Awards for the quiet founder of Tom Lee Music

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2011, 12:00am


Thomas Lee Tse-ven may not be a name that strikes a chord with many people, but the business he founded almost 60 years ago has transformed the music industry.

The 91-year-old keeps such a low profile that the website for his company, Tom Lee Music, does not even mention him or his family.

But there has been important recognition for the man who built the business from a Tsim Sha Tsui shop into an empire that also ccovers the mainland, Macau and Canada.

Last month, the Arts Development Council gave a gold award for arts promotion to his Tom Lee Music Foundation, a music school he founded in 1977 to make music more accessible and appreciated.

The sprightly father of seven is also a recipient of the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award, alongside other pillars of society including Run Run Shaw and Joseph Hotung. The pen maker described him as 'a true patron of music'.

Lee says: 'I don't think I am successful at all. Living is like swimming. We all try to keep our noses above the water. But when a big wave crashes, we all may die.'

As requested by Lee, his 500-strong staff do not call him chairman or manager. 'Everyone in the office should be equal,' he says.

Born in Shanghai, he came to Hong Kong in 1951 to look for a job but could not find one. So he started his own business, trading in 1953.

'A schoolmate then persuaded me to open a musical instrument company - Tom Lee Piano Company,' he recalled. 'He became the manager and I trusted him. One day several violins were stolen, and soon later he disappeared.'

Clueless about music and instruments, he worked hard with his wife Betty Lee Sun Ven-yin, now Tom Lee's vice-president, and learned on the job. 'From choosing wood for piano manufacturing to selling pianos door to door, we did everything together from nothing,' he said.

'And about two years later the business became stable.

'In 1958, my wife won a pair of flight tickets as second prize in a lottery. We decided to go to Japan because I spoke the language.'

During the trip, their first by plane, he contacted Yamaha, which produces musical instruments as well as electronics and motorcycles, and became its agent in Hong Kong. The deal was the key to the company's later success, he said.

Another pivotal point was his decision to buy the shops' properties, from the 1960s. 'I began buying properties one by one, starting with the one in Cameron Road,' he said.

The shop is now the company's main showroom in Hong Kong.

Without these properties, Tom Lee would have been eaten up by rents, he said. 'We don't do it only for the money,' he said. 'If we did, we wouldn't be running Tom Lee. We would just rent the shops out. I want to make people happy.'

His extensive business trips to Japan to meet suppliers in the 1970s helped him see the importance of musical education for Japanese children. Several years later he started his music school, which has about 10,000 students of all ages each year.

Thomas and Betty Lee still go to the office five days a week, although the company is mainly managed by three sons and four daughters.

'They make the big decisions now, but we still like to know what they are doing,' Betty, 82, said.

The music empire now has more than 40 outlets worldwide.

Son Frank Lee King-tin, the company's president, said the company was changing from being just a family business. 'We brothers and sisters can't do all the work,' he said.

The elderly couple will have been married for 70 years in 2016. 'Without my wife, no Yamaha,' the patriarch said. 'No Yamaha, no Tom Lee.'