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Private equity veteran retiring after 45 years

Kevin Landry reflects on a fast-paced career at TA Associates that started as a summer job and spanned 45 years

Kevin Landry has raised $15 billion over his career at TA Associates.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Kevin Landry has raised $15 billion over his career at TA Associates.

To Kevin Landry, even play is competitive. A good summer Saturday means dueling on a tennis court, trying to land his ferocious lefty smash shot, followed by a round of golf. Every hole comes with a wager — longest drive or closest to the pin. For the afternoon swim, it’s a race to the dock.

For 45 years, Landry has brought his signature energy and drive to Boston’s TA Associates, a leading private equity firm that helped put Boston on the map as a center for buyouts and venture capital and groomed a generation of talent in the business.

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Landry was an early backer of companies such as biotechnology firm Biogen, now Biogen Idec, and Continental Cablevision, a cable TV company. He’s wooed investors around the world, raising $15 billion over his career, and delivering returns averaging 20 percent a year to endowments, pension funds, and other large investors.

“He’s just always going max for everything, whether it be work or play,’’ said Steve Woodsum, a former colleague at TA who left to run a competing firm, Summit Partners in Boston. “Kevin can’t sit still for 30 seconds. You feel like at the end of every day, Kevin wanted to accomplish everything possible.”

So it came as no shock to friends and colleagues that when Landry was diagnosed with lung cancer, he beat it back relentlessly. More than two years ago, doctors said he had 10 months to live. He’s proven them wrong, but at 68, he has reluctantly decided to retire.

Stepping aside is not easy for Landry. He’s never been one to walk away from the action, whether on the football field at Concord’s Middlesex School or the poker table at Harvard, in tough negotiations for TA or at the controls in a jet cockpit.

He waited until after TA Associates’ recent annual meeting to tell clients he was leaving. He did it in late May, via e-mail because, he said, “I cannot stand to see a grown man cry, especially when it is me.”

‘The more challenging, the better. I almost view it as a war. A hundred prospects? Let’s go see ’em. It was fun.’

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Few in private equity can imagine the business without Landry, known as its straightest shooter and a big-hearted mensch. Admired for telling it like it is, Landry can also be gruff. Just ask anyone who’s been on the receiving end of one of his withering right-wing political rants (his wife, Barrie, a Democrat, has not been spared) or a partner in tennis who misses an easy shot in a doubles match. And pity the young associate who fails to promptly call back a business prospect. He is famously unfond of whiners.

Landry has often gone against the tide. When his younger partners wanted to do Internet deals in the bubble of 1999, he allowed it only briefly.

“There was generational tension. So I said, ‘OK, we will consider some early-stage investments,’” Landry said. Then he shut it off in March 2000 — just as the market peaked.

In 2007, when some in private equity were celebrating easy credit markets, he predicted dire consequences for the economy, which proved painfully accurate.

And while he generally opposes raising taxes, he says he can’t defend his industry’s advantageous tax treatment, which allows people like him to pay much lower tax rates on their earnings.

“He’s highly, highly principled. To a fault sometimes,’’ said Andy McLane, one of Landry’s longtime partners. “It sets a great example here about doing the right thing, taking the high road. He doesn’t tolerate people who hide things. He wants people to tell the truth.”

Landry, who grew up in Arlington and Andover, said he learned about honest dealing from his father, a teenage runaway who became a neurosurgeon and insisted that his five children tell the truth. He graduated from the Middlesex School, and is one of seven in his extended family to go to Harvard, including his two daughters.

He started as a physics major and decided it was too hard, switching to economics. He didn’t make terrific grades, he says, but “I probably had more fun than they had.”

Landry, however, always combined savvy with luck. In a favorite story among his college friends, they’d planned a raucous party at Harvard’s Quincy House one night. While most of the group wound up suspended afterward, Landry escaped punishment. He had decided to go away for the weekend.

