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A LIFE FULFILLED: Entrepreneur finds joy in the arts and a knack for giving 

Benny Lee with his famous namesake, Benny Goodman

Several aspects of Benny Lee’s formative years in Taiwan became driving forces in his life, and engendered curiosity, toughness, and positivity that continue to inspire him to this day. 

The death of his father when Benny was just 13 impacted him greatly: He learned much about tenacity and self-reliance watching his mother learn new job skills to support three sons. The generosity of family members, in the lean years that followed, showed Benny the importance of family support, and the virtue of giving. The motivation to better oneself through education, always with an eye for opportunity, revealed Benny’s natural entrepreneurial spirit. 

These strands can all be seen in the Benny of today, a joyful concert organizer and a munificent philanthropist who finds that personal interaction is the most important element in leading a rich life. 

Benny also fell in love with music along the way. Ever fascinated by classical music, he also adored the bands of the Swing Era so much that when an English teacher asked her young students to each choose an “English name,” Benny named himself after his favorite clarinetist. (“Benny, good man,” he jokes, is still the sort of person that he strives to be.)

Yung Chieh Lee (his given name) grew up under the harsh rule of Chiang Kai-Shek, the nationalist leader who fled mainland China to establish the People’s Republic in Taiwan in 1949. While Benny’s widowed mother, Siu-Yen Huang, worked for the Census Department, her sons took various jobs: Benny worked in a library, doing everything from sweeping up to processing books. 

Siu-Yen came from a prominent family: Her brother, Chi-Jui Huang, served as mayor of Taipei during the late 1950s and early 1960s; his son, Shu-Wei Huang, began a life in politics before assuming a venerated post at the Longshan Temple, a 300-year-old place of worship and prominent Taipei tourist attraction. 

“Because the building is very old, it was carefully preserved and is now a historical site,” Benny said of this monument of Taiwan’s history. “And I’m proud to be a part of that family.” 

Benny’s career path was more practical, and shrewdly focused considering the promise of technological products in the 1970s and ’80s. He studied electrical engineering at the Tatung Institute of Technology, and after completing mandatory military service he entered the workforce at a time when the Taiwanese economy was on a sharp upward trajectory. 

He was a sales engineer for Midland International, owned by Western Auto. As an engineer for United States companies that had offices in Taipei, he traveled the world and learned the ins and outs of American business methods. 

His growing skill in “vertical integration” emboldened him to form his own company, Mitco, in 1980: a Taiwan-based trading company with offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and the United States. It helped connect manufacturers of products to new markets around the world, gaining popularity with such products as the Ginsu knife and the Handy Stitch Handheld Sewing Machine. 

With the Lees’ gift of $1 million, in 2013 AdventHealth named the lobby of its new birthing center the Benny and Edith Lee Atrium.

In 1987, he founded Transworld Products in Kansas City, and in 1995, Top Innovations, which marketed Steamfast steamers and other products. Though his ventures have sometimes gone out on a limb, he always maintains one strong core company. His business philosophy is “to exercise healthy business practices within a healthy company: one that can survive for a long, long time without one having to worry about it.” 

Also in 1995, Benny and his family settled in the United States. In 1997 he became the major investor in DuraComm Corp., a manufacturer of power supply units for communication systems. In 2013, the United States Chamber of Commerce named DuraComm one of the year’s Top 100 Small Businesses. 

Benny sold DuraComm in 2022, determined finally to retire and begin a new chapter. Today, he finds himself focusing more on his many philanthropic ventures in Kansas City and beyond, and on his musical ambitions. His current goal is to perform recitals on the clarinet, which he began playing at age 66 with the help of lessons from a Kansas City Symphony musician. 

“It is never too late to learn something new, and this has enriched my senior years a lot,” he said, adding that he hopes to complete at least one last musical adventure. “One of my dreams … is to host a concert where everybody sits down and listens to my playing. One hour or so. But maybe in the next life.” 

Benny has served on the boards of dozens of arts groups and other non-profit organizations, including the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, the Kansas City Museum Foundation, Spire Chamber Ensemble, the International Center for Music at Park University, and the Kansas City Youth Symphony. He often gives “not because I choose a charity, but because somebody reaches out to me and says, ‘Hey what about this one?’ ” 

He has stood as director of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City and has served in a wide range of roles in local business community organizations. Shawnee Mission Medical Center (now AdventHealth) named its new birth center lobby the Benny and Edith Lee Atrium. The Lees were also founding patrons of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. In 2014, Benny was named Kansas City Philanthropist of the Year: just one of many awards and accolades through the years. 

Edith, Katherine, Elizabeth, and Benny Lee posed at Elizabeth’s recent MBA graduation in Madrid, Spain. Katherine is a senior art director at The New York Times, and Elizabeth works in information technology in Berlin, Germany.

What makes a good philanthropist? In a word: heart. “You don’t have to be rich to give, you don’t have to be a billionaire to give,” he said. “If you have $10, what’s wrong with giving two dollars, three dollars? You still have something left: You’re not starving.” Quite simply, “giving makes you feel good,” he said. Benny and Edith are gracious hosts, opening their home for guests or live performances on numerous nights of the year. 

Photos of Benny’s clarinet idol adorn the Lees’ beautiful Ward Parkway home, the ground floor of which has been converted into a home recital hall. “Jazz is amazing because of its pure creativity,” Benny said. The ability to improvise is a great skill, “and not many classical musicians can do it,” he added, “although they should.” 

The Lee living room/recital hall can seat around 100 guests.

As it turns out, the “distance” between Taipei and Kansas City is not great, figuratively speaking. Both cities are teeming with commerce, and both are filled with people known for their generosity. “Kansas City is very giving,” Benny said. “You can see that every day, everywhere.” 

Featured in the May 4, 2024 issue of The Independent.
By Paul Horsley

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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