Obituary: John Lee-Tin Jr — Shining brightest
Cultured, guitar-playing capital markets banker who was widely seen as the best SSA originator in the business died on December 26. He was 48 and had been suffering from cancer.
You knew when you’d been on a trip with John Lee-Tin Jr. For colleagues and clients of the JP Morgan bond banker over the last two decades, accompanying him on a roadshow or site visit was often exhausting — but always supremely fun.
Like Mother Hen, he would lead his brood when travelling, making sure he got companions in to the Concorde lounge at Heathrow or securing a table at the most interesting and authentically local restaurant in the area. Not for him was the recommendation from Tripadvisor. In fact, given the vast amount of travel he did, he was a superb source of recommendations for bars, restaurants, hotels and culture that were, more often than not, off the beaten track.
His energy and enthusiasm were hard to keep up with. He was all for staying out late, even when his cohorts preferred to get an early night ahead of the crucial 8am client meeting the next morning.
For JLT, the 2am finish was all part of soaking up the local atmosphere, and getting the most out of life, whether it was the Bauhaus bar in Tokyo, the Figls schnitzel house in Vienna or the Hop Kee restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. He always made the 8am meeting, and invariably shone in it.
The perfect fit
Lee-Tin had to shine. As head of public sector debt capital markets at JP Morgan he was responsible for bringing home the bond deals from the world’s most important borrowers — the sovereigns, supranationals and government agencies. He was ideally suited to the role — professional, eloquent, likeable and knowledgeable, and with a prodigious work ethic and a love of travelling.
Although prestigious, SSA origination is not necessarily the most complicated business in capital markets. But the competition is fierce and clients need good reasons to pick a bank for a deal. Having someone clients want to do business with — someone they really like and trust — is essential. JLT was that someone.
He had one of the most formidable bond machines behind him, with JP Morgan’s big balance sheet and swaps business. But even the most powerful firms need someone to “deliver the firm” for the client. And he delivered it, prompting many clients and rivals to consider him the best in the business.
Lee-Tin understood what a DCM banker should do — get his firm working together to give clients the best service. His persuasive abilities were the oil that got all the cogs of the machine turning smoothly.
And yet, he did not fit the standard model of a DCM banker, something friends attributed to his biggest fear in life: boredom.
He had a firm grasp of all aspects of bond markets — trading levels, swaps, operational issues, a plethora of currencies and products and the influences driving the market. Rather than defer to experts back in the office, such as colleagues on the syndicate or trading desks, he usually had the exact information at his fingertips.
With his excellent feel for the market and strong views about it, that he could articulate extremely well, many recognised the qualities of a syndicate banker in him.
He had in fact expressed an interest in doing the syndicate role on some deals — something that colleagues felt he would have had little difficulty with given the chance, with the only negative being that it might have been at the expense of his superb origination work.
Lee-Tin would confidently pitch an issuer over dinner, using a laminated one-pager rather than the usual 42 page research document many bankers lug around like a crutch.
Clients were left with the impression that he was always working on plans for them — and not just when a mandate was in the offing. It was, as one sovereign borrower says, “constant coverage of the highest quality”.
Lee-Tin was never afraid to try something that hadn’t been done before in the SSA market, such as pricing five deals in a day, or a three tranche deal all at once. Sometimes colleagues worried he was pushing things too hard, but his strong feel for the market, technical understanding and relationships, internally and externally, meant most things he tried came off.
While it would be wrong to say Lee-Tin’s job gave him his identity — he had too many interests outside the office for that — he did gain enormous pride from the success JP Morgan’s SSA business has achieved in the last decade.
He was especially proud of his DCM team, loved being the lynchpin of it, and was devoted to making sure its members were happy and working well.
When his bank won awards he made sure his team took the plaudits instead of himself. He was especially proud when they won a clutch of prizes in 2017, the year he had missed much of due to illness.
Colleagues remark how supportive he was of junior staff, spending an inordinate amount of time, not only with them, to make sure they were making the most of their opportunities and avoiding pitfalls, but also singing their praises to senior management.
He would write almost essay-length evaluations on individuals, and always had a vision for them. He would get them out on the road and in front of clients as early as possible.
In a business where a lot of people are quite selfish and there is a high degree of paranoia, he was one of the exceptions, standing out as inclusive and collaborative. He was also generous in offering help to clients and competitors at other institutions.
