International Person of the Year - Chris Lee

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Chris LeeChris Lee, chief executive of Brand Addition, the U.K.'s largest distributor, and Counselor's International Person of the Year, quit school at 16 to play professional soccer for Bradford City FC. But it wasn't all about goals and glory. During his down time he took correspondent courses to ensure a post-playing career in business.

"I was fortunate enough that numbers and sports are the two things that came quite naturally to me," he says. "I actually did an accounting degree through my correspondent course. When I was in my mid-20s I qualified as a professional accountant, and it was while I was actually playing soccer."

Ten years into his soccer career, Lee retired from the game and went to work for Ernst & Young. Three years later he took a job as an accountant at 4imprint in the U.K. "I did various sorts of accountant roles, then some operational roles," Lee says. "About five years ago I was given the head role here at Brand Addition as chief executive of that division of 4imprint."

What came next was huge. 4imprint Group, a publicly-listed business in the U.K., needed cash because of a pension deficit that it had to fill. As an autonomously run business within 4imprint, Brand Addition had its own brand and management team, and seemed ripe as a target for 4imprint to divest itself of.

"We were an ambitious bunch of managers in the organization, and we really wanted to take that business independently out of 4imprint," Lee says. "4imprint had a nice asset with Brand Addition that was profitable and cash generative, and if they sold to us, it could help them with their pension issue."

Indeed, with Lee spearheading the deal, the management group, along with financial backing from H.I.G. Europe, purchased Brand Addition outright in March 2012. In addition to offices in London and Manchester, England, the company has operations in Germany, Turkey, China, Hong Kong and Moscow. "Working internationally is something that we invested in quite a while ago and really took a leap into growing that way with the support of H.I.G. Europe," Lee says. "And that was making sure we had the right technology, the right language skills and the right infastructure in order to do that, and that's really paid dividends in the last three or four years. Over 50% of the sales we make now are outside of the U.K."

Some of Brand Addition's clients are international behemoths – Intel, Michelin, Caterpillar – and it's servicing them throughout Europe and beyond. "We work with large businesses that are looking for fully outsourced solutions, not just about ad hoc spend," Lee says. "From looking to consolidate across the country and then across Europe, the trend is for them to look to consolidate globally."

The goal is to concentrate on clients that want more than to simply place a single order, for a single product. "We target international businesses that require a complex solution to design, source and deliver a large amount of merchandise across a broad range of territories," Lee says.

To date, the strategy is paying off. Sales at Brand Addition will be up 10% to 12 % this year, estimated at $100 million (U.S.). – JH