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Generations of Success

A landmark gift is shaping the future of the Lee Business School. Learn about the family members behind the $15 million gift and their commitment to Southern Nevada.

People  |  Apr 9, 2012  |  By Lisa Arth

The Lee family: Ernest, Graham, Doris, Theodore, Dana, Katie, and Greg (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

To say that Ted and Doris Lee have lived fascinating lives doesn't begin to tell the story. It is a story that spans the globe, from fathers who came to America with only the clothes on their backs to the next generation owning and operating casinos and multifaceted real estate investments and developments with property in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and California. It's about two people with experience and accomplishments to fill several lifetimes. They met and built a family business around real estate and gaming.

In the fall, UNLV announced a gift from Ted and Doris Lee and the renaming of the College of Business to the Lee Business School. The $15 million gift not only will shape the future of the school but also improve its national reputation, expand opportunities for current students, and promote community and alumni support.

Ted's Story

Theodore "Ted" Lee grew up in Stockton, Calif. He participated in sports and worked for his father's meat market every day after school.

Ted was accepted to Harvard and traveled there by train to save money, not realizing how difficult the trip could be. He only knew he would save a dollar for every hour he spent on the train, which he thought would be easy money. Instead it was one of the most difficult experiences he has ever had. He spent three and a half days sitting up because he would not use the vacant adjoining seat for which he had not paid.

Like many young people away from home for the first time, he struggled to adjust to college. He admits, "I didn't know how to study and didn't even take notes. At the end of my sophomore year, I suddenly realized that I was lucky to have been able to stay in school. I decided that my last two years of college would be different, particularly if I wanted to have any chance to attend graduate school."

After graduation from college, Ted was drafted into the U.S. Army. While cleaning latrines at the Nahbollenbach Quartermaster Headquarters in West Germany, he had the good fortune to be noticed by a first sergeant who said, "It is a pleasure to see someone who knows how to work." That observation led to his obtaining his perfect Army job, which was traveling through West Germany and France inspecting quartermaster depots and facilities. He received a letter of commendation for recommending a way to better keep track of supplies. His suggestion was immediately adopted. He also spent a lot of time reading books that he had failed to read in college.

After leaving the Army, he attended law school at the University of California, Berkeley. He spent a year in Singapore studying law on a UC Berkeley International Legal Studies Fellowship and was the first American to become a member of the law faculty at the National University of Singapore. His first research project on taxation was published.

He then went into private law practice and helped start the East-West Center in Honolulu as an assistant to the vice chancellor.

He recognized a need for more education. "One of the reasons I went back to business school was that a prominent visiting professor at the East-West Center from Indiana University asked me to read a paper he had written that was to be published," says Lee. "I suddenly felt that I was already obsolete because I struggled to understand what I was reading."

Lee returned to UC Berkeley for his MBA, specializing in real estate and planning. While at Berkeley, he spent a few months as a consultant to a Rural Industrial Technical Assistance Project in northeast Brazil sponsored by the Agency for International Development where he concluded that he could do more to help the disadvantaged at home than in a foreign country.

He started his real estate career by becoming a community organizer focused on urban renewal. His first urban renewal project was San Francisco's Japantown, followed by nonprofit housing projects in minority communities in the California cities of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton, which paved the way for a career in real estate development and investment.

He was retained by a prominent shopping center developer to advise him on urban redevelopment. While doing so, he learned about commercial shopping centers from a developer who was one of the best. After an unsuccessful attempt to build a law firm to serve this client, he became a real estate investor-developer himself.

Doris' Story

Born in San Francisco, Doris Shoong Lee grew up in Oakland. She graduated high school at 16 and attended UC Berkeley. After her freshman year, her father decided that the family should visit China and give Doris and her sister an opportunity to attend Lingnan University.

During their visit, war broke out when the Japanese attacked China. The family immediately had to find a way back to the United States from Hong Kong. "I remember thinking that we were lucky to be on that ship," recollects Doris Lee. "It was the last ship out of China."

