Graham Lee: WHL saviour, concert king, entrepreneur

The man who built Victoria’s arena, brought back major junior hockey and led us out of the wilderness with world-class entertainment took little for granted as a kid.

Success was never a given for Graham Lee until he earned his keep, learned the ropes and paid his dues.

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“We didn’t grow up with silver spoons,” said Lee, founder and chief executive of GSL Holdings Ltd., the parent company of RG Properties, which operates Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre and owns the Victoria Royals hockey team.

“We lived very frugally.”

The expectation was that Lee would make something of himself, an ethic instilled in all four siblings by their father, Robert H. Lee, a prolific Vancouver real estate developer awarded both the Order of B.C. and the Order of Canada for his philanthropy and business developments. His presence continues to loom large in Lee’s life, as does the influence of other family members such as his uncle Ron Lou-Poy, a former chancellor of the University of Victoria.

With that inherent drive, it was inevitable Lee would work hard and aim high. Evidence of his entrepreneurial bent emerged early, at age six, when Lee started selling his Halloween treats for a nickel apiece. “When I was young, I didn’t know there were 9-to-5 jobs. I thought everybody went out and found businesses to run. As a kid, I thought that’s what I had to get ready for.”

Lee developed an early business sense, which has served him well on various fronts, including the conception, construction and continued operation of Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

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Lee’s RG Properties opened the $30-million multi-purpose venue, which replaced the Memorial Arena, in 2005. A once concert-starved city came to life with acts such as Bob Dylan, Cher, Elton John and Rod Stewart. Lee also brought high-profile sports back to Victoria — which had been without a professional or major junior hockey team since 1994 — first with the ECHL’s Salmon Kings and now with the Western Hockey League’s Royals.

Lee shouldered part of the risk to build the arena, spending $12 million in a public-private partnership where the City of Victoria owns the land and building and RG Properties operates the facility. Through a 40-year lease agreement, Lee sees it as a relationship with benefits for both sides.

According to the latest revenue-sharing contract, running from 2015 to 2025, RG Properties pays the city an annual fee of $235,000 to operate the building and the city receives a per-ticket surcharge for both hockey and non-sports related events, ranging from 50 cents to $2 per ticket, depending on the admission price. RG Properties is responsible for any losses.

RG booked 31 non-hockey events in 2007, its busiest year to date. On average over the past decade, 22 non-hockey events have been staged ever year, with the bulk of these events being concerts.

“We have paid the city over $6 million for its share of operating revenues, all tickets sold and naming rights over the

10 years we have operated,” said Lee.

“It’s a partnership. It’s a very long-term arrangement, and we have a very strong attachment to the building. It’s not like a typical lease-holder of a shopping mall, who doesn’t have an attachment to the building. At the end of the lease, they can move out. Our team put our hearts and souls in this building and a lot of money.”

Victoria architect Alan Lowe, mayor when the arena was built, credits Lee with playing a pivotal role in raising the off-Island profile of Victoria. The old Memorial Arena, built in 1949, was outdated and under-sized. The new arena, which holds 7,000 for hockey games and 8,000 for concerts, puts Victoria on a level playing field in the province, both economically and culturally. “[Memorial Arena] was losing $500,000 a year and no concerts were coming,” Lowe said. “Now, we have a hockey team, concerts are happening and the city is making money. It was a win-win.”

Even the most critical agree the arena was a boon. The quality of hockey improved in 2011 when Lee acquired the WHL Chilliwack Bruins franchise, brought the team to Victoria and named them the Royals. And the concert activity is much higher than average for a comparably sized city in Canada.

Lee was well on his way in business by the time he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1987. With momentum from a school project and a $150,000 loan from his family, he created his own property development company to buy industrial sites. He named it RG — an abbreviation melding Lee’s first initial with that of his father, Robert.

Graham Lee’s GSL Holdings is the parent company to several businesses and considered one of the largest private employers in B.C. with more than 4,000 on its payroll and annual operating revenues of $50 million. GSL includes the building and operation of multi-purpose arenas and recreation facilities, e-commerce, hospitality, sports and entertainment, fitness centres and agriculture. Subsidiaries include RG Properties, Planet Ice, Planet Fitness, Boomers Bar & Grill, Leeberry Farms, the Victoria Royals, RG Sports and Entertainment and RG Construction Ltd..

RG Properties started building hockey rinks around Vancouver in 1995. Lee’s big break in the hockey-entertainment sector came in a chance meeting with a Kelowna city councillor during a plane ride home from Las Vegas. An arena was to be built in Kelowna and Lee was interested. While other construction bids fell apart or were rejected, RG Properties got a green light for its ambitious plans.

Prospera Place opened in 1999 with in-house restaurant, luxury suites and club seats — traits that became RG’s trademark in arena projects. “No one in North America” was building small arenas with a big-market feel, Lee said. “It’s a huge success.”

In Victoria, RG Properties’ long-term lease with the city is essentially viewed as ownership for Lee. But that has its disadvantages. As the operator, Lee is on the hook for upgrades to the building. And the equity of his investment will ultimately benefit an entity other than his own.

“I will spend money there, regardless of the fact we don’t physically own the building. I spent a lot of money putting up video screens. I didn’t need to do that, but that is something I wanted to do, because I thought it would give a better fan experience. I will keep spending money on the building, even though I don’t expect to get a return. But hopefully it improves, indirectly, the experience for fans.”

Despite his Vancouver base, Lee has Island roots stretching to 1911. His grandfather arrived in Victoria “with nothing but a dream” and managed to build a life for his family despite arriving without knowing any English. The Lee family tree also made its way to Alert Bay before landing in Vancouver. Lee’s father, Robert, who became chancellor of UBC in 1993, made his mark in real estate and still lives on the Lower Mainland, where Lee, his wife, Angela, and their four children also make their home.

The torch will be passed one day, Lee said. Some of his children already help in facets of the family business, which he hopes will continue in the future. There is certainly room for his family to find their niche: RG Properties has a diversified portfolio that ranges from Wembley Mall in Parksville to mixed-use Planet Ice facilities in Coquitlam and Maple Ridge.

“I have big shoes to fill,” Lee said of his family’s legacy.

“But I am still living that dream my grandfather had over 100 years ago. It is more possible today in B.C. than it ever has been, and building the arena in Victoria is part of that dream for me.”

medevlin@timescolonist.com

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