Her Way

Lynn Tilton is out to restore the American manufacturing base— one stiletto heeled step at a time.

Photography by FabioCamaraStudios.com

Lynn Tilton saves dying companies. Since 2000, her private equity company, Patriarch Partners, through the funds it manages, has bought and restructured more than 150 distressed manufacturing businesses and, in most cases, made them profitable—in the process preserving more than 250,000 jobs.

Today, Patriarch Partners and its affiliates manage 75 companies in 14 different industries, with revenue of more than $8 billion. This portfolio of companies constitutes the largest woman-owned business in the United States. According to ABC News, which has reviewed her personal financial records, Tilton, 54, is a billionaire—one of only a handful of self-made female billionaires in the country.

It is not her fortune, however, that she cares about. She has never desired to be defined by her wealth, and it’s not her motivating force. Her work, she says, is mission driven. Her audacious goal is no less than reviving the American manufacturing base.

So, in perusing the many press clips about Lynn Tilton, what would you expect the focus of these profiles to be? Her extraordinary rise from a modest middle-class background in the Bronx, New York, and Teaneck, New Jersey, to the peak of the business world? Her one-woman quest to restore manufacturing in America?

Nope. Instead, the press focuses on her leather wardrobe, five-inch stilettos, and sometimes salty language. Or her tough-as-nails management style, which can politely be called “my way or the highway.”

There is good reason for that. Lynn Tilton, recipient of the Diversity Woman Mosaic Woman Legend Award, may be one of the most polarizing CEOs in the United States. Her success is unquestioned. But some consider her methods controversial. Tilton doesn’t deny that she’s unconventional and sometimes deliberately attention getting, but she insists that the criticisms of her style are largely a function of the male-dominated financial industry that simply can’t handle a successful woman operating on her own terms.

“I think I am judged differently because I’m a woman,” she says. “If I was a man, I would be seen as rose petals softly falling from the heavens. The reality is, we have people’s lives in our hands. This is not about crunching numbers. When we don’t do what we need to do, companies fail and people get hurt. I need people who work for me to understand that it is not about them. In the end, I need people who are mission oriented. This is a business, but it is also a mission.”

Lynn Tilton Fact Number 1:

Her story is a product of the American dream.

Tilton’s father’s parents emigrated from Russia, and her father grew up during the Great Depression. He became a public school teacher and drilled into Tilton that, with education, everything and anything is possible in the great meritocracy in America.

Tilton was his golden child and took his words to heart. She believes she was destined to do something special. So what if she was born in the Bronx? She had an immigrant family’s chutzpah and her father in her corner. She made her way to Yale University on an athletic and academic scholarship, where she majored in American studies and was a nationally-ranked tennis player. The sky was limitless.

Then the sky lowered. Her father died of a brain tumor during her junior year.

“Once I lost my father, my world crumbled,” she says. “My family was afraid; I had a younger brother who needed support. I was catapulted into adulthood. That was the starkest moment of my life. I learned that when you lose that sturdy foundation of family, a working parent, everything can fall apart.”

Later, when Tilton formed Patriarch Partners with the mission of reviving manufacturing jobs, her personal understanding of the devastation that results from the loss of a working parent became her driving force. Her father’s background has also been formative. Today, she likes to hire immigrants, she says, because they have the passion and work ethic to succeed. And she named her company Patriarch Partners in honor of her father.

When her father died, Tilton grew up quickly. She had entered college with the goal of becoming a writer. Instead, she married her high-school sweetheart, had a child in her first year out of school, and made a beeline for Wall Street to make a living for her family. Soon, not only was she providing for her family, she was accumulating power and wealth as a result of her dedication and work ethic.

But she was miserable. She was working 100 hours a week and was a single mother, having separated from her husband. She spent too little time with her daughter, Carly. Wall Street, with its brutal hours, locker-room mentality, and laser focus on profit, was disillusioning.

“I really didn’t love my life on Wall Street,” she says. “So in 1990, I moved to Florida with my daughter, wanting her to have a better life than waiting for me in an apartment to get home from my 100-hour-a-week job. I thought I would build a life where she could be outside playing tennis and see more of her mother. Only I was not able to find a way to transfer my skill sets. So I began commuting back and forth [to New York].”

In Florida, Tilton was introduced to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. She embraced a form of mysticism (she says her ancestors were kabbalistic scholars) and started making plans to make radical changes in her life.

“I thought once I made enough money, I would want to live a very different life away from Wall Street,” she explains. “My dream was to be an island girl. But it turns out my destiny was to change the world.”

Lynn Tilton Fact Number 2:

She believes it is her destiny to rescue American manufacturing.

By 1998, Tilton had saved $10 million and decided it was time to retire. Then she had a dream in which her father and her Mayan teacher told her she was going in the wrong direction, that her destiny was not to withdraw from the world, but to make life better for others. She got out of bed and returned to New York on the next flight.

“It came to me that if I bought companies other people had thrown away, added value, and at the same time kept someone from losing a job and all the attendant destruction, that was a little bit of light I could create in the world,” she says.

In 2000, Tilton formed Patriarch Partners. In the last 13 years, she has bought and revived more than 150 companies, including a pulp mill in Maine (that was converted into an alternative fuel plant), a helicopter maker, cosmetic companies, and a number of automotive companies. Tilton loves to buy and rebuild iconic American brands that have fallen from grace—companies like Rand McNally, Spiegel catalog, Stila Cosmetics, and even MD Helicopters, which was founded by Howard Hughes.

