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, suffered a heart attack in 1964, he returned to the Twin Cities to take over the family’s plumbing business in New Brighton.
At the time, the successful small business was doing $1 million in annual revenue, he said in 2019. Five years later, Anderson bought a fire sprinkler supply company — the first of many companies added to what would eventually become APi Group.
By the time Anderson sold APi — a conglomerate of construction and fire protection companies — for $3.5 billion in 2019, its annual revenue was nearly $4 billion.
On Tuesday, Anderson and his wife, Penny, pledged $75 million to build 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 Athletics and Recreation Complex.
President of the University of St. Thomas Rob Vischer said the couple “have been very generous benefactors to the university for years, so we’ve always had an active and strong relationship with them, and Lee and Penny have a vested interest in helping St. Thomas flourish, not only in the immediate future, but for generations to come.”
Anderson, 83, played football and basketball at 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 start of the Penny Anderson Women’s Cardiovascular Center. The couple now lives in Naples, Florida.
Anderson told the Horatio Alger Association in 2014 — after receiving the organization’s annual award — that he always saw himself as an entrepreneur. As a child he caught frogs and sold them to a bait shop. He also worked in warehouses from the age of 14.
Growing up, his mother and father provided him with a solid but modest life, he told the organization. After passing by a partially built school once, his father learned that construction had stopped due to lack of money. Reuben offered free plumbing in exchange for his son’s school fees. As a result, Anderson began attending Breck School when he was 7 years old.
Anderson received the 2009 Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Sector. He is also in the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame and received the Joel Labovitz Entrepreneural Success Award from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
In 2002, he handed over the duties of CEO to Russ Becker and remained APi’s president. In 2019, APi was sold to J2 Acquisition Limited, a special purpose acquisition company. Anderson is for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal that he prefers a deal that would take the company public over a sale to a private equity firm.
Api then owned more than 30 businesses ranging from insulation distributors to power plant contractors and fire protection suppliers. They included Twin City Garage Door Co. and LeJeune Steel Co. in the Twin Cities and Jamar in Duluth.
At the time, the company’s 15,000 employees owned one-third of the company through an employee stock ownership plan established by Anderson in 1985. These workers received both cash and stock from the J2 acquisition.
For a time, Anderson also owned several regional banking assets, which he sold to Norwest (now part of Wells Fargo). Lee and Penny Anderson also own two wineries in Croatia.