The family of famed billionaire Thomas H. Lee announced Thursday that the leveraged-buyout pioneer has passed away at age 78, with The New York Post reporting that the financier was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Manhattan office .
Lee’s family confirmed the man’s death in a statement, saying that “while the world knew him as one of the pioneers of the private equity business and a successful businessman, we knew him as a devoted husband, father, grandfather, sibling friend and philanthropist who always puts the needs of others before his own.”
While the statement said nothing about the circumstances surrounding Lee’s death, the Post quoted anonymous police sources as saying the businessman fatally shot himself in his office.
Lee, who was reported by Forbes magazine as having a net worth of $2 billion, started the company that became Thomas Lee Partners in 1974, but parted ways with the company in 2005.
Thomas Lee Partners pioneered leveraged buyouts – transactions in which investors take publicly traded companies private using large amounts of borrowed money. If a buyout company later successfully resells an acquired company or brings it back to the stock market at a higher price, the company can reap great benefits from the relatively small amount of its own money invested.
Under Lee’s leadership, Thomas Lee Partners led several famous and highly profitable leveraged buyouts, including the 1985 purchase of Sterling Jewelers for $28 million and the 1992 acquisition of beverage giant Snapple for a reported $135 million.
The company resold Sterling – now part of Signet Jewelers (SIG) – just two years later for $210 million. Similarly, after just two years, Thomas Lee Partners sold Snapple to Quaker Oats, a unit of PepsiCo (PEP), for $1.7 billion.
After leaving Thomas Lee Partners, Lee founded the private equity firm Lee Equity Partners, where he was chairman at the time of his death.
As for Thomas Lee Partners, current co-CEOs Todd Abbrecht and Scott Sperling praised the company’s founder in a statement Thursday, writing that “Tom was an iconic figure in private equity. He helped pioneer an industry and mentored generations of young professionals who followed in his footsteps.”