Tilton considers these turnarounds not only her personal mission but a model for the revival of the economy.

“Manufacturing is the future of our country—it’s the only way you put people back to work here,” she says. “Our future is built upon bringing technology and smart manufacturing to America, bringing outsourced manufacturing home. I believe with every cell of my being that we must be the maker of things in this country, and the greatest gift you can give a human being is the dignity of work.”

To that end, Tilton has become a vocal advocate of fair trade policies and of the U.S. government adopting policies that are more supportive of the country’s manufacturers.

Lynn Tilton Fact Number 3:

She is not shy—but she is not social, either.

Calling Tilton shy would be akin to calling Bill Clinton repressed. She has become famous for attending high-powered business meetings in five-inch stilettos and leather dresses. She is known to speak her mind, but her idea of hell is a cocktail party. Speaking before a group of 5,000 with nary a note is easy. Walking a factory floor is exhilarating. Making small talk is neither.
She is also known for her wicked sense of humor. One of Tilton’s oft-quoted lines originated when she was meeting with the head of purchasing at one of the Big Three auto manufacturers with whom she hoped to do business for her then recently purchased tier-one automotive supplier, Dura Automotive. She was asked, “Why should we think you’re not simply a typical private equity investor who strips and flips companies?” Tilton replied, “You got it all wrong—it’s only men that I strip and flip. My companies, I keep long and very close to my heart.”

Tilton is unapologetic, and she reveals that her public persona as a provocative, ball-busting billionaire is purposefully strategic. After all, it’s easy to underestimate the person sitting across from you at the negotiating table when her lipstick screams hot pink and she is wearing more leather than Daniel Boone.

“Have I turned some people off with the way I look?” she asks. “Absolutely. Has that made the press write more about how I looked than how I think? Yes. Has it hurt or helped? I think it has helped.”

Recently, however, Tilton has been wondering if the time has come to tone it down. She concedes that one by-product of being noticed for your appearance and attitude is that your brain gets overlooked.

“I earned and saved $10 million and then turned that into an $8 billion business,” she says. “I know every aspect of 75 businesses and am CEO of five of them—and I don’t think anybody ever writes about my intellect. To be honest, that bothers me a little.”

Yet, many do acknowledge that her success is rooted not only in her guts, force of personality, and instinct but also in her business acumen and brilliance.

“She’s definitely very bright, has great command of the issues that she’s been working on, and her motivations are extraordinarily public spirited,” Richard Levin, president of Yale University, told New York magazine in 2011.

Lynn Tilton Fact Number 4:

You don’t want to work for her — unless you’re as driven as she is.

She’s been called the “dominatrix of business” for her assertive approach and black-leather wardrobe. She doesn’t deny any of it but says she has mellowed in recent years.

“I don’t drive anyone to the extent I drive myself, and the same thing with accountability,” she says. “I work seven days a week, 18 hours a day because my life is devoted to others. If you choose not to be part of that, you can make that choice. I try to motivate people in an inspirational way, but I’m also not carrying people anymore. I did push people, but what I’ve realized as of late is that it’s not worth my energy. If I can’t motivate people by the mission, they need to move on, and I need to care less.”

Then she couldn’t resist adding, “But I do hug people when they walk in the room, before I spank them!”

Lynn Tilton Fact Number 5:

She is a feminist in a miniskirt.

Tilton says her public persona has been carefully cultivated to demonstrate that there is no cookie-cutter template for being a successful woman in a male-dominated industry.

“In general, when women change who they are and try to be other than who they are, their chances of success are exponentially diminished. I have taken it to an extreme because I want other women to see that they don’t have to change who they are,” she says. “You can be bright and sparkly and beautiful or smart and sexy and sophisticated and still take on male-dominated industries and win. What I wear and how I look are making a point. It is like the four-minute mile: when someone finally does it, you know it’s possible.”
While she acknowledges that there is a great deal of sexism in Corporate America, Tilton doesn’t give women a free pass either.

“Women face so many obstacles,” she says. “One is the biological truth of childbearing, and the fear that once they have children they won’t get back to work. The other is that woman are not kind to one another and don’t network and support each other enough in corporate America. We are inculcated to compete with one another because there may be only one position for a woman.”
The answer, she says, is for women to take their destiny into their own hands. In a nod to Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In, she says, “When women know they are ready, they should not delay in leaning in. Men tend to take jobs before they’re ready, but woman wait too long—we all need to find a balance.”
When asked what advice she would give to a young woman just beginning her career and wanting to reach the top, Tilton, predictably, talks about passion over profits. Surprisingly, this self-proclaimed tough, unrelenting boss also emphasizes the power of relationships.

“Women are more mission oriented than money oriented, and what allows us to continue on a path—since we are all going to face terrible obstacles on our way to the stars—is perseverance and passion,” she says. “It starts with a dream and vision of something you believe in and care about so much that it keeps you going. You need to have a dream that doesn’t fade when things get difficult or people beat you down.

“And along the way, make sure you have your best friend by your side” she continues. “I found out that leadership is a lonely path. You need someone to lean on. You need someone there to motivate you who has the exact same interests and whose dream is also fueled by passion and perseverance.

“The reality is, if you dream it, you can build it. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s path. You need to have a dream, and the only thing that should provide boundaries for you is the law and integrity. Otherwise, there is nothing that says this is the way you have to do it. All things are possible!”DW

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