Billionaire Thomas H. Lee, a Private Equity Pioneer, Dies at 78

The billionaire private equity investor was best known for his takeover of Snapple in the 1990s.

Profile shot of Thomas Lee dressed in suit and tie, wearing glasses
Thomas Lee at the Lincoln Center Fall Gala in 2019. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Lincoln Center)

Thomas Lee, the billionaire financier known for his leveraged buyouts, died yesterday (Feb. 23) at age 78.

“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,” said family friend and spokesperson Michael Sitrick in a statement.

Lee, who in 2023 had an estimated net worth of $2 billion, reportedly died from a self-imposed gunshot wound.

A Harvard graduate, Lee worked as a bank lending officer before founding Thomas H. Lee Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm, in 1974. He was among the first to pioneer leveraged buyouts, which consists of acquiring a company with large sums of debt.

Lee’s most well-known transaction occurred in 1992, when his firm purchased Snapple for $135 million, later selling it to Quaker Oats for $1.7 billion two years later. The company is also known for its successful takeovers of Warner Music and Dunkin’ Brands in 2003 and 2005 respectively.

“Thomas H. Lee was an iconic figure in private equity,” said Thomas H. Lee Partners, now known as THL, in a statement. “He helped pioneer an industry and mentored generations of young professionals who followed in his footsteps.”

In 2006, Lee left Thomas H. Lee Partners to start a new firm called Lee Equity, of which he was the founder and chairman. As of 2020, Lee had reportedly invested more than $15 billion in transactions through both firms.

The financier was additionally an avid art collector, according to Forbes, and owned pieces from artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. He was also a prominent philanthropist, with prolific donations to Harvard, the Lincoln Center and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and was on the board at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and New York University’s medical center. Billionaire Thomas H. Lee, a Private Equity Pioneer,  Dies at 78