The Real Deal New York

Day in the life of: Wendy Cai-Lee

The East West Bank executive on cross-country commuting, glazed pork shoulder, and lending on all property types

December 01, 2016
By Mark Maurer

Wendy Cai-Lee (Photo by Larry Ford)

Wendy Cai-Lee (Photo by Larry Ford)

Wendy Cai-Lee is head of consumer and business banking and of the U.S. Eastern and Texas regions at East West Bank. The bank — which was founded in the 1970s to serve California’s growing Chinese-American community — now has a loan portfolio of $24.8 billion, with about $7.7 billion in commercial real estate debt throughout the country. The New York region, which saw 23 percent loan growth in the past year, is the second largest commercial property market for East West after California. In recent years, the bank has expanded its presence in the five boroughs; the Chera family and Joseph Sitt TRData LogoTINY are among its more prominent New York borrowers. Cai-Lee’s job involves frequent travel, and she splits her time between her primary residence in Haworth, New Jersey, and a second home in Pasadena, California, where the bank is headquartered. She was born in Shanghai and moved to northern New Jersey at age 12. Cai-Lee graduated from Rutgers University in 1996 and dropped out of Columbia University’s business school to launch an online startup, which she was later forced to sell to one of her investors. Before joining East West Bank in 2011, she worked at JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Deloitte.

6 a.m. I always wake up at this time, whether I’m in Los Angeles or New York. The first thing I do is check my emails. I have a promise to my team members: Regardless of who they are in the bank and the complexity of the question, my turnaround time is 24 hours. I cover multiple business lines across three U.S. time zones, so emails come in at all times.

Chinese-steamed-buns6:50 a.m. I wake up my 6-year-old son, Owen, and give him breakfast. That’s the only time during the day I really get to spend with him. For breakfast, I drink green tea and eat steamed buns from a Chinese bakery. If I’m on the run, I have a bagel.

7:30 a.m. My husband, who is a hedge fund attorney, and I take turns driving Owen to school. When we’re in the New York area, he attends the Dwight-Englewood School, an independent day school in Englewood, New Jersey. In California, he goes to Chandler School. He’s in first grade. I don’t pull him out of school in the middle of the school year. These schools are willing to accommodate him technically attending two different ones, one year at a time.

8:10 a.m. I drive to work at 535 Madison Avenue in Midtown. I’m a bit of a slave to my car when I’m in New York. My morning commute is as long as 90 minutes. When I’m in California, it’s only three minutes.

9 a.m. I get to the office, and that’s when the meetings start. My days are usually packed back-to-back. About 17 people directly report to me, though the divisions I oversee have more than 1,000 people in them. I do weekly one-on-ones with each of them. It’s less for my sake, and more for them — to discuss any challenges or issues regarding transactions or personal stuff.

10:30 a.m. I have a lot of client meetings. Some of the larger real estate clients we have are the Carlyle Group, Thor Equities and Crown Acquisitions. We do all asset groups, specifically hotel and condo construction. There’s obviously a sign of a cooling off in terms of enthusiasm over new ground-up construction. We don’t shut any particular group of assets completely down. We began financing Carlyle’s deals because Andrew Chung and I knew each other before he ran real estate at Carlyle. He’s now out on his own, running Innovo Property Group.


Christian-Louboutin12 p.m.
Usually I take 10 to 15 minutes to eat lunch. My assistant brings it up. I eat one of three things: a turkey sandwich from the deli downstairs; sushi from Hatsuhana [on East 48th Street]; or Chinese takeout. Sometimes I bring in food I cooked for my team. I make a really awesome soy sauce-glazed pork shoulder. Every time I make it, it’s at least 15 pounds.

1 p.m. I go on site visits for our commercial real estate customers. I personally like to visit projects without the clients, just to see where it’s at. I recently stopped by two hotels in Long Island City. I don’t get to exercise much, but I walk a lot in the city, in my heels. Twenty street blocks and three avenues — that’s my limit for walking. As for my heels, I’m a big shoe collector. I own at least 20 pairs of Louboutins alone.

3:30 p.m. I run to an internal or client meeting back at the office. I’ve been drinking coconut water obsessively recently. I’ve been buying cases off Amazon, and I don’t know why. It doesn’t even taste good.

coconut-water4 p.m. I have a few conference calls for boards I sit on. I’m on Rutgers’ Board of Overseers and a member of Friends of United Nations Population Fund, among others. I just got asked to be on the strategic planning committee at my son’s school. It’s actually the hardest one to say no to. I look like an honest person, I guess.

6 p.m. The meetings end, and I start reviewing our credit memos. For our lending business, a big part of my job is reviewing proposals submitted by bankers who are looking for loan approvals. I go through five to 30 a day. I allow some quiet time for me to process everything. Then I take the rest of it home.

7:30 p.m. I come home and try to catch Owen before he goes to sleep. I usually miss his dinnertime, bath time, story time. I stick my head in and say good night. Then I eat dinner. I have great support: My mom’s younger sister, my aunt, lives with us and takes care of my little guy after school.

Kiefer-Sutherland-in-Designated-Survivor8 p.m. I eat dinner and get back to reviewing credit memos. I appreciate good food, but I’m far from a foodie. It’s more about “Check. Done. I ate. I’m good.” My aunt cooks Chinese food — a lot of vegetables and lean protein.

10 p.m. If I have the time, I try to catch a TV show to zone out. My latest show is Kiefer Sutherland’s “Designated Survivor.” It’s actually well written. When I was pregnant, I binge-watched all of “24,” which also starred Kiefer. And every so often, to my great protest, I watch “Game of Thrones.” My husband is a huge fan. Either I go to my study or living room, or, if I’m in bed reading, that’s on. So I end up watching it.

10:30 p.m. I’m all washed up and in bed. I can’t tell you it’s an interesting life — it’s just work.