Lynn Tilton doesn’t think women should have to act like men to be successful in business. “I think women too often give up their identity in a man’s world and believe they’ll only be successful if they’re close to what men are or what men expect them to be,” she says at a New Haven coffee shop, spearing her latte with a straw. Tilton, 51, is the founder and CEO of Patriarch Partners, a private-equity firm that specializes in the takeover of distressed manufacturers of a decidedly masculine nature: fire-truck-maker American LaFrance, MD helicopters, automotive company Dura. “I don’t want to feel like I have to fit into a male mode to be this sort of successful industrialist,” she continues. “I take pride in the fact that I can be all woman in a man’s world. And,” she adds, lowering her already deep Mae West voice another octave, “as you may have noticed, I am all woman.”
It’s hard not to notice: Tilton’s lipstick is frosty pink, her eyelashes are long and inky black, her hair is Barbie-doll blonde, with curls spilling over cleavage that is invariably visible, invariably tan, invariably accentuated by a diamond necklace, and invariably supported by a tight-fitting garment made by one of her favorite designers. Today she has chosen a Roberto Cavalli miniskirt accessorized with spike-heeled suede boots and a fur-trimmed cape. “There’s never been a carcass I wouldn’t put on my back,” says Tilton, adding that she’s been a vegetarian for 40 years, so she’s earned it.
Her brand of femininity is so over-the-top, so cartoonish, it’s as if she were playing a part, the Wonder Woman of Wall Street. But this is pretty much how she sees herself: an Ayn Rand heroine in six-inch heels who has men stay the night, then eats them for breakfast. “I’ll be your girlfriend,” she’s told clients, “but I won’t be your bitch.”
“My job is to make men better men,” Tilton often says, and that includes teaching lessons to the ones who try to hold her back. Like Claudio Gemme, the CEO of Ansaldo Sistemi Industriali, a producer of electric motors and generators, who failed to treat Tilton with proper respect when she first came to tour the soon-to-be-bankrupt factory in Genoa in 2005.
“He was like, ‘In Italy, we like-a the women,’ ” she says. “ ‘We like-a them in the bedroom. We like-a them in the kitchen. Not in the boardroom.’ I’m thinking, I’m going to buy this company, and I’m going to fire these arrogant men.” A week later, at the bankruptcy auction, when Gemme, who had been at the company for 32 years, failed to provide essential paperwork, Tilton grabbed him by the knot of his tie and, in a boardroom full of people, shoved him against the wall. “You’ve showed me no respect and no appreciation,” she hissed. “Today I can give your company away. So when I say ‘Step right,’ you step right. When I say ‘Step left,’ you step left. Do you understand that dance?” Then she stormed out.
“She’s got balls,” a trustee said.
Gemme loosened his collar. “Three.”
“Now we get along great,” Tilton says with a laugh. “He loves me. He would marry me in a second.” Gemme, she says, was afraid Patriarch would sell the company for parts. But with their backing, she says, Ansaldo Sistemi Industriali has turned back to profitability. For his part, Gemme confirms that “everything happened exactly like Lynn says it did,” and mentions that they now have a marketing slogan that stresses “the power of three: ‘Innovation, Intellect, and Integrity,’ ” and a new logo, an A with three balls.
Patriarch currently claims over $8 billion in annual revenue, and Tilton says the company has made her a billionaire as well as the owner of more businesses than any other woman in America. These claims can’t easily be verified, but they’re impressive enough that Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a dean at the Yale School of Management, has invited her to speak on a leadership panel, which is why she has helicoptered up to New Haven today.There are three other executives on the panel, but Tilton quickly takes over, telling salty yarns about dinner at Silvio Berlusconi’s house (“I’m grateful for being too old to sleep with him; it makes for a less difficult exit”), hot-tubbing with “the Dubai leader’s son,” and the time she grabbed Tony Blair’s rear, then lectured him on industrial policy.
“We need an industrial base,” she tells the audience. “And that’s what I told Tony Blair. I let him know I thought the demise of the U.K. was based on the fact that they had let go of all of their industry.”
“This is after you grabbed the prime minister’s—” Sonnenfeld starts to say.