The interview – Lynn Tilton of MD Helicopters

The interview – Lynn Tilton of MD Helicopters

4-Mar-2015 Source:

Andrew Drwiega of listened to, then talked with, Lynn Tilton, CEO, MD Helicopters during her 10 Year Ownership Party in the exhibition halls during the opening day of Heli-Expo.

Lynn Tilton is celebrating 10 years in charge of MD Helicopters Inc (MDHI), the old Hughes then McDonnell Douglas company. Using her investment company, Patriarch Partners, in July 2005 she acquired what is today MD Helicopters. Based in Mesa, Arizona, the product line includes the twin-engine MD Explorer 902 and single engine versions of the MD 600N, MD 520N, MD 500E, MD 530F, MD 530G and MD 540A.

Arguably MDHI’s Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of six MD 530Fs in 2011 brought the company renewed respectability and back to the forefront of being a recognised government supplier, something that inevitably was noticed by potential international military customers.

“Ten years ago when I bought this company there was no supply chain, there were 365 grounded AOG aircraft and really no manufacturing,” she says. “So I though ok we can start again as I have bought many other companies before.”

“But this industry is indigenous unto itself; many suppliers own you, tdesign parts and you are completely dependent on people building for you. It is an industry of ‘big guys’ who will turn and pounce on you.’

This latter point is a personal to Tilton, who has claimed on numerous occasions that she frequently battles against what she sees as almost a phalanx of ‘white, male power brokers’ in industry – and she must have come up against (and rubbed up the wrong way) many in her dealings over the years via the ownership of 75 companies.

“It was a very, very difficult journey. I made a mistake and didn’t realise what I was walking into in order to restart the company,” she claims. Ten years later she now espouses that she has moved from industrialist to technologist. “This is a moment of transcendence; there is no choice but to change.”

Make no mistake, this is still a ‘hard nosed approach to business.” It is an advantage that someone with a purview over 75 companies (not to mention those she has seen disappear in the rear view mirror) has over the helicopter ‘born and bred’ individual. She frequently mentions the automotive industry (in which she also has a stake through Dura Automotive and Global Automotive) to give breadth to the industrialised gap between the two sectors.

“This used to be an industry that was further ahead that others, but no it is behind because everything takes so long; so long to integrate, to certify – and we (helicopter industry collective here) have used it as a comfort zone not to change.” This hints of an exasperation in the process; not something the owner of an hard charging investment firm can get used to (even after 10 years of ownership). “Use technology to change,” she urges.

The success in Afghanistan has now triggered a rash 500 series styled versions for the military market. Tilton will now use this armed scout ‘weapon’ to slice into the established defence helicopter supplier-customer relationships (with the boast of FMS supplier status to back MDHI’s pitches for new business). The Saudi National Guard has operated 12 MD 530Fs since March 2013.

“We are building an armed MD 530F Cayuse Warrior and will deliver 17 of these to the Afghan Air Force,” through a contract signed on October 1, 2014. The eventual order could be substantially more.

“We will certify the upgraded MD 530G which will take our take-off weight to 3,700 lbs and continue to work on the certification of the MD 540A which will be MDHI’s most advanced scout attack helicopter at over 4,300 lbs take-off weight. This has really been the focus of the company over the last two years and it now shows.

“Over 70% of what we delivered was to the military in 2014. That has given us the chance to make money and invest in technology. We were very far behind and there is a lot of work to do and one of my efforts is changing how we do it. Not following the two to four year integration process; but taking the example of the automotive and electronics industries to make use of Silicon Valley to look at avionics in a different way – especially plug and play. That is being proved in so many industries; so why not ours.”

In conclusion, she also aims to ‘fix’ the MD 902 problem through a redesign of the aircraft. Later in March she will gather a team of ‘retired’ designers to come back to look at redesigning the aircraft. “Currently it costs $5million to make which is too much,” she says, pointing to the historical neglect of this unique NOTAR rotorcraft. Her in-house teams are fully committed to the 500 series military projects and she very definitely does not want them distracted. Quite how quickly, and with how much focus the redesign will achieve, could well depend on how much of the new valuable income Tilton is prepared to commit because, unlike many of her rivals, MDHI is bucking the market trend in finding much needed revenue from defence.

Andrew Drwiega –

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