Rotor blades and turbine engines were supposed to be the showcase at the annual helicopter convention in Anaheim last week, so pilot James Costa wasn’t sure what to make of the crowd surrounding a woman in a leopard-skin dress with knee-high boots.
The woman with long blond hair 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, the 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 gray-suited, male-dominated industry has never seen anyone quite like Tilton, a single mom and a New York financier who since 2000 has been quietly amassing an empire, acquiring or investing in more than 70 companies worth $8 billion.
“She doesn’t fit the usual pattern of an executive,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst for Teal Group Corp. “She is noticeably different to say the least, but she has stayed in this game a lot longer than people thought.”
Part Warren Buffett and part Dolly Parton, the 49-year-old Bronx native owns or has equity stakes in companies that are as eclectic as her wardrobe -- and include familiar brand names such as Arizona Ice Tea, English Leather cologne, Isotoner gloves and Natura water filters.
Through her New York private equity investment 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 MD Helicopters Inc., a Mesa, Ariz., company founded by Howard Hughes.
Although diverse, the companies had a common trait before Tilton began investing in them. They produced well-known products but were in such financial messes that they were about to go out of business.
“We turn dust to diamonds,” she said in an interview during Heli-Expo last week at the Anaheim Convention Center. “We buy what everybody else tosses away.”
In the process, Tilton said that 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., including hundreds in Southern California. The return on her investments has averaged 25% 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 has often been described as the “dominatrix lady” because of her penchant for black leather dresses and high-heeled shoes.
“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” she said when asked about the initial impression some people may have. She has a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and an MBA from Columbia University.
But she acknowledged that she had used the image to her advantage, because most people who meet her for the first time often underestimate her abilities.
Before she began signing autographs Tilton was already shaking up the helicopter convention.
As four executives of the world’s largest helicopter makers, including Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., finished up their presentations, Tilton, who was running late, walked up to the podium dressed in her leopard-skin 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.
But at age 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 firms including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs & Co. and Merrill Lynch & Co. before becoming an expert on distressed loans.
She would later obtain a patent for a way to turn around bad bank loans. Tilton had enough money to retire comfortably at age 40 but decided to form her own firm to “give back to the world.”
Her most challenging and endearing acquisition has been the helicopter company, one of the few that she has personally 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 other 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 before ending the interview worrying that her “cover” was now blown. “That’s the problem with coming out. People will start knowing who you really are.”