To some he was like a benevolent godfather, always happy to listen to their worries, give advice and see them through to a happy resolution.
Working with rivals on a trade, he often praised their efforts to them, to the client, or to the press.
One counterpart remembers how, on a particularly hard-fought-for mandate, his bank was a late addition to the bookrunner group. As usual in this situation, there was a lot of grumbling from the originally mandated bankers. Lee-Tin wasn’t having it. He sent a side message to the newcomer, telling him not to worry about the carping and ending with the words: “Love the people, hate the game.”
This collegiate atmosphere often led to more harmonious deals, and perhaps even better execution for the client.
One very public way Lee-Tin promoted inclusivity and collaboration in his market was through the Surf-n-Turf Dinner that he orchestrated during the IMF-World Bank annual meetings. The dinner’s rules are simple: five or so banks host it jointly, so none is seen as owning it; casual attire; all clients are invited; strictly no pitching to clients; and the venue is always cool but never over the top (always Bobby Van's Steakhouse when in Washington DC).
Some have suggested it should be renamed the John Lee-Tin Dinner, in memory of the man who made it such a successful event in the SSA market’s calendar.
A seasoned head of DCM recalls how, in the all the years of working with JLT on trades and pitching against him, he never once argued with him. It was, he says, due to JLT’s rare ability to always find a mutually agreeable solution, a skill that drew on his reasoning power, ability to articulate exactly what he meant, and understanding of human nature.
These qualities also often made him the bookrunner group’s choice to take the tough phone call from an issuer, about a struggling deal or questionable strategy. More often than not he would reassure the client and come back with the right plan that worked for all parties.
Lee-Tin’s capital markets journey had started in 1992, when upon completing his degree in science and finance at Lehigh University, he started at Bear Stearns in New York as an associate. Bear sent him to Hong Kong and it was here that he met his wife Jane Tantikulananta, who was working at Citibank in Bangkok. Their first contact was over the phone the day before Thanksgiving in 1996. Six months later she moved to Hong Kong to live with him, and in October 1998, they were married at The Bernards Inn in Bernardsville, New Jersey, near the home of Lee-Tin’s parents.
In 1999 he fulfilled a long-held ambition and enrolled at Kellogg School of Management for an MBA. He threw himself into student life, making it on to the Dean’s List, narrowly losing an election for president of the student association, and playing the keyboard in a band.
Music had always been in the background when John was growing up — his father John Lee-Tin Sr had played in a band in his native Trinidad.
Music was just one of his father’s influences. Drive, the desire to be always moving forward and a love of banking were others. Having emigrated from the Caribbean in the late 1960s, JLT Sr forged a new life in the US, ending up as a repo trader for Merrill Lynch, having worked his way from back office to front office, a rare feat, then as now.
While working on his MBA, JLT Jr secured an internship at JP Morgan in New York, and impressed enough to be offered a full time job in 2001. Over the next four years, he would work on areas such as Latin American debt capital markets, corporate investment bank strategy and public sector finance.
September that year brought 9/11. Although one of JLT’s favourite maxims throughout his life was “why wait for tomorrow?”, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were a wake-up call for the couple, convincing them to get on with starting a family. Their first child, Jasmine, was born in 2002.
Although he would work at JP Morgan for the rest of his life, and was immensely proud to do so, JLT wasn’t always content. In 2004, wanting to be more directly involved in the capital markets, he spoke to his boss Daniel Zelikow about a change.
The very next day, one of the bank’s SSA team in London quit. Soon came an offer to move there, to work under Scott Lampard. For JLT it was a dream move. He loved London, having got a taste for it in the mid-1990s, when he had spent two years there with Bear, before going to Hong Kong “kicking and screaming”.
For Jane, it was tougher — she had a two year old daughter and another, Jemma, on the way.
An American in London
While Lee-Tin never lost his American accent, nor the baseball cap, he threw himself into London life, becoming a season ticket holder at Arsenal, one of London’s football teams, and at Twickenham, the home of England rugby, where he was a generous pre-match buyer of Guinness at the Eel Pie pub. He even developed an understanding of cricket. It helped that he had always been a lover of team sports, but he had worked out early on that to get to really know people in a new place you needed to get to know their sports.
Partly explaining his affinity with London, JLT also reckoned the British produced the best music and was thrilled to be living among it. He was a talented musician, often taking his foldable guitar on business trips, to bring out in the bar in the evening or in airport lounges.
