's having friends; it's helping people who need help. To me, success has more to do with the heart rather than the pocketbook." When advising youth, he says, "Set your goals really high, be yourself, and outwork everyone around you. If you want it badly enough in your heart, you can achieve any dream you can dream."