Thomas H Lee, a billionaire financier who led some of the private equity industry’s most successful deals during its early rise in the 1980s and 1990s, has died at the age of 78.
Lee founded Thomas H Lee Partners in 1974, a boutique investment outfit that perfected the early art of leveraged buyouts and grew to become one of the industry’s largest firms by the mid-1990s after a string of successful deals highlighted by the takeover of beverage company Snapple.
By the mid-2000s, Lee had become one of the wealthiest private equity investors in the US and his Boston-based firm was among the industry’s largest by assets, managing more than $12bn, and a prolific dealmaker in a boom of large takeovers such as Dunkin Brands and media ratings group Nielsen.
In late 2005, Lee left his eponymous firm, which is now called THL, to found a New York-based private equity firm focused on midsized buyouts, called Lee Equity Partners, where he most recently acted as its chair. The group manages $3bn in capital and a portfolio of private holdings in the financial services, healthcare and business services sectors. His net worth was estimated at $2bn at the time of his death, according to Forbes.
“We are profoundly saddened by the unexpected passing of our good friend and former partner, Thomas H Lee,” THL said in a press release late on Thursday. “Tom was an iconic figure in private equity. He helped pioneer an industry and mentored generations of young professionals who followed in his footsteps.”
The son of an executive at Shoe Company of America, once the maker of the Clark’s brand of shoes, Lee was raised in the Boston area and graduated from Harvard College in 1965 before becoming a securities analyst in the research department of LF Rothschild.
He cut his teeth as a director of technology lending in the late 1960s and early 1970s at First National Bank of Boston before starting his own firm focused on corporate buyouts, then known as “bootstrapped” deals because of their heavy use of debt financing to acquire companies.
After finding success in the 1980s and 1990s, Lee became an influential philanthropist and avid art collector, acting as a trustee at cultural institutions such as the Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
He was also a prolific benefactor to his alma mater, Harvard, and to Brandeis University and the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, among other institutions.
“The family is extremely saddened by Tom’s death,” said Mike Sitrick, a spokesperson and family friend. “Our hearts are broken. We ask that our privacy be respected and that we be allowed to grieve.”