Robert Lee has inspired everyone who has met him, and many more who haven’t.
When Robert H. Lee walks into a room, the first thing you notice is his smile. It’s a warm, engaging smile that comes from deep within, encompassing everyone he meets. His eyes have the sparkle of someone who understands the value of humour, the necessity of hard work, and the intrinsic humanity that connects us all.
Bob, as he prefers to be called, is one of Vancouver’s most distinguished philanthropists and a commercial real estate pioneer. During China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s, violence spread toward China’s borders and many in Hong Kong sought to move their assets elsewhere. Vancouver was seen as a haven for large-scale investing and Lee was Vancouver’s only well-qualified Cantonese-speaking real estate agent with a university degree. By age 50, he had enough wealth to retire and began an era of giving.
Among his many accolades, Lee was awarded the Order of Canada, the Ernst & Young Pacific Lifetime Achievement Award, and holds a place in the Business Laureates of British Columbia Hall of Fame. Lee’s generous gifts will never be forgotten at organizations like the Robert Lee YMCA, a top ranked, state-of-the-art recreation facility located in the heart of downtown Vancouver, and the Robert H. Lee Graduate School at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Sauder School of Business.
Spirit of innovation
To say Lee is a generous benefactor to his Alma Mater, UBC, is an understatement. “They sometimes call me Mr. UBC because I’ve been volunteering there so long,” he says, adding that among his other contributions he’s been both chancellor and governor.
But his greatest accomplishment at the University may be the innovative UBC Properties Trust, a framework for multi-family development on leased land. Unprecedented in 1987, no one in Canada’s building industry was interested in taking on such a project. Lee called a friend in Hong Kong, where they are not shy about residing on leased land, and convinced him to advance $8 million in Hong Kong dollars. “By the time we were half way through construction, everything was sold. We collected $81 million,” he says. Today, the Hawthorne Place neighbourhood is highly sought-after for its beauty and atmosphere. Lee’s vision is well on its way to raising a record billion dollars for the university, funds that will help countless students excel.
Lee credits his father for instilling a deep respect of philanthropy by example. “My dad came to Canada as a houseboy in 1911,” he explains. “The village in Guangdong where he lived got together, deciding who among them was the smartest person — that person was my father. They paid his way to Canada, so he could make a better life.”
In no time, Lee’s father proved the village’s decision had been the right one. His reputation as a man of honour and diligence soon propelled him forward in the business world, and as he rose to prominence he became an ardent supporter of local charities. “My dad was one of about half a dozen community leaders and always supported many causes — the YMCA in Chinatown, old age homes, schools,” Lee says with obvious affection and respect. “He paid back the costs of coming to Canada long ago, but he continued to send money home to his village. I guess you could say I learned about philanthropy by osmosis.”
Watching his father, Lee made a personal vow. “I said that once I had a comfortable living, when I was able to support myself and my family, I would become involved in philanthropy as well.”
The first board that Lee sat on was the Paraplegic Foundation where he also served as Chairman of the Board for 10 years. Volunteering for many other causes soon followed, most focused squarely on organizations that enhance people’s lives through education or health.
Sometimes, Lee’s involvement is strictly as a financial backer — as was the case when the YMCA approached him to be the lead donor for their much-needed new facility. “I’d learned to swim at the Y when I was 11 years old, and I joined two years later when I was 13. I’ve been a member ever since, so it was a natural fit.”
The results speak for themselves. The award-winning structure is a multi-generational hub of social and recreational activity. “This facility helps so many people who might not be able to afford something like this — everyone from kids to seniors to young, single moms,” Lee says. “And the staff are all amazing.”
Leading by example
More than his own philanthropy has become legendary. Lee is well known for his ability to inspire generosity in others — especially among people who may not be sure how to connect with charities.
“Networking is key,” he explains. “Take time to understand the core philosophies of a charity you want to get involved in. Then talk to people.” His face lights up with one of his famous smiles. “Once you know what a charity requires, it becomes easy. It has to be the greatest joy and privilege in my life to be able to help a fellow human being, someone whom I have never met, perhaps even yet to be born.”
“Bob and Lilly’s philanthropy is legendary, offered unselfishly with no expectation or desire for the broad recognition it deserves,” adds David Podmore, CEO of Concert Properties and a long-time friend. “He is the consummate gentleman, considerate, humble, caring, and of course, thoroughly professional. It is an understatement to say he is an icon in our community and an exceptional role model for us all.”