In the early 1960s, Lee Anderson was on his way to a military career with a civil engineering degree from West Point.
But when his father, Reuben, had a heart attack in 1964, he returned to the Twin Cities to take over the family’s plumbing supply business in New Brighton.
At the time, the successful small business had $1 million in annual revenue, he said in 2019. Five years later, Anderson acquired a fire sprinkler supply business — the first of many companies to be added to what would eventually become APi Group.
By the time Anderson sold APi — a conglomerate of construction and fire-protection businesses —for $3.5 billion in 2019, its annual revenue was nearly $4 billion.
On Tuesday, Anderson and his wife, Penny, pledged $75 million toward building a new basketball and hockey arena at the University of St. Thomas. In 2005, the Andersons gave $60 million to the university for the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex.
University of St. Thomas President Rob Vischer said the couple “have been very generous benefactors of the university for years, and so we’ve always been in an active and strong relationship with them, and Lee and Penny have a keen interest in helping St. Thomas to flourish, not just in the near term but for generations to come.”
Anderson, 83, played football and basketball for West Point. He and his wife have also donated to West Point and veterans organizations and conservation education groups. A $5 million gift to Abbott Northwestern Hospital was the beginning of the Penny Anderson Women’s Cardiovascular Center. The couple now live in Naples, Fla.
Anderson told the Horatio Alger Association in 2014 — upon receiving the organization’s annual award — that he always saw himself as an entrepreneur. As a child, he caught frogs and sold them to the bait store. He also worked at warehouses from age 14.
Growing up, his mother and father provided a solid but modest life for him, he told the organization. Once after driving past a partially built school, his father learned construction had been halted because of a money shortage. Reuben offered to do the plumbing for no charge in exchange for his son’s tuition. As a result, Anderson started attending the Breck School when he was 7.
Anderson received the 2009 national Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for the real estate, hospitality and construction sector. He also is in the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame and received the Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Award from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
In 2002, he handed over CEO duties to Russ Becker and remained APi’s chairman. In 2019, APi was sold to J2 Acquisition Ltd., a special purpose acquisition firm. Anderson told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal that he preferred a deal that would make the company public over selling to a private equity firm.
APi then owned more than 30 business from an insulation distributor to a power plant contractor and fire protection supplier. They included Twin City Garage Door Co. and LeJeune Steel Co. in the Twin Cities and the Jamar Co. in Duluth.
At the time, the company’s 15,000 employees owned one-third of the company through an employee stock ownership plan put that Anderson put into place in 1985. Those workers received both money and stock from the J2 acquisition.
For a time, Anderson also owned several regional banking assets, which he sold to Norwest Corp. (which later merged with Wells Fargo). Lee and Penny Anderson also own two wineries in Croatia.