Doris returned to the U.S. and continued college at Stanford. Several years later, her father turned over management of the National Dollar Stores to a management team of which Doris was a senior member.

Fathers Know Best

Ted and Doris were both tremendously influenced by their fathers. Though Bo Lee and Joe Shoong never met, Bo admired Joe's philanthropy and accomplishments. Both fathers immigrated to the United States as teenagers, not speaking English, and without money, jobs, or relatives. Both men started life without formal education. They worked hard, saved their money, and had reputations for honesty and integrity. Treating people fairly, being entrepreneurial, and having high expectations for yourself and others were important to both families.

Bo started life in America in San Francisco's Chinatown, working two jobs. He moved to Sacramento, where he learned to be a butcher and eventually ended up in Stockton. As the town's first butcher of Chinese ancestry, he opened three small grocery stores and meat markets. When he could no longer compete in the new business environment that existed following the end of World War II, three small real estate investments enabled him to retire at the early age of 48.

Joe Shoong immigrated to the U.S. around 1876 at the age of 18. He began working in a little store in Vallejo, Calif. After a few years, he made the decision to move the store to San Francisco, changing its name to the Dollar Store. In 1928, he launched the National Dollar Stores, expanding them eventually to 35 stores throughout Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, and Hawaii.

"[My father] tried to provide his employees with a good living and security. He wanted their families to go to college. If they couldn't afford it, my dad would help," says Doris Lee. "He ended up putting some of the children of his managers through college. They were part of his extended family."

Bo Lee advised his son at an early age that, whatever you do, do it well and look for ways to do it better. That even includes sweeping floors. It occurred to Ted that if he could do as well in real estate as his father, he should consider the possibility of real estate as a career.

Las Vegas

Ted and Doris met through a real estate investment. They were married in 1969. Two years later, after developing a few properties in the San Francisco area, they began investing in Las Vegas. "Everybody was wondering what the future of Las Vegas would be like," says Tee Lee. "We didn't have very much money, but we put what we had into Las Vegas real estate because of the city's potential for growth."

Doris' father had bought land in Las Vegas and built a National Dollar Store at what is now Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. Ted and Doris split their time between San Francisco and Las Vegas, and developed property in both places. They thought that Las Vegas offered the ideal environment for entrepreneurs.

In 1982, the family traveled around the world and planned for the future. The Lees try to obtain the highest and best use for their real estate and keep it as a long-term investment. They had avoided entering the casino business, as had their parents, but when they bought Friendly Fergies on Sahara Avenue, which had an unrestricted gaming license, they decided as a family, including their two sons, Greg and Ernest, to enter the gaming business. They became residents of Nevada and changed the name of the location to Eureka Casino.

A Son's Perspective

As their son, Greg, said during the announcement of the Lee Business School gift, "It's not every day that a son gets an opportunity to tell his parents how proud he is of them."

Greg Lee says that his parents taught perseverance and continuous improvement. If Greg struggled on his homework, his father would tell him that it was less important how his first effort turned out. His final effort is what counted. "There were always many drafts of everything," laughs Greg Lee. "Our parents had high expectations for us, causing us to have high expectations for ourselves. When my father would ask if this was the best that I could do, it only made me try harder to improve." Greg operates the family's second casino, Eureka Casino & Hotel in Mesquite, which opened in 1997.

Giving back

For the Lees, it is important to be a part of the community and the culture where they live and do business. Ted and Doris support many community projects such as parks and recreation, intercollegiate athletics, and the arts. Their business focuses on offering value and personal respect.

Doris' father was a philanthropist who built a community center and a Chinese language school in Oakland, Calif., as well as a school in his family village in China. He established a scholarship at UC Berkeley and created the Shoong Foundation, a charitable organization.

Ted and Doris serve on boards of the schools that the family has attended. Doris supports art and culture. Greg serves on the UNLV Foundation board. The family supports the Problem Gambling Center, and Greg Lee serves on its board. "This gift is an investment in the future of Las Vegas and its university. It is also a way for our family to share our success with others," says Ted Lee. "The Lee Business School is the culmination of everything we've wanted to do."