After Thomas Lee's death, firm he founded works to reassure clients
Thomas H. Lee in his New York office in 2019.
Thomas H. Lee’s second, smaller private investment firm — long known for making quiet bets — has now been thrust into the public glare after its founder’s death was ruled a suicide.
Lee, who was 78, founded Lee Equity Partners in 2006 in a bid to relaunch his career after making his name as a buyout pioneer, and he continued to serve as chairman. He died last Thursday at his separate family office in Manhattan, a block away from the private equity firm, in what city officials said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Since then, Lee Equity’s executives have been forced to confront a difficult moment. In at least one conversation, they discussed the importance of reassuring clients that there’s no connection between his death and Lee Equity’s financial health or fund performance.
“We know he will be proud as the firm continues on, with strength,” Lee Equity said in a letter to investors Thursday.
The firm declined to comment.
The executives also held internal discussions on how to be present for employees who are in shock, while also dealing with their own grief, according to people familiar with the matter.
Lee’s death has ushered in a new level of public attention for a shop that manages $3 billion and doesn’t have a formal media-relations team. It also comes at a critical juncture for the 40-person firm, which is raising a $1 billion fund just as investors have become increasingly reluctant to part with their cash amid volatile markets. The firm has raised the vast majority of that fund, other people said.
The suicide also presents a test for key partners Mark Gormley, Benjamin Hochberg, You Jin Kim and Joseph Rotberg. They’re among eight executives who climbed the ranks to take bigger leadership roles and steered the firm into financial services and health care.
Some investors have taken comfort in the fact that succession is largely complete, people said. They pushed for the firm to spread its wealth more evenly among partners and had sway in the years after the financial crisis, when buyout firms struggled to raise new money. Lee’s cut of the profits was less than 10% for the firm’s last fund.
Gormley met Lee in the 1990s. Kim and Hochberg were colleagues at Bain Capital.
Lee Equity extended its reach across the U.S. economy with a variety of investments, including stakes in a big wealth advisory firm, a women’s retailer and drug rehabilitation centers. But it never achieved the same visibility as Lee’s predecessor firm, Thomas H. Lee Partners.
Lee was no longer active in fundraising, deals or portfolio management at Lee Equity, some people said. He was not a so-called key man on the funds, a clause that would have triggered an automatic suspension of all new deals from those investment vehicles after his death.
In recent years, Lee had curtailed his involvement and financial commitments, stepping into his role as chairman in 2018 as he focused more on his family office and other personal interests. In 2019, he co-founded AGL Credit Management along with loan veteran Peter Gleysteen.
Lee was also a philanthropist, serving on the boards of institutions including the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art.
He started Boston-based Thomas H. Lee Partners in 1974, becoming a pioneer in the leveraged-buyout business.
Lee made his name on his 1992 purchase of Snapple Beverage Corp., generating a 334% return on equity. The firm scored some high-profile backers, including Harvard University’s endowment.
But he broke with his partners and left in 2006 to start a rival firm. Over the years, Lee Equity focused on midsize companies even as other rivals stretched into new directions and into bigger deals in a decade of easy debt.
In recent days, several institutions extended condolences and provided expressions of support to the firm. Investors such as Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. committed money to the new fund. The firm’s backers have said they hope Lee’s death doesn’t rattle new investors.