Obituary: B.C. real estate visionary helped shape housing on UBC campus

Vancouver businessman and philanthropist Robert Lee has died in Vancouver at age 86.

When Lee was born in Vancouver on June 25, 1933, to a modest immigrant family, his parents probably had no inkling that their infant son would become a key figure in Vancouver business and development, and leave a rich legacy as a builder of the city’s flourishing cross-cultural identity.

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Lee left his indelible mark on Vancouver through a career in real estate, which included co-founding the Wall Financial Corp., founding the Prospero Group and pioneering market housing on the University of B.C. campus. But he will also be remembered for his tireless dedication to community and, among his family and friends, for the traditional Chinese meals he loved to prepare and share.

Lee was the sixth of seven children born to Ron Bick Lee, founder of the Asian goods import/export company Foo Hung Co. Ltd. and his wife King Choon. Lee spent his early years in Chinatown, and would later credit his father for giving him foundational lessons in business ethics, and values focused on giving back to the community.

In a statement, UBC president Santa Ono said Lee died Wednesday.

“I would like to express my heartfelt condolences to Bob’s family on behalf of the entire UBC community; he will be deeply missed,” said Ono, calling Lee one of UBC’s most accomplished alumni.

“Bob dedicated much of his life, expertise and resources to building a brighter future for British Columbians and Canadians, and he embodied the mission of UBC and its vision for its alumni. I know that the UBC community will be joined by countless others in our local, national, and international communities in mourning the loss of this truly accomplished and beloved man.”

When Lee was around seven, the family moved to the Cambie Street and 7th Avenue neighbourhood. Lee longed to play soccer and baseball after school like the other kids, but his father insisted Lee study Cantonese after school instead.

“I was not happy about it,” Lee later said. But the sacrifice, the respect for his father’s values, and the Cantonese lessons would pay big dividends later on.

Lee attended UBC, where he earned a bachelor of commerce degree in 1956, and where he met his wife Lily. After graduation, Lee followed tradition and joined the family’s import-export business, where he specialized in selling imported bamboo blinds. “If you lived in Canada and had bamboo blinds, you bought them from us,” he later said.

When his father had a heart attack, Lee was entrusted with the financial aspects of the business, something he says taught him more about banking and negotiating than anything before or since.

But Lee’s natural entrepreneurial spirit led him in search of better opportunities. He got his real estate licence in 1959. Lee started his commercial real estate career by developing a network among his family’s business associates in Chinatown, but struggled financially for the first few years.

His big break came in 1964, when Hong Kong businesspeople began to get nervous about the prospective handover of the British colony to China. When a Hong Kong businessman looking to find a safe place to invest came to Vancouver and needed a broker who spoke Cantonese, Lee got the job. “I was the only one.”

Lee landed the client, but there was a problem. The client was only interested in one Vancouver building and it wasn’t for sale: “It was the Imperial Tower in the West End — 263 units,” said Lee. Lee persuaded the owner to sell. “My hands were shaking when I handed over the contract to sign. I made 10 times my annual salary in that one deal,” he later said.

He would later thank his dad for making him attend 12 years of after-school lessons in Cantonese.

The remarkable deal was covered heavily by the media and raised Lee’s profile. In 1966, he partnered with Peter Wall to co-found the Wall Financial Corp. and, in 1979, founded his own real estate development company, Prospero International Realty.

In 1984, Lee was invited to join the UBC board of governors and he would serve as chancellor from 1993-1996. Lee wanted to provide the university with a lasting legacy, and founded the UBC Properties Trust in 1988.

As director of properties for the trust, Lee envisioned developing UBC’s large land holdings for the benefit of the university endowment fund. His idea was a hard sell at first. “No one wanted to cut down any trees,” he said.

Lee proposed market housing on campus, using 99-year leases based on successful models he had studied in the U.K. and in Hong Kong.

Lee’s housing developments at UBC have flourished, generating $1.6 billion for the university’s fund.

“Bob’s tremendous leadership created a stable, autonomous and unprecedented source of funding for the university that forever changed UBC,” UBC president Santa Ono said earlier this year.

Lee was awarded the Order of B.C. in 1990 and the Order of Canada in 1999. He received the Ernst & Young Pacific Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

Lee’s stamp can be seen throughout Vancouver on the Robert and Lily Lee Family and Community Health Centre near Commercial Drive, The Robert Lee YMCA on Burrard Street, The Robert H. Lee Graduate School, and the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre at UBC.

Lee is survived by his wife Lily and four adult children, Carol, Leslie, Derek and Graham, who runs GSL Enterprises, the owner of the Victoria Royals hockey team and operator of the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

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