Occasionally he even took the guitar in to a pitch, at the client’s request, and gave them a quick burst of the Eagles or Steely Dan. His band, City Phunk, used to play gigs at a pub in Mayfair, to help the SSA market unwind after the Euromoney Global Borrowers conference, with its three days of back-to-back meetings.
But in truth, despite London having a special place in John’s heart, he loved it wherever he was — he was one of life’s great enthusiasts, with a surfeit of energy and insatiable appetites for work, travel, adventure, sport, cooking, food and friendships; whether it was in his adopted home of Notting Hill or wherever his job took him.
One weekend he would be in his seat at the Emirates Stadium cheering on Arsenal, the week after at a grand slam tennis tournament, the next at a Redskins game in Washington DC with a group of clients.
He was good at this — pulling a group of people together and making sure they were all having fun and enjoying each other’s company.
He certainly wasn’t the showman at an event, but as one friend puts it, he was the backbone, always making sure it was going well and everyone was having a good time.
Once, he persuaded a group of issuers to join him on an expedition to the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Another time, he arranged a golf tournament in Stockholm for Scandinavian issuers. Rather than let the party from Helsinki boringly catch a plane to get there, he accompanied them on a 17 hour overnight ferry journey down the Baltic Sea.
He navigated the personal and professional worlds with consummate ease, yet somehow never confused the two.
Bravery and positivity
Lee-Tin fought his illness just like he approached his job: he never complained, just got on with it in a positive and determined manner, with a remarkable mental strength. He never asked “why me?” — instead his attitude was “why not me?”, all the while emphasising the good news, mobilising it even, as part of his fight against the disease.
He had fought impressively, not only when first struck by the disease, but also throughout all the gruelling operations and treatments that ensued. And, outwardly at least, he had got his working life back to normal so quickly that most people thought he had seen it off. This partly explains why his death took so many in the market by surprise.
In September 2016, having discovered he had a ruptured tumour on his liver, John was told by a surgeon in Hong Kong that it was inoperable and he should get his affairs in order.
But six months later he was emailing all his friends describing how, having found a brilliant surgeon in London, his first set of operations had been a success, he was preparing for the second set and was on course to being cured.
Like many of us, he liked things to look forward to, and targets to aim for. One, while recovering after his second set of operations in April 2017, was to be well enough to attend the GlobalCapital Bond Dinner in May. He made it, and gave a moving speech about his experience, raising awareness of his disease and how people could donate to help others suffering from it.
As soon as his energy returned, JLT plunged back into work and family life, his maxim of “why wait for tomorrow?” carrying even more poignancy. Many did not know he was still having regular chemotherapy, which continued until July 2018.
But, tragically, he hadn’t beaten the disease. In July his doctors confirmed they had found more evidence of it. Despite his health deteriorating he was determined to pack in as much as possible, and flew to the IMF meetings in Bali in October, determined not to miss the Surf-n-Turf Dinner and see all his clients.
Bali was the last time many people in the market saw him, although he never really stopped working. Even in his last few days, he was still emailing friends and discussing with colleagues about staff matters and issuers’ funding strategies for 2019.
He passed away on December 26, having been readmitted to hospital on Christmas Day. He died with his family at his bedside. As well as his wife, he leaves three daughters — Jasmine, Jemma and Josie — whom he adored, and constantly talked about and showed pictures of with immense pride.
The SSA market will be a lonelier and less enjoyable place without him. For many, it will be hard to imagine capital markets life without the “Hey mate, how’s it going?”, the twinkling eyes, the always expensive but still casual attire, the stinging high-fives and slaps on the back, the guitar, the infectious energy and genuine friendship he brought with him wherever he went.
As one supranational issuer says: “The SSA family has lost a great banker. We’ve lost an even greater man.”
By Toby Fildes.
Additional research by Craig McGlashan.
A funeral service was held on Friday January 11 at 3pm at St Mary’s, Cadogan St, London. Those attending were encouraged to dress in “John style”: smart casual. All seven of the world's continents were represented, with the church packed out with family and friends.
A memorial service is planned for later in the year.
In appreciation of John’s efforts to raise funds for cancer research, his family have suggested that anyone wanting to make donations should make them to the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute. Some of the specialists who took care of John over the past two years are part of this institute.