By Naf Kwun
AABANY Advocate Editor-in-Chief
Parkin Lee, AABANY Advisory Committee Member and longtime AABANY supporter, is Senior Vice President, Chief Legal Officer (“CLO”) and Secretary of Rockefeller Group International, Inc. (“The Rockefeller Group”). Recently, he was appointed President and CEO of Rockefeller Group Investment Management (“RGIM”).
Congratulations! How did you come to be appointed President and CEO of RGIM?
I keep telling people that it’s not a big thing! [RGIM] is a subsidiary created about eight years ago to develop the investment management business for The Rockefeller Group. One of the reasons I came over [from New York Life Insurance Company] [“NYLI”] was to help develop their investment management business and leverage the expertise they had in-house… . [In 2010] The Rockefeller Group acquired an investment management firm in London [i.e., Europa Capital]. Last year, when we acquired TA Realty, which manages over ten billion dollars in assets, we decided to combine its operations with [RGIM’s] … . We relocated all domestic operations to Boston, shed most of [RGIM] employees in New York, and needed leadership.
As CLO [of The Rockefeller Group], I provided legal support for the acquisition of TA Realty and was one of the only senior officers who was intimately familiar with the deal. So I was asked to lead [RGIM].
The interesting aspects of this new position is to make sure that enterprise-wide, everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and to coordinate investments. On the compliance side … I’m assisting on regular meetings involving Tokyo, Boston, New York, and London to make sure everyone is aware of the issues and that we are addressing the issues consistently across all platforms… . International real estate investment management business is relatively new for the [the parent company,] Mitsubishi Estate [Co. Ltd.], so it’s been interesting to make everyone aware of the compliance requirements and to expand the understanding of how one goes about managing investments and managing businesses across borders. It’s a little bit of learning on the fly.
How would you describe your career trajectory?
Random walks. I had the good luck to have many random walks within [NYLI]. I spent twenty years there, and every few years I changed jobs. I went in as a private finance attorney. I had experience as a public finance attorney, though, so when [NYLI] decided to publicly issue bonds, I was the only attorney with the relevant experience and was asked to lead the project. That gave me exposure to other people and other aspects of the company. Coming out of that, I was then asked to lead the real estate group, which I did for 7 years. Then, [NYLI] wanted to expand and developed a mergers and acquisitions team and I was asked to be their attorney. So I did M&A for a while, then private equity, then venture capital, then derivatives, then investment management work. Then I found my way back to private finance and securities and headed up that practice.
Did you have any challenging times in your career? How did you overcome them?
When I was asked to head the real estate attorneys [at NYLI], I had no real estate experience. There were five attorneys, all more senior than I was, and most had titles above my title. In order to head up the group, they had to promote me two levels. I had to establish my credentials with the attorneys and gain their trust. I did that by taking on significant responsibilities and showing them that I could learn on the job.
[For example,] [w]e had the country divvied up geographically. I came into the position in the late 80s, early 90s, during a real estate recession. There was a lot of restructuring and bankruptcies in the portfolio. I took Texas and Louisiana, which were two of the busiest states for bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures. There was a lot of learning on the job, rolling up my sleeves, and diving deep into the issues.
You are an attorney who leads a legal team and who will now also be leading the business and operations side of a company. What challenges do you expect down the road?
Being CLO is pretty much half a business role anyway, so you need to have a big view of things, a high level perspective of the issues, and an understanding of the business. You have to be facile with the financial numbers and have an understanding of the goals and objectives of the business people.
What’s interesting is the number of former attorneys leading business groups. The head of our industrial development team is a former lawyer, the head of our urban development team is a former lawyer, and so are a few of our regional officers. Legal training and the skill sets you develop as an attorney definitely come in handy: the ability to analyze situations, identify what are important versus non-important issues, and come up with interesting constructs to achieve a certain outcome given the materials at hand.
What was your first leadership position? How would you describe your leadership style?
My first leadership position was at [NYLI], heading the real estate group. My leadership style is know what your team is doing and make sure they know what each other is doing. Have an open door policy. Encourage discussion of issues. Encourage people to share ideas and thoughts and to help each other learn. For example, when I’m hiring, I look for people who have the knowledge and experience to do the job, but in terms of character and personality, I look for people who have intellectual curiosity, interests outside of the law. That to me indicates an open mind and that they are receptive to new ideas.
What impact has your ethnicity had your career?
I don’t think it has, at least not in my career. Has it made a difference? It’s really how other people perceive you. If you had asked me at different times in my career, I would have given you different answers.
I was an anomaly when I started practicing law in ‘81 at Dewey Ballantine. I was the only Asian American attorney out of about 360 attorneys. I’m not sure people knew what to make of me. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. No one came at me with preconceived notions, so it was sort of a blank slate. I had to prove myself. I don’t think there were any negative connotations.
You are very active in APA bar associations such as AABANY and NAPABA. Why is it important to you to participate in these organizations?
There are still issues that need to be addressed by Asian American organizations like AABANY, AALDEF and NAPABA. Mainstream organizations do not have the sensitivity or desire to go after such issues.
From the legal and professional development standpoint, I think Asian Americans still have problems becoming partners at law firms and need greater representation in-house. We’ve made strides, and it’s been gratifying to see the progress, but more progress needs to be made, especially in the partner ranks.
What role have mentors played in your career? What role do they continue to play?
It’s always great to be able to call up people and have an honest discussion, and to have others’ insights on personal and professional issues you may be having. That is really important. Whether you call them mentors or friends, it’s always valuable to have different viewpoints. AABANY and NAPABA have been great avenues for me to meet people on an ad hoc basis who can offer confidential, sincere, and honest opinions and who can do so because they have no personal vested interest otherwise. I have a nice network of people that I feel safe talking to about just about everything. That came out of the work I do at AABANY and NAPABA.
What’s the best career advice you have ever received?
Maintain flexibility. Going back to when I was asked to head the Real Estate group [at NYLI]. I get a call from the General Counsel’s Office. She says, “Parkin, I want you to lead the Real Estate Group.” I tell her, “I know nothing about real estate.” She says, “You’ll learn.” I tell her, “You realize you’ll have six very difficult personalities in that group.” She says, “Yes. By the way, this is highly confidential. You are not allowed to talk to anyone in this department about this.” Thankfully, there were two senior attorneys who had just joined the business side and whom I was friendly with. Both said to me, “This is going to be a challenge. It’s not going to be easy. But opportunities like this do not come along every day. You’ve gotta do it.” They were absolutely right.
There are times when you are asked to do something that seems frightening and difficult, but the people asking you do it have faith in you and that’s why they’re asking you. You have to have the same amount of faith in yourself.
Any advice for our readers who aspire to follow in your footsteps to the C-suite?
The best route to advancement in-house is to be open to doing different things. If people ask you to take on a job or project that’s a little bit outside of your wheelhouse, do it. The educational experience is well worth it. You’ll meet people within the company you otherwise would not have had a chance to meet. You’ll expand your network, expand your visibility within the company, and expand your experience and knowledge.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2015, Volume XVI, Issue IV of The AABANY Advocate, which can be read in its entirety here. To see all past versions of The AABANY Advocate,click here. To learn more about AABANY’s newsletter, you can email [email protected].