In the Glendale offices of her two cosmetics companies, New York financier Lynn Tilton makes a surprising claim: Not that long ago, she wasn't all that interested in makeup.
It's unexpected not just because Tilton owns the Jane and Stila lines of primping products. She also makes the declaration while a professional makeup artist touches up her glossy pout and shimmery eyelids. Rounding out her look are towering stilettos, voluminously teased blond hair, French-tipped nails and a cleavage-baring shirt just sheer enough to show off a belly button jewel.
Tilton is plenty interested in makeup now.
On Monday, Jane cosmetics will begin returning to store shelves after Tilton plucked the brand from bankruptcy and near-liquidation. The 1990s drugstore mainstay will begin selling at nearly 600 Ulta stores before launching in Kohl's stores in September and then expanding to the Stage department store chain.
The Ivy League-educated, Cavalli-clad Tilton — dubbed "the Wild Woman of Wall Street" for her deal-making prowess and fearless reputation — is a pro at snapping up distressed companies and whipping them into shape.
She owns 75 businesses through her Patriarch Partners holding company. The roster features aerospace, auto, helicopter and video game firms, but it's light on companies as overtly feminine as Jane.
Tilton calls the Jane brand a "labor of love." She named herself chief executive in January, making Jane one of a handful of companies she personally manages. Tilton said she has worked "harder than humanly possible" to revamp it.
Instead of the cheap products that once drove away fans, Tilton said, new Jane products will feature innovations such as a stain-gloss lip tool that adapts its color to the pH levels in the wearer's skin.
Jane also has a philanthropic mission: to use a portion of its proceeds as seed money for nonprofits founded by women. Images of the so-called Friends of Jane adorn many of the brand's products as well as its marketing materials. Tilton said she envisions the project as "a thousand blossoms blooming," spreading goodwill to others.
"We birthed this, created it from scratch — the only thing that's left of the old Jane is the name," she said. "We think this could be a $50-million run-rate company by the end of 2014 from basically zero."
"If it's not," she said, "I'm not as good as I thought."
Most people don't know what to think of Tilton.
Her bio on Patriarch's website lays out a glowing portrait that borders on the mythical. Forbes has questioned whether she's a billionaire, as she has claimed, or just a multimillionaire. She considered starring in a Sundance Channel reality show called "Diva of Distress" but decided against it.
The poetry lover and onetime tennis star holds degrees from Yale University and Columbia Business School. She spent years in what she calls the "male-dominated" world of finance, clocking investment banking stints at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.
Tilton said she appreciates large diamonds and has never met a piece of leather she wouldn't put on her body. She gets around in a helicopter made by one of her companies, with her initials emblazoned on the tail.
"I was born to rule the world," she said.
She speaks passionately about the principle of "leaning in," popularized this year in a book by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Many of her in-house attorneys and most of the ones she hires from outside firms are female.
"I am a woman's woman and prefer their company," she said. "I want women to believe they can be sexy and feminine and don't have to look or act like men to succeed in a man's world."
The path to Tilton's perch was filled with trouble and naysayers.
She grew up without money. Her beloved father died when she was 19, highlighting "the disruption that happens to families when they lose a working parent," she said. By 23, she was a single mother to daughter Carly Jade.
She said she founded Patriarch in 2000 as a way to do good. In all, she said, she has saved some 250,000 jobs that otherwise would have been lost to liquidation.
Working in male-dominated industries in which she had little prior experience made her a target for skepticism.
"Sometimes men feel it's difficult to follow a woman," she said. "But I like taking a group of men and leading them to success."
Several former employees have accused her in lawsuits of being a temperamental boss. Each day, she personally approves how much capital her companies can take out of the corporate coffers. She speaks at length about worker loyalty.
"It's not about being a hard-ass — you have to get things done," she said.
Of the companies she buys, she said 20% are losers while another 20% become "true home runs." The majority she gets back on track, but sometimes only after downsizing, she said.
"I feel like I can save almost anything," she said. "But that doesn't mean I don't sometimes have to sacrifice some to save many."
Tilton has high hopes for Jane.
The brand is an Estee Lauder orphan, sold by the cosmetics giant to a series of private-equity firms before sinking into financial troubles. With no other offers on the table, Tilton bought Jane four years ago for less than $10 million.
Tilton has since invested several million dollars in Jane, which together with Stila has 85 employees in Glendale and 125 freelance artists. She's contending with a crowded and competitive makeup market trying to attract girls who are starting to use makeup at a younger age.
The U.S. cosmetics industry has grown slowly in the last five years, with revenue rising about 13%, according to research firm Mintel. The group anticipates 2% to 4% growth annually through 2018.
"The buying part is easy," Tilton said of her method. "Then you have to completely reinvent everything. Whether it's helicopters or cosmetics, I'm doing the same thing, breaking every business down to its basic variables."
Most of the Jane merchandise is made in facilities in Sun Valley and in Florida. Tilton hopes to bring the rest, produced by a Shanghai biotech firm, back to the U.S. soon.
She also plans to expand Jane sales internationally. The brand, she said, eventually could bring in more revenue than the more-established Stila.
Her endgame: Sell both brands as a package.
"When I bought Jane, it was as far gone as anything I've ever bought," she said. "Someone else would've given up."
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