Lynn Tilton on Reviving MD Helicopters and U.S. Manufacturing

“When people talk about me as a Wall Street, stiletto-wearing chick … the stiletto part is right, but I really don’t consider myself Wall Street. I take pride in being an industrialist”
Tilton in an MD 902 Explorer destined for the Kurdistan government Photograph by Justin Maxon for Bloomberg Businessweek

The private equity mogul took over MD Helicopters in 2005 with the goal of making manufacturing sexy. She guides our correspondent around her Arizona factory.

How many people work here?
We have almost 500 altogether; 175 are in Mexico.

And how many were there when you bought the company?
We were down to 30. We won a lot of new business with the U.S. Army. We introduced a new aircraft this year, a scout helicopter called the 540F.

What does it do?
It’s usually the first line of defense. We have fleets in Jordan, Korea, Japan, Italy, Chile, Mexico, and Russia.

Do you handle the sales?
I deliver a lot of helicopters. I delivered the helicopter to the president of Costa Rica. I will do a big ceremony for the prime minister of Kurdistan. I have met with the king of Jordan multiple times.

What do they make of you in Saudi Arabia? Do they ask you to wear a head scarf?
In Saudi Arabia, one dresses as the Saudis do. But I meet with Saudis here and in Dubai. The generals from Saudi Arabia were here, and we were all eating burgers and fries and salads, and one general asked me to run for president of the United States.

What was your response?
I said I have 75 companies and 120,000 people that need me. Maybe someday. (Steps inside a large cool building.) This is our warehouse. We serve the military—U.S. and foreign—we serve EMS workers, and we serve police forces. When I got here, the company’s supply base had been shut down, so we couldn’t get parts. So I flew around the country trying to pick up parts, because without getting aircraft back in the air there was no way I was going to sell a helicopter. I had no idea what I was getting into. I figured I’d put money in, we’d start buying parts, we’d start building again. This industry is very small, it’s very much like Hollywood. It can be very nasty, and the competitors did not want MD coming back, because they knew we had great aircraft.

What are we looking at?
This is where the parts are stored. There are probably $50 million to $60 million worth of parts in this warehouse. (Climbs into a minivan to visit another building.) What most people miss is this is not a simple business or a holding company. We feel strongly about buying companies that others would throw on the trash heap, as a way to create jobs, to give people the dignity of work. And what I’m hoping is that I’m going to help make manufacturing sexy and exciting again.

What lessons did you learn from single motherhood that you were able to apply to business?
Being a mother very young made me compassionate and made it easier for me to put others first. There’s no choice but to keep going, right? And that’s how I feel when business gets tough. This is where the aircraft are built. It’s done in stations. This is our single-engine line. The beauty to this is that we can build all those single-engine aircraft, 500E, 530F, 520N, and the 600N, and then the 540F, all on this one line. Most companies don’t do what we do, which is why we do everything in-house. We’re the fastest in the industry.

How do you do it so fast?
We’re vertically integrated. We make most of the nondesign metal parts, nose to tail, in-house. And we’re in the process of buying a three-dimensional printer. We’ll make our own parts on demand. (Gestures toward her sky-high pumps.) You should know, I’m not dressed any differently than I usually am. Sometimes I take the high shoes off when we walk the manufacturing line.

How did you learn to walk in heels like that?
I’ve gotten used to it. When people talk about me as a Wall Street, stiletto-wearing chick … the stiletto part is right, but I really don’t consider myself Wall Street. I take pride in being an industrialist. I understand that people write about what I wear and what I look like because it’s an anomaly. But to only focus on those things is to really miss who I am. I’m trying to show women that they need to be women in a man’s world.

What would your advice be to a young woman entering business regarding her appearance?
I would tell her to dress and behave in the way in which she is most confident.

Do you have people who shop for you?
I shop twice a year. I pretty much wear two designers: Cavalli and Gucci. I’m sure I spend more than $100,000 a year just on clothes.

You’ve made a lot of money. How do you reconcile that with the social-mission aspect of your business?
I use mostly my own money. I haven’t raised outside money. I tried to make certain that my wealth is built on a winning structure, the greater good.

One of your approaches has been a form of benevolent capitalism. It’s hard to believe that’s going to become a dominant ideology in this country.
I thought I could set an example and people would follow, but that’s not necessarily going to happen. I think it will make sense to people to bring manufacturing back, and that will help. But I also think companies like Wal-Mart are seeing that they have lost a lot of their customer base. You know, we have a middle class that is truly eradicated and suffering.

How did you get so rich? You had this impressive career at big banks.
Oh no, no, no, no, no. I had saved $10 million over 18 years and put every penny up when I did my first deal. Most of my wealth has come from the first three deals I did. But because I don’t operate in the public market … people aren’t comfortable with what they can’t calculate.

Do you care if you’re on a billionaires list?
I don’t get why anyone cares. I don’t want to be known for my wealth. I want to be known for the number of jobs I’ve saved.

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