Billionaire Thomas H. Lee — a pioneering private equity executive known for acquiring Snapple in 1992 and selling it for 32 times its equity just two years later — has died at the age of 78, his family announced on Thursday evening with.
Family spokesman and friend Michael Sitrick confirmed Lee’s death in a statement that did not list a cause of death but said his “family is extremely saddened.”
The New York City Police Department did not confirm his death, but Det. Arthur Tsui recounted forbes Emergency services responded to an 911 call at an office at 767 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan — home of a private equity firm Lee founded — after 11 a.m. Thursday and pronounced an unidentified person dead at the scene.
The New York Post reported Lee died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, citing unnamed police sources (Tsui did not comment on the report, saying the New York City Coroner’s Office is still working to determine the cause of death).
Lee is survived by his wife, Ann Tenenbaum, and five children, including two from a previous marriage.
“While the world knew him as one of the pioneers in private equity and a successful businessman, we knew him as a devoted husband, father, grandfather, sibling, friend and philanthropist who always put the needs of others ahead of his own,” he said family said.
We estimate Lee’s net worth at $2 billion, making him the 1,507th richest person in the world.
A Boston native and Harvard graduate with a banking background, he founded Thomas H. Lee Partners nearly half a century ago and entered the leveraged buyout business with an eye for middle-market companies with growth potential. The fund was known for acquiring companies like Sterling Jewelers in its early years, but Lee made his mark in 1992 when he bought Snapple in 1994, earning $927 million from an initial investment of $28 million. The firm was later involved in deals to buy out Experian, Dunkin’ Brands, Warner Music Group and Houghton Mifflin before Lee resigned in 2006 and formed a similar new company called Lee Equity Partners. Unlike some corporate buyout titans with ruthless reputations, Lee focused on growth rather than aggressive cost-cutting. In a profile from 1997 forbes summarized his stated philosophy as follows: “You are better off paying a high price for a great company than getting a mediocre company at a bargain price.”
Outside of his business career, Lee was an avid art collector and a prolific donor to Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Harvard University, according to an obituary his family noted. He was also a regular forbes Source who has assisted with the magazine’s private equity reviews for decades.