Her long blonde hair, risqué outfits, and neck and hands dripping with diamonds feeds the controversial wild-woman persona on a mission to save American jobs. Even her net worth, which stands somewhere between $800 million and $1 billion, causes contention as Tilton fiercely denies she is anything less than a billionaire. Yet, it is Tilton's intellect and relentless work ethic that is responsible for founding her private equity firm Patriarch Partners, developing the business model that has rescued more than 240 companies from the brink of failure, and backing up her larger than life personality.
Ultimately, it is the collision of these qualities, her persona and her business acumen, which makes Lynn Tilton such a polarizing figure and fascinating business story.
In the beginning
When Tilton started her career with Morgan Stanley in the early 1980s she joined a growing number of women on Wall Street. In fact, according to Harvard's Boris Groysberg, from 1970 to 1980, women on Wall Street went from one in 20 to one in five – but despite growing numbers, it did nothing to change the locker room culture.
As the 1980s stretched into the 1990s, the 100 hour weeks, greed, and sexual harassment created a particularly toxic environment for women who saw their numbers dwindle. For Tilton to survive as an investment banker, it took someone who could not only do the job, but adapt to the male-dominated culture; and for nearly two decades that is exactly what she did.
Tilton was able to built a small fortune, but as she explained in a 2011 interview with Barbra Walters, the constant fear as a single mother working long hours on Wall Street blurs the memories of her twenties. It was in the late 1990s that Tilton had her epiphany: humanity and good business shouldn't be mutually exclusive. It was on this principal that Tilton founded Patriarch Partners.
Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...
Tilton's niche on Wall Street was researching distressed debt, and that expertise lead to a focus on buyouts of failing companies. But unlike the typical private equity firm, Patriarch Partners would nurture these companies back to health rather than strip them for parts. This is a sentiment Tilton made famous saying: "It's only men I strip and flip. I hold my companies long and close to my heart."
To be successful Tilton needed both sides of herself: the calculated investor and businesswoman as well as the larger-than-life personality. Tilton's reign often begins with replacing management, tightening belts, and instilling a new business plan. A plan based on creating a culture that believes in giving customers what they want: design and disruption. More precisely, a beautifully crafted and innovative product. This is a strategy Tilton is currently putting to work with companies like Dura Automotive, MD Helicopters, Rand McNally, Jane Cosmetic, and dozens of others she owns outright or has a substantial stake in.
But to breathe new life into a beaten down business Tilton needs the company and its employees to believe in her; not the calculating businesswoman who just fired their boss, but the wild women with the dirt to diamonds image that just might be just crazy enough to make things happen.
Tilton v. SEC
Tilton is a figure to rally around and the brains behind the operation, but she also comes with a full wallet. Before founding Patriarch Partners, Tilton developed a patented formula for structuring distressed debt. The intention is simple: improve the credit quality of loans, and make Patriarch's funds more attractive to outside investors. In short, the Patriarch Partner funds work like a private bank funding Tilton's investments, and it's the fuel that keeps everything going.
The irony is that this tool, which has given Tilton the means to save hundreds of companies and hundreds of thousands of American jobs, is the same one SEC believes Tilton has used to defraud investors; which, as far as frauds go, makes this one is pretty interesting.
The SEC's case is alleging that Tilton manipulated the value of assets inside the Patriarch portfolio. Essentially, when borrowers stop paying back their loans the assets should be marked down in value. But that never happened. This did not have an impact on the interest investors received, but it did effect Tilton's compensation. By charging a fee based on assets under management, and then not marking down assets, the SEC believes Tilton received an additional $200 million in fees since 2009.
In a CNBC interview earlier this year, Tilton denied the SEC charges and suggested that she disclosed to investors that assets were not being held at fair or market values, and that is how the fund has operated since its inception. The truth will eventually come out, but for now Lynn Tilton's persona remains a tumultuous, double-sided coin. Is she the wild women persona created in the 1980s and 1990s world of investment banking that few of us would have any trouble believing defrauded investors? Or is she the Yale educated businesswoman being handcuffed by the SEC as she fights for American workers? Neither is the fully encapsulates Lynn Tilton, but it adds yet another layer to what has been an incredible story of the rise of one of the most powerful self-made women.