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Originally published Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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"Rock star" executive Lynn Tilton rescues companies — and saves jobs

The male-dominated industry has never seen anyone quite like Lynn Tilton, a New York financier who since 2000 quietly has been amassing an empire, acquiring or investing in more than 70 companies, with holdings totaling $8 billion.

Los Angeles Times

Rotor blades and turbine engines were supposed to be the showcase at the annual helicopter convention in Anaheim, Calif., the last week of February, so pilot James Costa wasn't sure what to make of the crowd surrounding a woman in a leopard-print dress and knee-high boots.

She had long, blond hair who was signing glossy photos of herself as a line formed in front of her exhibit booth.

"I thought she was a stripper," said Costa, a helicopter pilot from Tulare, Calif., before he found out that the woman was Lynn Tilton, owner of one of the nation's largest helicopter makers.

"Very cool," Costa said in disbelief. "You know, she brought that company back from the brink of destruction. She's our rock star."

The male-dominated industry has never seen anyone quite like Tilton, a New York financier who since 2000 quietly has been amassing an empire, acquiring or investing in more than 70 companies, with holdings totaling $8 billion.

"She doesn't fit the usual pattern of an executive," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst for Teal Group. "but she has stayed in this game a lot longer than people thought."

Part Warren Buffett and part Dolly Parton, the 49-year-old native of the Bronx borough of New York owns or has an equity stake in companies that are as eclectic as her wardrobe — and include brand names such as Arizona Ice Tea, English Leather cologne and Isotoner gloves.

Through her private-equity firm Patriarch Partners she also owns companies with some of the world's most iconic names, including mapmaker Rand McNally, firetruck manufacturer American LaFrance and Italian factory-machine maker Ansaldo Sistemi Industriali.

In 2005, Tilton acquired Mesa, Ariz.-based MD Helicopters, a company founded by Howard Hughes.

Common trait

Although diverse, the companies had a common trait before Tilton began investing in them. They produced well-known products but were about to go out of business.

"We turn dust to diamonds," she said at the Anaheim Convention Center. "We buy what everybody else tosses away."

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Although some of her companies have had to lay off people because of the economy, they employ a total of 60,000 workers in the U.S. The return on her investments has averaged 25 percent annually, she said.

"Making money and making the world a better place don't have to be mutually exclusive objectives," she said.

Within the aviation industry, Tilton often has been described as the "dominatrix lady" because of her penchant for black-leather dresses and high-heel shoes.

"Well-behaved women seldom make history," she said when asked about the initial impression some people might have. She has a bachelor's degree from Yale and an MBA from Columbia.

She acknowledged that she has used the image to her advantage because many people upon first meeting her underestimate her abilities.

Before she began signing autographs, Tilton already was shaking up the helicopter convention. As four executives of the world's largest helicopter makers, including Bell Helicopter Textron and Sikorsky Aircraft, finished up their presentations, Tilton, who was running late, walked up to the podium wearing that leopard-print dress.

"I don't have pretty slides," she said. "But I'm wearing a sexy dress. I hope this will do for some of you."

Then, taking a more serious tone, Tilton said that the industry was "not a chosen one that defies gravity" and warned the audience that more improvements were needed, including making helicopters safer.

Tilton, who has three siblings, said she grew up in a dynamic family. Her father was a professor, and her mother later became publisher of a newspaper in Teaneck, N.J.

Single parent

At 23, Tilton became a single parent, and for the next several years she "worked 100 hours a week on Wall Street" to support herself and her daughter. "Compared to then, this is nothing," she said of her workload juggling more than 70 companies.

Tilton worked at top Wall Street companies including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch before becoming an expert on distressed loans. She later would obtain a patent for a method of turning around bad bank loans.

Tilton had enough money to retire comfortably at age 40 but decided to form her own company to "give back to the world."

Her most challenging and endearing acquisition has been the helicopter company, one of the few that she personally has overseen and managed, Tilton said.

Because of parts problems, the company stopped producing helicopters in 2005, putting more than 250 jobs in jeopardy just before Tilton acquired an equity stake.

After going through three chief executives in one year, she personally took charge, handling the company's reorganization while acquiring faltering businesses.

At the same time, she began to be the "face of the company" as she led the sales force and was able to regain the attention of its customers.

"She's turned things around at MD, and I think that's helped her gain some respect," said Matthew Arnold, chief executive of Alabama's Marshall County Economic Development Council, which has worked with Tilton on aviation matters.

The company expects to deliver 70 new helicopters this year, up from 52 last year.

"My ultimate legacy would be if I could keep people from going home and telling their families they're unemployed," Tilton said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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