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HomeBusinessThomas Lee, Private Equity Pioneer, Is Dead at 78

Thomas Lee, Private Equity Pioneer, Is Dead at 78



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Thomas H. Lee, a private-equity investor famed for orchestrating the takeover of Snapple in the 1990s, has died, a family spokesman said on Thursday.

The billionaire Mr. Lee, 78, founded his namesake Boston firm in 1974, far ahead of the heyday of so-called leveraged buyouts. He and his contemporaries made their mark borrowing heavily and using the funds to push around — and acquire — midsize companies.

The Snapple deal, in 1992, was emblematic of how lucrative the approach could be. Thomas H. Lee Partners bought the beverage company for $135 million and sold it to a competitor, Quaker Oats, just two years later for $1.7 billion.

“Tom was an extraordinary individual … a pioneer in private equity who became an industry icon,” Scott Sperling, a co-chief executive of Thomas H. Lee Partners, wrote in an email Thursday night. “He was an incredibly gracious and generous man who was committed to his family and community.”

A Harvard graduate, Mr. Lee was first a securities analyst and later a banker before starting his company roughly a decade into his career. Though his firm never became as famous as rivals like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts or Drexel Burnham Lambert, Mr. Lee enjoyed an enviable track record. He invested some $15 billion through hundreds of transactions over his career, according to his family.

Among his best-known buyouts was the 2003 acquisition of Warner Music from an ailing Time Warner. The move made headlines, if not profits. Mr. Lee’s investor consortium bought the company for $2.6 billion, but took it public a year later for a shade less.

Not long after, the firm was forced to completely write off its investment in the collapsed commodities broker Refco, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

Mr. Lee stepped down from his firm in 2006 amid reported disagreements with its executives. He remained a prominent philanthropist in New York City.

He also continued to invest under a new shingle, giving credence to the nickname he assigned himself: Mr. Lee went by Tomcat, he said at a 2014 event, because he had “nine different lives.”


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