Robert Smith built Vista Equity Partners into a money machine.
The private equity firm has racked up more than $120 billion of deals since its 2000 inception, mostly in technology companies, and produced some of the highest returns in the industry.
That has made Mr. Smith one of the world's richest people with a $6 billion fortune. But like many private equity tycoons his wealth is largely illiquid, with the bulk of it locked up in Vista's investment funds.
Mr. Smith, 56, pioneered an increasingly popular way to free up some of that treasure. He sold about 30% of the company he founded, helping him to become one of the most prominent philanthropists in the U.S. and buy at least $100 million of real estate, while also adding $500 million to the firm's balance sheet.
Since cutting his first deal with Dyal Capital Partners in 2015, Mr. Smith has stepped up his philanthropy, signing Warren Buffett's Giving Pledge in 2017. In May, he went viral with a promise to wipe out the student debt of an entire college class. He also reportedly bought two homes in Malibu, Calif., for about $40 million and plunked down almost $60 million on a three-story Manhattan penthouse.
Vista's 2015 deal helped popularize sales of minority stakes, upending the conventional wisdom that only weaker businesses would sell a piece of themselves and at a time when more money than ever was pouring into private equity.
"It's ironic that the industry has been one of the last to take private equity money," said Daniel Adamson, senior managing director of Wafra, which was among the first to buy minority stakes in buyout firms. "It's like a shoemaker's family going barefoot."
They're making up for lost time. At least 39 buyout shops sold minority stakes from 2014 through 2018, according to a February report by Bain & Co. That's more than triple the number from the previous five years as bulk buyers including Dyal, Goldman Sachs Group and Blackstone Group jostle for deals for established firms like Tom Gores's Platinum Equity, Barry Sternlicht's Starwood Capital Group and Steven Klinsky's New Mountain Capital.
Demand is such that some are even seeding new firms, with Wafra backing a joint venture called Capital Constellation to fund promising private equity managers.
Funds targeting equity stakes raised $17 billion from 2012 through 2018 and are currently raising $17 billion more, according to Bain. Dyal's fourth fund had raised more than $8 billion by September and already allocated most of that capital.
Meanwhile, the industry's biggest names have been tapping some of that newfound liquidity for a variety of uses.
In 2016, Vista co-founder Brian Sheth reportedly dropped $38 million on a Los Angeles mansion and two years later spent $16 million on a neighboring property. He also has become a leading wildlife conservationist with his foundation committing $60 million largely to environmental initiatives, according to its website. He pledged more than $13 million to a youth club in Austin, Texas. David Miller, co-founder of Houston-based EnCap Investments, donated $19 million to his foundation in 2016, months after Dyal acquired 20% of his firm.