James B. “Jimmy” Lee, the colorful JPMorgan Chase & Co. rainmaker whose pioneering work in the loan market helped propel an era of Wall Street deals, died Wednesday morning. He was 62.
Lee felt shortness of breath while on a treadmill at his home in Darien, Connecticut, and was taken to a hospital, where he died, according to a person briefed on the matter.
“Jimmy was a great friend, leader and mentor to me and so many others,” JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon said in a statement. “Jimmy was a master of his craft, but he was so much more -- he was an incomparable force of nature.”
At an investment bank that often emphasized its team and resources over individual stars, Lee was the exception, with a charismatic personality and Rolodex known throughout Wall Street. He worked for JPMorgan and its predecessors since the mid-1970s, eventually running its investment bank before becoming a company vice chairman and continuing to garner some of its biggest deals. A rival banker once quipped that one of Dimon’s most important tasks every year was to make sure Lee stayed happy.
Lee is survived by his wife Beth and three children, Lexi, Jamie and Izzy, according to Dimon’s statement.
“It’s a sad day for Wall Street,” said Raymond McGuire, global head of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup Inc. “Jimmy Lee was a formidable competitor who commanded respect.”
Lee counseled on some of the biggest deals in corporate America, helping negotiate Comcast Corp.’s acquisition of NBC from General Electric Co. in 2009, the United-Continental airline merger in 2010 and General Motors Co.’s $18 billion initial public offering later that year. He also was an adviser to Dell Inc. on its $24.4 billion buyout by its founder Michael Dell.
Lee was the wallet for many of Wall Street’s biggest dealmakers. He pioneered the use of leveraged loans to fund takeovers more than two decades ago and helped build the modern private-equity industry. Among his most frequent collaborators was Blackstone Group co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman. The two men developed a close friendship.
“If you called up central casting and said, ‘Send me a banker,’ they’d send somebody who’s like Jimmy Lee,” said Bill Daley, who was chairman of JPMorgan’s Midwest region before becoming President Barack Obama’s chief of staff. “The hair back, and the two-tone shirt, and the expensive suits, and dined at all the best places. But along with that came a guy who was very decent.”
And spontaneous. Lee was known to jump onto stage with a guitar during performances of JPMorgan employee band the Bank Notes.
“His e-mails to me had a big theme: You had to be a warrior,” said Tim Main, senior managing director at Evercore Partners Inc. who spent 23 years at JPMorgan. “I must have gotten 50 e-mails just saying the word, ‘Warrior.’ And another 50 saying, ‘Warrior today.’ Sometimes all caps. Sometimes while I was presenting in a meeting.”
Dan Loeb, founder and CEO of Third Point LLC, recalled how Lee helped him learn how to do business in Japan.
“I repaid him by making him a T-shirt that said, ‘I advised Dan Loeb on his investment in Sony, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt,’’ Loeb said in an e-mail. Later, after Third Point won a rare meeting with robot-maker Fanuc Corp., ‘‘Jimmy purchased a linen jacket in the company’s distinctive corporate color -– bright yellow -– for me,’’ he said.
James Bainbridge Lee Jr. was born in October 1952. His father was a hatmaker who ran Frank H. Lee Hat Co. in Danbury, Connecticut. He died of a heart attack at 47 after the company fell on hard times. Lee, who was 11 at the time, was sent to boarding school.
‘‘I had trouble trusting other people, because I was afraid I’d get involved in a close relationship and it would get taken away from me,” he said in a video when he won the 2004 Horatio Alger Award.
He attended the Canterbury School and graduated from Williams College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics and art history in 1975. After graduating, he got a job as a management trainee at Chemical Bank in New York.
Lee’s career started as a fluke: His girlfriend, who later became his wife, had applied for and received numerous job interviews, but couldn’t make it to one.
“She said, ‘I’m not going to marry a bum, I want you to take this interview.’ I took the interview,” Lee recalled in the video. “They said, ‘Do you want to work here?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘Do you want to come to New York?’ I said, ‘No.’ So they said, ‘Well, what’s on your mind, we got an hour to kill here.’ We ended up talking about sports and leadership and hard work. So they invited me back for another interview, and I no longer had a future as a bum.”
Lee soon worked for the bank in Australia. In 1982, he founded the bank’s loan-syndications unit in New York, the start of Chemical Bank’s investment-banking business, according to a biography provided by JPMorgan.
“I had just finished a study of how Chemical Bank might get into the syndicated-loan business,” William Harrison, a Chemical Bank executive who would go on to run JPMorgan, said in an interview. He enlisted Lee for the project. “Jimmy took basically nothing and began to build a very powerful business.”
Syndicating loans for corporate mergers and takeovers let companies pursue ever-bigger deals, tapping into a broader market for the debt rather than just the balance sheets of banks handling the transactions. By 1994, he had organized coverage of private-equity firms as a stand-alone industry group and started the bank’s first M&A practice.
In 1996, Chemical merged with Chase Manhattan Corp. The combined company promoted Lee to vice chairman the following year with responsibility for global investment banking. When the firm bought mergers adviser Beacon Group in 2000, Lee relinquished the post to Beacon’s Geoffrey Boisi, but continued to focus on client relationships and major transactions. Later that year, the bank joined with J.P. Morgan & Co.
Lee was an adviser to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. on its IPO last year -- a $25 billion deal that was the largest ever -- after building a relationship with co-founders Jack Ma and Joe Tsai. At a party in New York the day the shares began trading, Lee introduced Ma to a crowd of hundreds.
Recently, Lee had been advising GE on the sale of its financial arm, part of the transformation of the company by CEO Jeff Immelt.
“Jimmy was a great banker, a tireless mentor and not the least, everyone’s favorite golfing partner,” said Michael Bloomberg, founder, CEO and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News. “Most importantly, he was a true friend to so many of us throughout his career. He will be sorely missed.”
Lee spoke about work, dreams and love when he won the Horatio Alger prize.
“I do really feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” he said.