Thomas H. Lee, the billionaire who pioneered the private-equity industry and leveraged buyouts through a firm that bore his name, has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Manhattan office on Thursday morning, police sources told the NY Post. He was 78.
Cops responded to a 911 call at 767 Fifth Avenue, where Thomas H. Lee Capital, LLC is located on the sixth floor, at around 11:10 a.m., the Post sources said adding that EMTs pronounced the 78-year-old businessman dead at the scene.
“The family is extremely saddened by Tom’s death. While the world knew him as one of the pioneers in the private equity business and a successful businessman, we knew him as a devoted husband, father, grandfather, sibling, friend and philanthropist who always put others’ needs before his own,” Lee spokesperson Michael Sitrick said in a statement. “Our hearts are broken. We ask that our privacy be respected and that we be allowed to grieve.”
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will determine the official cause of death.
A front desk worker at Lee’s office building was told there was an “emergency,” on the sixth floor, but was unaware of Lee’s death. “They don’t want anyone going to that space right now, not even the building staff,” the man said.
Lee ran Boston-based Thomas H. Lee Partners from 1974 until 2006, when the firm had $12 billion to invest after producing triple-digit returns on some of its deals. Lee quit and formed New York-based Lee Equity Partners, which created funds that focused on smaller deals for fast-growing companies.
Through both firms, Lee invested more than $15 billion in hundreds of transactions as of 2020. That included his best-known transaction, the 1992 purchase of Snapple Beverage Corp. After his firm bought Snapple for $135 million, investing only $28 million of its own money, Lee sold it to Quaker Oats Co. for $1.7 billion two years later after boosting revenue from $95 million a year to $750 million, Bloomberg reports.
His Snapple return on equity was 334% after his firm took out $927 million from the sale, according to a 1997 Forbes profile. With profits like that, by 2022, Lee was worth $2 billion, according to Forbes.
There were some notable mistakes along the way: besides a $500 million investment in 1999 in insurer Conseco which soured after the company sought bankruptcy protection three years later, Lee’s firm was also rattled by its $507 million investment in Refco, the futures and commodities brokerage firm. Refco filed for bankruptcy protection after it disclosed in 2005 that its chief executive had hidden $430 million in debt for years. In 1999, Lee led a deal for what would become Vertis Communications, the fifth largest North American printer. Vertis filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
Lee was often seen chewing a cigar around the office, and he sometimes drew comparisons to the fictional private-equity banker Thomas Crown portrayed in the 1999 movie “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Businessweek reported in 2005.
An avid art collector, Lee owned works by artists including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and was a trustee of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, according to Forbes.
“I’ve been lucky to make some money. I’m more than happy to give some of it back,” Lee said in 1996 after donating $22 million to his alma mater Harvard University, one of the school’s largest gifts ever from a living alumnus.
Lee leaves behind his wife of 27 years, Ann Tennenbaum. He is survived by his children Jesse, Zach, Nathan, Robbie, and Rosalie, as well as two grandchildren.
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