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Thomas J. Perkins, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, dies at 84

Thomas J. Perkins, whose investments fueled the growth of tech firms including America Online Inc., Amazon.com and Google Inc., died Tuesday. He was 84.

He died of natural causes, according to a statement from venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.

Through his venture capital firm, Perkins was among the first to fund tech companies that have come to be Silicon Valley giants. 

He co-founded the fund with Eugene Kleiner in 1972 with a then-record $8 million and quickly became one of the best-known investors in technology. Frank Caufield and Brook Byers later joined as partners. Kleiner died in 2003 of heart failure at age 80. 

Perkins "set a new standard for venture capitalists and had great investment judgment and foresight,” said investment banker Sandy Robertson, who takes credit for bringing Perkins and Kleiner together to start a joint fund.

Perkins’ engineering background endeared him to entrepreneurs, Robertson said. He took active roles on corporate boards and was willing to step in operationally to help make a company hum, a tactic that made him stand apart from other venture capitalists.

Born Jan. 7, 1932, Perkins was a graduate of MIT in electronic engineering and Harvard University in business administration. Prior to forming the venture capital firm, he was the first general manager of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s computer divisions. He served as the chairman of Genentech from 1976 to 1990. 

Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers remains one of the most prominent venture capital firms in Silicon Valley today, with recent investments in Uber, Snapchat, Twitter and Waze. The firm drew attention last year when its former employee Ellen Pao brought against it a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit, which spotlighted the lack of diversity in the venture capital world. Kleiner Perkins won the case.

Perkins was married to Gerd Thune-Ellefsen, with whom he had two children. She died in 1994. His second marriage to romance novelist Danielle Steel ended in divorce in 2002. In 2006, Perkins published the romance novel “Sex and the Single Zillionaire.”

That year, Perkins resigned from the HP board after accusing board members of engaging in "illegal tactics" to determine the source of press leaks.

He was widely criticized in 2014 after he compared “the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich,’” to Nazi Germany’s war on Jews in a letter published in the Wall Street Journal. Perkins apologized for the letter, but not before Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers distanced itself from its co-founder.

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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