Working for Bear Stearns in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kravis, alongside Kohlberg and Roberts began a series of what they described as "bootstrap" Investments. In the following years Kohlberg and later Kravis and Roberts would complete a series of buyouts including Stern Metals (1965), Incom (a division of Rockwood International, 1971), Cobblers Industries (1971), and Boren Clay (1973) as well as Thompson Wire, Eagle Motors and Barrows through their investment in Stern Metals. Although they had a number of highly successful Investments, the $27 million investment in Cobblers ended in bankruptcy. Kravis and his associates created a series of limited partnerships to acquire these various corporations, ones they judged were performing well below their sales and profit potential or where there were untapped financial assets that could be monetized.
Kravis was born into a Jewish family in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of Bessie (née Roberts) and Raymond Kravis, a successful Tulsa oil Engineer who had been a Business partner of Joseph P. Kennedy. Kravis began his education at Eaglebrook School ('60), followed by high school at the Loomis Chaffee School, where he participated in student government and was elected vice President of the student council his senior year. He attended Claremont McKenna College (then known as Claremont Men's College) and majored in economics. He was a member of the CMC varsity golf teams for four years and was a member of the Knickerbockers student Service organization. He served as his sophomore class Secretary/Treasurer. He graduated from CMC in 1967 before going on to Columbia Business School, where he received an MBA degree in 1969.
By 1976, tensions had built up between Bear Stearns and the trio of Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts leading to their departure and the formation of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in that year. Most notably, Bear Stearns executive Cy Lewis had rejected repeated proposals to form a dedicated investment fund within Bear Stearns and Lewis took exception to the amount of time spent on outside activities.
Kravis and Roberts invested $120,000 of their own capital in their new firm. Early Investors in KKR included the Hillman Family and the Griffith family (who are also large shareholders in MGM and Time-Warner). By 1978, with the revision of the ERISA regulations, the nascent KKR was successful in raising its first institutional fund with approximately $30 million of investor commitments.
In 1987, Jerome Kohlberg, Jr. resigned from KKR, and Henry Kravis and George Roberts continued to lead the firm. Under Kravis and Roberts the firm was responsible for the 1988 leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. At a cost of $31.4 billion, it was then the highest price ever paid for a commercial enterprise. The publicity surrounding the event led to the story being dramatized in the book and film, Barbarians at the Gate. Kravis was portrayed in the film by actor Jonathan Pryce.
A supporter of Republican politics, he was a supporter and fundraiser for President George W. Bush and John McCain. He was also a major contributor to the 1992 re-election campaign of President George H. W. Bush. In 1997, Henry Kravis joined with Lewis M. Eisenberg to establish the Republican Leadership Council. In 2017, he also contributed one million dollars to Donald J. Trump's presidential inauguration.
In early 1995, KKR divested its remaining holdings in RJR Nabisco, taking an overall loss on the deal. A Journalist for the New York Times wrote a few years later that "the deal will go down in history as showing just how difficult it can be to get out of a huge deal that goes badly, and of the perils of putting too much money on one investment." KKR pledged not to commit so much of its fund to a single investment again in the Future. However, other Investments proved more profitable, and the fund still did well overall.
Kravis has been married three times. His first marriage to Helene Diane "Hedi" Shulman ended in divorce. They had three children, Harrison S. Kravis (b. 1972, d. 1991 car accident), Robert R. Kravis (b. 1973), and Kimberly Kravis Schulhof (b. 1975). Hedi remarried to James Thompson Ruger, son of william B. Ruger and died of cancer on April 2, 1997 at age 49. Kravis later married New York designer Carolyne Roehm (born Carolyne Jane Smith) in 1985, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1993. The home decorated for the couple by Robert Denning and Vincent Fourcade was parodied in the 1990 movie The Bonfire of the Vanities. Kravis is currently married to a prominent Canadian Economist, and former columnist and TV personality in Canada, Marie-Josée Drouin. She sits on the boards of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Robin Hood Foundation, and is the President of the Museum of Modern Art board of Directors.
The Henry R. Kravis Prize in Nonprofit Leadership, established in 2006, identifies extraordinary Leaders in the nonprofit sector, celebrates their accomplishments and shares their best practices with others. The prize is presented and administered by Claremont McKenna College (CMC) and Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis. Kravis is an alumnus and trustee of Claremont McKenna College. The Kravis Prize is affiliated with the Kravis Leadership Institute, a research institute at Claremont McKenna. A formal award ceremony celebrates the recipient's accomplishments, and $250,000 is directed to a nonprofit organization designated by the recipient.
He is a trustee of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Chairman of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, and is a member of the executive committee of The Business Council for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. He co-chairs the Columbia Business School Board of Overseers where he recently pledged a gift of $100 million to support the school's new campus project and is a vice-chairman of Rockefeller University.
On December 24, 2013, KKR closed their first real estate specific investment fund, which raised $1.2 billion of new money to invest. With additional funds from within KKR, the new fund provided over $1.5 billion to utilize.
In July 2017, Kravis and Roberts announced that they would eventually be succeeded by Joseph Y. Bae and Scott C. Nuttall, who were named co-presidents and co-chief operating officers so that they might gradually take over daily operations.