Dr. David Lee and his Korean-American partners in Jamison Properties are the biggest owners of commercial real estate in Los Angeles County. They control seventy office buildings, thirteen medical buildings and six shopping centers. You can't look around in the Koreatown section of Wilshire Boulevard without seeing numerous Jamison properties, including the sky-scraping Equitable Tower. In his new perch at the New York Times, ex-LAT columnist James Flanigan talks with the media-shy Lee, who began buying with eight other immigrant doctors and dentists and now heads an investment group of a hundred, nearly all Korean. The column's peg is Jamison's $70 million purchase of the Airport Center complex near LAX.
Mr. Lee, who came to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, 34 years ago at age 17 and trained in internal medicine at Northwestern University Medical School, is relatively little known outside his ethnic and professional circles. A modest, quiet-spoken man, he is no Donald Trump....
Bargain hunting is an art the doctor has practiced since buying his first office building on Wilshire Boulevard in 1995. Los Angeles was under a cloud at the time in the aftermath of riots in 1992, brush fires in 1993 and an earthquake in 1994. Insurance companies were selling half-empty buildings at knockdown prices, seeing no way the economy would revive.
But David Lee knew that a hidden market existed among Korean immigrant entrepreneurs, many of them recent arrivals who had been forced into early retirement in corporate restructurings back home. Lacking a credit rating in America but rich with severance and retirement bonuses, they had cash to pay the rent for office space for businesses to serve the city's fast-growing Korean population, which is pushing 300,000 today, up from 190,000 in 1990.
That first building that Mr. Lee bought 10 years ago is worth five times the $6 million he paid for it. And he has repeated that process many times since, promising investors a 15 percent annual return and achieving it partly by cutting maintenance costs but mostly by sitting back and watching commercial property prices boom along with the Southern California economy.
He still has a nose for deals, like snapping up Airport Center for a price per square foot that is 20 percent to 50 percent below the going rate for good office space in Los Angeles. "The airport area is the weakest market because politicians can't decide how they're going to change or expand LAX," he said. But he has time to wait for such matters to sort themselves out. "We invest on a six-to-seven-year cycle," Mr. Lee said, "where most investors are on a three-to-five-year cycle."
Lee's next project is a new bank to be called the Premier Business Bank, catering to "wealthy professionals, doctors, lawyers and businesspeople who need personal financial services." Not bad for a physician from the Valley. New photo of Lee for the NYT by J. Emilio Flores.