Take a look at the top 10 employers in Mesa.

Mesa-based MD Helicopters is adding 150 jobs to the area after scoring a contract with the U.S. Army worth nearly $1.4 billion.

The contract is a victory for the company and its fiery CEO, Lynn Tilton, who is facing SEC fraud charges over another company she owns and feuding in court with Mesa neighbor Boeing.  

The Army contracted with MD Helicopters to supply approximately 150 helicopters over the next five years. Initially, 30 aircraft will go to the Afghan Air Force. The company has already hired 100 people because of the contract and is looking for another 50 to hire.

At the helm of it all is Tilton in her lavender-hued Mesa office. The CEO said she works 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week in Mesa and at her other holdings.

Tilton said she started buying manufacturing companies to “give people the dignity of work” and MD is her thesis statement. It’s a platform she said she evangelized long before President Donald Trump. 

“You have to take care of your own before you can take care of anyone else, and the reason we have violence in the streets of America, the reason we have so much vitriol is because we left too many people behind after the financial crisis,” she said. 

A manufacturing force in Mesa

“Every time we’re creating a manufacturing job — a high-paying manufacturing job in Mesa — it has a much broader effect on the community,” Tilton said.

A company spokesman said 436 people in total work at the Mesa headquarters. When Tilton bought the company in 2005, 151 employees worked there.

The company counts Mesa’s police department as a client, along with other law-enforcement agencies across the U.S. It’s delivered helicopters to Malaysia, El Salvador and Costa Rica. 

One bid was solicited and received for the Army contract, according to the Department of Defense. Tilton said she expects to deliver the first aircraft to Afghanistan in March —12 helicopters are already in production at the Mesa facility, which borders Falcon Field.

“That’s a big contract over five years. That’s a substantial economic boost for us,” said Sally Harrison, president of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. 

Tilton is known for buying distressed companies. She bought MD when she said it was “days away from liquidation.” The company traces its history back to film producer and aviator Howard Hughes, whose business eventually sold the helicopter division to McDonnell Douglas in 1984. With this and other government contracts, she says the business is now on track financially.

“I think it’s just a tribute to this company and how they’ve journeyed to make this company great again,” she said. 

It hasn’t come without its battles, including with Boeing, which operates right next door.

‘Strained’ relationship with Boeing

Boeing’s Mesa facility sits right across the street from MD. With 3,700 employees, it is one of the largest employers in Mesa, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development.

Both companies have representatives on the Mesa Chamber of Commerce industry and defense council, Harrison said, which works to address federal issues. 

The two companies’ histories are tightly intertwined. Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, then sold the spun-off helicopter business in 1999. Six years later, it was Tilton’s. 

The CEO now characterizes MD’s relationship with Boeing as “strained.” 

MD is suing Boeing for $3.8 million in federal court for damages for breach of contract, records show. The lawsuit was filed this August and accuses Boeing of failing to pay on invoices for 24 delivered helicopter air frames. 

In 2012, Boeing and MD entered into arbitration over both companies pursuing defense contracts. Boeing claimed agreements made with MD in 2005 barred the helicopter company from offering its MD540F helicopter for U.S. military sales. 

The arbitration panel ruled in MD’s favor, allowing it to move forward in pursuing military contracts. 

Boeing has not responded to MD’s most recent complaint over breach of contact. In a statement, a company spokeswoman wrote, “Boeing does not comment on active litigation issues.”

Tilton remains poised to fight.  

“We have a lot of large competitors sort of rooting for our demise,” she said. “People didn’t want MD in the game. And I think the one thing everyone has to acknowledge today is, we’re here to stay.”

SEC case against Tilton

Tilton is staring down court battles, including fraud charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

She and her company, Patriarch Partners, are accused of defrauding investors, misleading them over the performance of loan assets. Patriarch’s portfolio contains MD Helicopters.

The funds tangled up in the SEC charges also are suing Tilton and Patriarch.

Tilton would not discuss the ongoing SEC litigation with The Arizona Republic. But she has said in other publications that she did not commit fraud. Earlier this year, she attempted to take her fight to the Supreme Court, calling the SEC’s use of in-house judges “unconstitutional.” The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

A decision by the administrative judge could come anytime

‘I’m glad Trump is agreeing with my platform’

Though she owns at least a dozen companies — Stila Cosmetics and Rand McNally to name a few — Tilton has been spending a lot of time in her office in Mesa, at MD Helicopters.

The company’s growth is emblematic of her decades-long mission to save jobs in America, according to Tilton. 

She doesn’t agree with Trump’s manufacturing platform, she said. It’s the other way around. 

“I for 20 years have been saving jobs in America and not sending my manufacturing overseas when others thought it was ridiculous … I’m glad Trump is agreeing with my platform.”

MD Helicopters has a wholly owned manufacturing plant in Monterrey, Mexico. A website that appears to represent that plant states, “Our plant assembles 62 percent of MD Helicopters brand aircraft.” 

But anything for the military is built in Mesa, Tilton said. About 92 people work at the facility in Mexico, where piece parts are manufactured for MD’s single-engine aircraft, a company spokesman said.   

In 2007, she told Bloomberg News of the decision to manufacture out of Monterrey:  “Over time there will be great savings … It makes a tremendous amount of sense, and that’s why I’m there.”

The company also hosts dozens of interns each year, many from state universities, including Arizona State University’s engineering program.

Tilton wants more women in the office: more female engineers, more women who code. She wants to solidify the company’s place in the community.

“I want this to be a place where those who grew up in Mesa want to come to work,” she said.


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