Lynn Tilton MD helicopters to be honoured as Living Legend of Aviation
I wrote this for the Financial Times in October – this is a well-deserved award.
Well-behaved women seldom make history, at least not according to Lynn Tilton they don’t. The outspoken founder of global investment firm Patriarch Partners has ruffled more than a few feathers in her time. She fearlessly charges in where others do not dare, championing broken companies. This bravery has paid off – her firm manages $7 billion in assets and invests in more than 70 mid-market enterprises.
The path to success has been tough. A single parent at 23, at the start of her career she worked 100-hour weeks at Morgan Stanley, juggling motherhood and spreadsheets. Like many working mothers she feels she did not give enough to either – though lord knows where she could have found the extra time. She said: “I was constantly pacing back and forth between responsibilities, trying to be perfect at both.” She has never stopped moving since.
She prospered on Wall Street for two decades until 2000, when she founded Patriarch, which specialises in rescuing ailing businesses. She admits that there are easier ways to make money, but is drawn to aid the distressed. A key motivator was her father’s death when she was young, which shattered her and now drives her to save companies destined for the scrapheap. She says she derives “incredible satisfaction” from changing the lives of families who would otherwise be devastated by the loss of a working parent.
Although Tilton’s business acumen is genderless, her language is definitely feminine, frequently focusing on the passion behind her decisions – a trait that has jarred with some, since such talk is seldom heard in the financial world. She says it is her life’s mission to rebuild broken companies.
However, she silences her critics by putting her money where her mouth is. The most famous rescue in her portfolio of emergency room bailouts is MD Helicopters (MDH) – Howard Hughes’ baby. Her involvement in MDH is also the first time she has publicly exploited her gender to commercial advantage. Last week the manufacturer received a US diversity award as a Women’s Business Enterprise, which should give it a vendor advantage with national corporations and government agencies.
Since buying the company in 2005, Tilton has grown revenues more than $200 million, mainly by selling more aircraft internationally and adding repairs to its portfolio. Aerospace has been a steep learning curve. For someone who is constantly on the go the procrastination and paralysis she saw when she acquired the manufacturer was a shock. She said: “I was too naive to know what I didn’t know and too stubborn to accept advice.”
The acquisition was to prove a turning point, propelling her from passive investor to active industrialist. As CEO she has hired talent and pitched in to revive MD’s flagging fortunes, flying around the world meeting customers and suppliers who had given it up for dead. Wooing the angry supply chain was necessary since Tilton had not realised that every helicopter part had to be certified as airworthy by the Federal Aviation Administration, so simply switching suppliers was not an option.
She attributes MDH’s subsequent turnaround to being one of her own customers – she commutes to work in her VIP twin engine MD 902 – and says that every business that looks at itself from the customer backward is closer in understanding its clients’ needs.
Tilton’s first task five years ago was to get MDH’s fleet of grounded helicopters flying again. She coaxed parts manufacturers back into the fold and bought a house in Arizona, where the company is headquartered. Unlike many in the sector, she treats the aviation industry as just another market and believes vertical integration is the way forward. With 500 suppliers scattered worldwide, she elected to bring much of the production in-house to the firm’s facility in Mexico, which has saved around 30% in costs.
In 2008 the company delivered 53 aircraft up from zero in 2005. Last year was tough, with several cancellations, so Tilton turned her attention to foreign government contracts, which she hints will bear fruit in 2011 with several major announcements to come.
She advocates manufacturing as the way out of recession for the US, and points to the great emerging economies, such as Brazil and China, which are based on a solid industrial base. She has frequently criticised the Obama government’s bailout of banks, while seeming to ignore lending to small and mid-sized companies. Over the last decade, America has lost 6.4 million manufacturing jobs and Tilton believes that liquidation brings about the loss of technology, knowledge and the impossible task of restarting production. Consequently she approached the White House with plans for a public/private partnership to offer loans to small companies, which are outlined on her website.
Outspoken and flamboyant – Tilton is likely to upset those in high places for many years to come. But the patriotic CEO can take comfort from the fact she is making her mark among the less exalted, thousands of whom would be without employment but for her intervention.