British Columbia

Robert H. Lee, Vancouver real estate magnate and philanthropist, dead at 86

Chinese-Canadian was known for his community contributions, from UBC to the YMCA.

Chinese-Canadian was known for his community contributions

Robert H. Lee as captured in UBC's Trek Magazine. His decades-long commitment to giving back to the university had many in the campus community calling him 'Mr. UBC.' (Martin Dee/UBC Trek Magazine)

Vancouver real estate magnate and philanthropist Robert H. Lee has died at the age of 86.

University of British Columbia president Santa Ono announced Lee's passing in a statement on UBC's website. 

Lee, known as Bob, was the founder of the real estate firm Prospero Group and one of B.C.'s wealthiest people, but he was perhaps best known for his contributions to the community.

A graduate of UBC's commerce program in 1956, Lee continued his relationship with the university for decades afterward.

For 23 years, he volunteered on the board of governors and was chancellor from 1993 to 1996.

In the 1980s while on the board, he pioneered the idea of turning previously undeveloped university endowed land into leasehold market housing.

It allowed the school to develop and sell housing for a fixed time period while still owning the property, and despite initial opposition, it helped change the trajectory of UBC into a quasi-municipality with an international reputation.

"We had 1,000 acres at the university, of which 500 acres could be developed," he said in a 2013 interview with UBC Archives.

"In my mind, I could see that would give the university a billion dollars, and that would help raise the standard [of UBC] by giving scholarships, hiring the best professors ... we had a $50 million endowment. Now we have well over a billion. That's a big change. And that really helped put UBC on the map." 

He believed it was his greatest professional accomplishment, according to his book Robert H. Lee: His Life, World and the UBC Properties Trust.

Watch: Robert H. Lee talks about life in Vancouver in an extensive sit-down interview:

A pioneer in Vancouver's Asian-Canadian business community, Lee discussed his life in a 2013 interview with UBC Archives (courtesy UBC Archives). 18:18

Life values

Lee's generosity went beyond giving just time and energy. He wrote multi-million-dollar cheques to the university, the YMCA, hospital foundations and the preservation of Chinatown.

He is one of the most genuine and generous people that I have ever met in my entire life," said Ono. "He is totally motivated by giving back."

His name is emblazoned on buildings at the Sauder School of Business, UBC's alumni centre, the YMCA on Burrard Street and a health centre on East Broadway.

For his contributions, Lee was honoured with the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, and was named a Business Laureate of B.C.

Born in Vancouver in 1933, Lee was one of seven children. 

"I graduated in 1951 with a not very impressive academic average, but I got into university ... whereas today it's impossible to get in unless you have a 90 per cent average," he said. 

His father was an entrepreneur in Chinatown who taught him the values of hard work, vision and personal connections.

In his book, Lee says his father worked 14-hour days, six days a week, but always made time for his family every Sunday. 

Those values translated into Lee's work and personal life. He was rarely seen out and about without his family.

"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," said Ono.

Lee leaves behind his wife, Lily, and four children.

 

About the Author

Lien Yeung

@LienYeung

Lien Yeung hosts CBC Vancouver News Weekends. As a multimedia reporter, she has covered stories locally and nationally from coast to coast on television, radio and social media. You can reach her on Instagram or Twitter @LienYeung or via email at lien.yeung@cbc.ca.

With files from Justin McElroy