Asked about a first in his career, Thomas H. Lee answered immediately: “First IPO of an LBO, Guilford Industries in 1983.”

That’s cocktail conversation for you at the UJA-Federation’s Private Equity Recognition Event, which last night honored Lee’s four decades of buying and expanding companies with a cooperative style that has always set him apart from his “corporate raider” peers.

“I first worked with him in 2003, when we bought the Warner Music Group together,” Edgar Bronfman Jr., general partner at Accretive LLC, said in his introduction of Lee. “In Tom I found a kindred spirit, along the lines of the philosophy: You don’t have to win if you get everything you want. Let the other party have the social and press victories. Tom always focused on the business outcome for his investors, not his personal profile.”

Lee in his remarks called owning a company in America “an honor and a privilege” and a “huge responsibility,” as “people and assets are depending on you. We think a lot about that, believe me. When we buy a company we don’t do it lightly.”

As for how he’s managed to stay on his game for so long: “When vocation and avocation become one, then you’re in a very good position,” Lee said near the sushi buffet. “I could say I never worked a day in my life.”

AutoTote to Pizza

Lee started making private-equity investments in 1974. He founded and led Boston-based Thomas H. Lee Partners until 2006, when he formed New York-based Lee Equity Partners.

An A to Z of his resume associates him in one way or another with AutoTote in the 1970s, General Nutrition Cos. in the 1980s and Snapple Beverage Corp. in the 1990s. In the oughts he became involved with American Media Inc., the company that owns the National Enquirer, Papa Murphy’s, the take-and-bake pizza chain, now in the roadshow phase of a public offering -- and Deb Shops, a junior fashion retailer currently selling a tank top with the slogan, “Dream All Day, Dance All Night and Eat Pizza.”

In 2012, Lee took the Edelman Financial Group private.

The wealth management firm has $12 billion in assets, with 24,000 clients and 400 total staff, said CEO Ric Edelman during the reception.