A Visionary Entrepreneur
Chris Lee, CEO of Kitson, is celebrating the upmarket department store chain’s 15th anniversary by sponsoring a contest to benefit the Joint Educational Project (JEP).By Susan Bell
June 26, 2014
An economics major at USC Dornsife in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kitson CEO Chris Lee retains fond memories of participating in the Joint Educational Project (JEP) as a math tutor at Manual Arts High School near the USC University Park campus.
“At the time I think I was too young to recognize how valuable the program is, but now that I understand exactly what JEP is all about, I want to maintain my involvement in it forever,” Lee said.
This Fall, he is celebrating Kitson’s 15th anniversary by sponsoring a design contest to benefit JEP, one of the oldest and largest service learning programs in the nation.
Open to all USC Dornsife students, the contest will challenge participants to design a Kitson-JEP themed T-shirt. The winning design will be sold in Kitson stores and proceeds will benefit JEP.
“This is a way to celebrate our 15th anniversary by reaching out to the community,” Lee said. “It’s a great partnership between USC and Kitson — two Los Angeles icons that exemplify the city and the L.A. lifestyle.”
Kitson founder Fraser Ross, whom Lee describes as “one of the world’s merchant geniuses,” will serve as a judge for the contest, alongside JEP supporters and Tammara Anderson, JEP executive director.
“Chris's experience in the community is still important to him and is present in his personal and business life,” said Anderson. “JEP is tremendously fortunate to have alumni like him who are truly engaged with our program and care deeply about its future. Chris has brought such excitement to JEP with the Kitson-JEP T-shirt idea. We are so thankful for his energy, creativity and enthusiasm.”
“It will be an exciting creative opportunity for a student to have their design sold in one of the hottest retail markets in the country, if not the world,” Lee said.
Lee joined celebrity-favorite Kitson in 2011, after a nine-year stint as senior vice president at Forever 21, during which he took the Southern California clothing retailer and manufacturer from $200 million in revenue in 2001 to more than $2 billion in 2009.
His life wasn’t always so glamorous, however.
Lee’s parents immigrated to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, in the early 1970s and settled in East L.A. where they opened a small chain of retail stores. Before he was a teenager, Lee was already working as a cashier in his mother’s clothing store.
“I grew up in an environment where my parents were struggling to make ends meet, but still trying to provide a decent environment for myself and my older sister,” he said. “While working at my mom’s store I told myself I would never go into retail because I wanted to go to a university, become an investment banker and make lots of money.”
Lee chuckled. “Little did I know I would end up in retail. I became pretty good at it. And it wasn’t just a few stores, it was a hundred stores.”
Reflecting on his childhood, Lee said watching his parents struggle drove him to succeed.
“That kept the fire alive for me. I always had a summer job and I always worked,” said Lee, who was elected student body president of his high school.
“It was one of the most poverty-stricken high schools in the city and academically I wasn’t the smartest guy, but I worked hard and fortunately I was accepted to USC with a financial aid package and scholarships.
“Growing up in one of the poorest cities in the United States, you recognize the grass is always greener on the other side and you can either sit around and cry about it and do nothing, or work hard and change your life.”
Lee can trace his career trajectory back to seventh grade when he joined an investment club at his junior high school and began following stocks.
“My first stock was Kellogg’s. I was fascinated. I thought since I ate Kellogg’s breakfast cereal every day, and all the other kids were eating it too, it must be a good stock and it turned out to be great.”
By high school, Lee was determined to be a stockbroker.
At USC, Lee began working part time with Shearson Lehman Brothers. Within a year he had his license and was a fully-fledged broker. During his academic years, Lee rose at 5:30 am, went to work, then to classes before working again at night.
During this period he also made time to participate in JEP, where he felt he could relate to the circumstances of many of the high school students he was trying to help.
“Once you get to know people, you realize it’s those shared experiences that create bonds.”
Lee remembers helping one high school student in particular, a basketball player, who towered over him.
“I’m 6’ 2”, but he was so much bigger than me I was a bit intimidated,” Lee said. “He was having trouble with geometry and I explained it to him by saying ‘Hey, man, this is really easy because basketball is all about geometry.’ I knew he was a tough guy, but I also saw the innocence in him as he struggled to grasp it. He was so discouraged at first, but by using that analogy I was able to help him and I realized how much confidence he gained by learning how to do that formula. I’ll always remember him sitting next to me, his eyes growing bigger as he began to understand.”
Shearson Lehman Brothers was so impressed with their part-time employee, they offered Lee a full-time job, and in 1991 he decided to leave USC to pursue his dream.
Realizing he didn’t have the typical stockbrokers’ pedigree, Lee decided instead to focus on Southern California businessmen who were Asian, had businesses worth $100 million and didn’t speak English or have access to Wall Street.
During 10 years in the securities industry, Lee won some of the Southern California’s leading retailers as clients. Then in 2001, he joined clothing manufacturer and retailer Forever 21, where he stayed until 2009. After two years in private equity, he joined Kitson in 2011. There, he is concentrating on building another global retailer.
“One of my major skills is identifying key management that can add value to the company. Another is figuring out the capital structure,” said Lee, whose eldest son, Ethan, is joining USC Dornsife as an undergraduate.
Lee credits the Trojan Family for his success.
“Without USC I don’t think I would be a visionary entrepreneur,” he said. “USC provides such a strong alumni network and being able to call people I went to school with and get their insight and input has been invaluable.
“I am grateful and proud to be a Trojan.”