Thomas Lee, Private Equity Pioneer, Is Dead at 78

Thomas H. Lee, a private-equity investor famed for orchestrating the takeover of Snapple in the 1990s, has died, a family spokesman said on Thursday.

The billionaire Mr. Lee, 78, founded his namesake Boston firm in 1974, far ahead of the heyday of so-called leveraged buyouts. He and his contemporaries made their mark borrowing heavily and using the funds to push around — and acquire — midsize companies.

The Snapple deal, in 1992, was emblematic of how lucrative the approach could be. Thomas H. Lee Partners bought the beverage company for $135 million and sold it to a competitor, Quaker Oats, just two years later for $1.7 billion.

“Tom was an extraordinary individual … a pioneer in private equity who became an industry icon,” Scott Sperling, a co-chief executive of Thomas H. Lee Partners, wrote in an email Thursday night. “He was an incredibly gracious and generous man who was committed to his family and community.”

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