As one of his friends, money manager Michael Holland of New York, wrote, “Kevin Landry: Lucky or smart? Yes.”

After Harvard, Landry entered the Army Reserve, where he learned to be a helicopter mechanic (not a great one, he says) and then to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to study finance. In 1967, Landry landed a summer job at TA Associates, which was just getting off the ground. He impressed TA’s founder, venture capital pioneer Peter Brooke, even though, Landry now confesses, he didn’t know what venture capital was.

Even as a young man, Brooke recalled, Landry was the most confident person he’d ever met. When Brooke offered Landry a permanent job, and tried to persuade him to stay instead of finishing at Wharton, Landry said no thanks.

After graduation, and another stint with the Army Reserve, a spot was still waiting for Landry at TA. The firm was doing small deals then, from $50,000 to $150,000, mostly in technology. Landry’s first deal: an investment in computer printer company.

In the 1970s, Landry became interested in genetic engineering, then a controversial field still far from commercial success. At a 1978 meeting in Geneva with a group of scientists, Landry was persuaded of one company’s potential. TA invested about $1 million to help start Biogen, which would become a giant in multiple sclerosis drugs and help establish Cambridge as a biotech hub.

“This was before biotech was biotech,” said Phillip A. Sharp, an MIT scientist who cofounded Biogen. “There was no word, ‘biotech.’ ”

About 1981, when Brooke left to start another Boston private equity firm, Advent International, Landry took over as chief executive. He worked on deals in the financial sector, such as Datek Online, a trading company that was merged into Ameritrade Holding Corp., and Keystone Group, an investment firm.

TA differs from many buyout firms in that it focuses on investing in established, profitable companies, rather than troubled firms or turnarounds.

The approach has paid off handsomely for investors. Over the past 40 years, TA has delivered returns averaging 20 percent annually, compared to about 9.5 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.

Such returns also made it easier to attract new investors to the firm’s funds, one of Landry’s chief responsibilities. Asking for money is not a job that many people enjoy, but Landry, as usual, tackled it with relish.

“The more challenging the better,’’ Landry said. “I almost view it as a war. A hundred prospects? Let’s go see ’em. It was fun.”

But two years of chemotherapy took a toll. When he decided to retire, Landry told clients, “There are too many days when my energy level, and even my intelligence level, cannot match my enthusiasm for the task at hand.”

That’s up for debate. You’ll still find Landry in his office on the 56th floor of the John Hancock tower a few days a week, albeit in a polo shirt instead of an oxford and tie. He still serves on two company boards.

His office remains piled with papers, his shelves lined with photos of his nine grandchildren and models of four of the favorite airplanes that he’s owned and flown. Scores of letters written to him by friends (many of them bound in a book by his wife) thank him for raising the bar, and tell the tales of a life never lived on the sidelines.

Mitt Romney is among Landry’s fans. In Romney’s letter in the book, he says he never would have gone as far in politics without Landry. “I have counted on Kevin for 16 years, and he has never failed me,” Romney writes. Landry has given $120,000 to the super-PAC supporting Romney’s presidential campaign, according to public records.

Over the years, Landry sometimes enjoyed fat, celebratory steaks at the downtown restaurant Locke-Ober.

He would pilot his airplanes cross-country to meetings, often with colleagues in tow, and once required a terrified young associate to hand-crank the landing gear when it jammed. Through all the success, he wasn’t above dumpster diving to retrieve a lost check from a client.

Landry credits his wife for making his 80-hour work weeks possible: “It was my job to make the money. It’s her job to love everybody.’’

Retirement doesn’t exactly suit Landry. But it’s giving him more time to take his grandkids to the art museum and go fishing in Boston Harbor. And to complain about the Obama administration’s approach to, well, most everything.

And when people suggest Landry is unlucky to be fighting cancer, he laughs. “You’ve got to be kidding,’’ he says. “Look at the totality of my life. I’ve been so lucky.”

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.
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