Frist Becomes Next PE Pol

Bill Frist is the latest ex-politician to be seduced by the dimming glow of private equity. The former Senate majority leader has signed on as a partner with Cressey & Co., a new healthcare-focused firm emerging from the Thoma Cressey Bravo divorce (didn’t anyone tell them that three-ways usually end in marital discord?).

Frist is certainly qualified for the role, having been a celebrated cardiac surgeon who served on healthcare-related Senate committees while in Washington. Leaving out that embarrassing Terry Schiavo incident – in which he incorrectly diagnosed a brain-damaged woman via videotape – few other healthcare investors can boast his comprehensive understanding of healthcare science, regulation and reimbursement. The private equity finance piece is obviously missing, but that’s what Frist’s partners will be for.

The big question is whether Frist will be a real private equity pro, or just a guy who parachutes in to seal a deal or to lobby on behalf of portfolio companies. The principals aren’t talking due to (perceived) SEC restrictions, so I’ll hypothesize the former.

Cressey & Co. simply isn’t the type of firm you join to make a quick buck. It’s brand new, having only recently begun soliciting commitments for its $500 million-targeted debut fund. That means that the first returns wouldn’t roll in until late 2009 at the very earliest. Moreover, Frist is already rolling in greenbacks. His father founded for-profit hospital chain HCA – yup the one that was taken private last year for $33 billion – and I’m pretty sure that cardiac surgeons do pretty well in their own right.

So this really might be Frist’s third act. The best comparison I can think of is Bill Weld, the former U.S. Attorney and Massachusetts governor who joined education-focused PE firm Leeds & Co. back in 2000. He also was a real full-timer, although it ended with a portfolio company scandal that derailed a bid for governor of New York. Cressey & Co. is certainly hoping that Frist produces better results, and will probably have him on the fundraising trail by week’s end…