The cream of the investment and corporate worlds gathered nearly a decade ago when JPMorgan Chase & Co. celebrated Jimmy Lee’s 30 years in the banking business — a seemingly endless list of names including Henry Kravis, Stephen Schwarzman, Barry Diller and Jack Welch.
“They remembered how he stepped up and gave them what they needed to get deals done when no one else was there to help them,” said Anwar Zakkour, a fellow investment banker who worked closely with Lee at Chase. “There was no bigger banker on Wall Street than Jimmy Lee.”
JPMorgan Vice Chairman James B. Lee Jr., 62, known as Chase’s “trillion dollar man,” collapsed after suffering an apparent heart attack after exercising on a treadmill at his home in Darien, Conn. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Lee was one of the best dealmakers on Wall Street and helped take hosts of companies public, including General Motors, Alibaba, Visa and Facebook. He engineered high-profile mergers such as News Corp. with Dow Jones, and United Airlines with Continental. He was involved twice in deals affecting the Los Angeles Times, first when real estate mogul Sam Zell bought Times parent Tribune Co., and again when Tribune split into separate broadcasting and newspaper companies after Zell’s debt-laden acquisition landed the company in bankruptcy court.
While working at Chemical Bank, a predecessor bank to JPMorgan Chase, Lee was the architect of the now common practice of banks providing enormous deal-financing loans to companies or investors while arranging to have dozens of other banks take on some of the debt, spreading risks too large for any one firm to shoulder.
“He helped build something that started as nothing into the leading loan syndicator in the country,” said former Chemical Chief Executive William B. Harrison, who went on to become CEO of JPMorgan Chase.
In addition to creating the syndicated loan business, Lee founded a high-yield bond business at Chemical as well as an arm that catered to private equity firms, enabling the bank and later JPMorgan Chase to offer one-stop shopping for companies and investors seeking financing for mergers and acquisitions.
After JPMorgan purchased Bank One in 2004 and Bank One’s Jamie Dimon became CEO of the merged bank, “He and Jamie became very close,” Harrison said. “Jamie collaborated with him tremendously — not just as a banker, but as a guy who could help him think all kinds of things through.”
Dimon said in a statement that Lee had made “an indelible and invaluable contribution to our company, our people, our clients and our industry over his nearly 40 years of dedicated and selfless service.”
“Jimmy was a master of his craft,” Dimon said, “but he was so much more — he was an incomparable force of nature.”
Born in Manhattan in 1952, Lee double-majored in economics and art history at Williams College before entering the banking world almost accidentally, when his wife decided to pass on a job interview at Chemical Bank and he went instead.
With his successes, Lee inevitably was courted by other firms and had agreed at one point to join Schwarzman’s firm, the enormous asset manager Blackstone Group, before Harrison talked him out of it. Zakkour said he often teased Lee by saying he must have regretted not taking a job that would have made him a billionaire twice over, but Lee replied: “No — I love my job here.”
Survivors include Lee’s wife, Elizabeth; daughters Alexandra and Elizabeth; and son James.