11/05/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

CEO of Second Chances

Lynn Tilton is one of the few self-made female billionaires in the country. As the founder of Patriarch Partners, she manages 75 different companies, serving as CEO for a handful of them. Her firm's revenues? More than $8 billion. I met her recently, through my wife Barbara, who is a board member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. They were honoring Lynn with a special achievement award. I was delighted by her grit and intelligence and her devotion to preserving and growing jobs in the U.S. No one would have guessed she'd end up where she is now.

As a teen growing up in the Bronx, her ambitions were far more modest: she wanted to play tennis competitively, so she honed her serve by booking time at tennis courts when she could afford it, between midnight and 2 a.m. Her skills and her innate brain power got her onto the team at Yale where she chose a degree in American Studies, hoping it would turn her into an accomplished poet. In close succession, her father died, she married her high-school sweetheart and gave birth to a daughter. The realities of life and death hit hard -- poetry was not a survival strategy. She fell under the spell of numbers: specifically strings of numbers that began with a dollar sign.

Her rise was fairly swift: she took a low-paying job as an analyst at Morgan Stanley, but decided to go to Columbia for an M.B.A. while running three separate restaurants, putting in 100-hour weeks. At this point, having separated from her husband, she was a 25-year-old single mother. Her daughter, Carly, was two years old. Once out of Columbia she began earning the money she needed, with nearly a decade at various investment banks, learning the finer points of leverage buyouts, distressed debt and distressed assets. In the process, she became financially independent and could have retired to play tennis and compose sonnets, but she didn't. Eventually, using the $10 million she'd saved and having learned how to buy and restructure companies that were on the verge of dissolution, she founded her own holding company, Papillon Partners. She changed the name to Patriarch Partners in 2000, in honor of the patriarch she admired most, her father.

She dedicated herself to saving companies, not raiding them. Now, 14 years later, at the age of 55, she runs an organization that has rescued more than half a million American jobs by finding bargains on companies about to go under and, essentially, refusing to put profit over people. She preserves and grows jobs by reorganizing these companies rather than stripping and flipping firms for a quick profit.

One of the first companies she bought was MD Helicopter, founded by Howard Hughes. She seems especially proud of having brought it back to life and she ought to be. She employs 500 with the majority working here in the U.S. She told Bloomberg Business Week that the company had shrunk to 30 workers when her firm purchased it. In 2005, the company manufactured only seven helicopters, but through her guidance was made 52 in 2008. It's thriving, and has given her entrée and influence from Kurdistan to Jordan. She's met with the king of Jordan twice and a Saudi general, visiting the U.S., once told her she should run for President. Jordan, Korea, Japan, Italy, Chile, Mexico and Finland all own her company's helicopters.

What's crucial about her approach is that she's succeeding by saving or creating jobs. As her website sums it up: "Since 2000, Ms. Tilton and Patriarch Partners through its affiliated funds have committed to debt and equity investments and provided operational and strategic expertise to more than 240 companies, representing more than $100 billion in combined revenues, thus preserving more than 675,000 American jobs that would have otherwise been lost through liquidations."

We all need to think the way Tilton does. The purpose of business isn't simply shareholder value: it's a matrix of outcomes, not only for owners and shareholders, but also for employees and customers, communities and environment. Tilton recognizes a company for what it is: an ecosystem that becomes productive and alive and profitable only when all those stakeholders win. A company has to benefit everything and everyone it touches. First and foremost are its employees. Their lives depend on being able to earn a fair wage, and our economy depends on their ability to keep earning those wages. Tilton is doing her part to keep our economic recovery alive and gaining momentum. Would that all CEOs would preserve and grow jobs as devotedly as she does.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.