Talking to party luncheons and interviewers, Sheehy’s success story about Bridger Aerospace has sounded like a gritty start-up tale that began with a dream and some savings, not “freebies,” as he put it in a podcast interview.
“When I saw a business opportunity, I took my entire life savings—I didn't get a government loan, didn’t get a government handout—I started a business in my barn and built it from scratch,” Sheehy told a crowd in August.
“We had a nice little six-figure nest egg, and we just booted off our company with that,” Sheehy said on a November podcast appearance. “We bought our land, and we lived in a tent, literally, for months, and we built the barn that we lived in for four and a half years. And it was like bootstrap central.”
Sheehy’s sterling resume and colorful backstory has made him such a highly prized recruit for Senate Republicans. A Navy SEAL who served in combat before starting his business, the 38-year-old could pose a serious threat to Sen. Jon Tester, and potentially help flip control of the Senate back to the GOP.
But fresh information has emerged that undercuts Sheehy’s story of self-made scrappiness. And the details come from an unlikely source: Sheehy himself.
In a forthcoming memoir to be released this month, titled Mudslingers: A True Story of American Firefighting, Sheehy divulges the hard work and determination that went into building Bridger Aerospace. But he also details the extensive financial support from his family that made its success possible.
While Sheehy and his wife had $300,000 in savings as seed capital for the enterprise he dreamed up in the early 2010s, he called his parents and asked for $100,000 which they had set aside for his college education. (Sheehy graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, where tuition is free.)
“In addition to the $100,000 loan they offered me plenty of free advice, which as anyone knows in family business, can go both ways,” Sheehy writes, according to photos of pages of an advance copy of Mudslingers obtained by The Daily Beast. “But nothing would have moved forward without them.”
Later, in 2015, the company was hard-pressed to find the $500,000 needed to purchase their first two airplanes. “I didn’t have half a million dollars,” Sheehy wrote. “We were doing everything on our own. And I needed help. As I had when I first started the business, I turned to my family.”
While Sheehy writes that he worked out a deal to pay the seller some share of funds up front and the rest in quarterly installments, it’s clear that his father and brother provided the cash needed to seal the deal.
His father, Sheehy writes, backed him “financially and emotionally, without expecting anything in return,” while his brother, a financier in New York, “wanted access to the company’s financial records and an equity stake in the business in exchange for a significant cash investment.”
In telling his story, Sheehy often mentions that he and his wife lived in a “tent” for a period after moving to Montana, an evocative detail that underscores how much money they had sunk into the company and how broke they were. “Again, this is just true, every dollar we had, we poured into our company,” he said in a September meet and greet. “We literally lived in a tent in our barn for a few years.”
But in Mudslingers, Sheehy reveals that he and his wife “could easily have moved into a pleasant enough place in Bozeman, thrown ourselves into raising a family and growing a business, figuring ‘someday, when we’re ready, we’ll buy some land and build a place in the country.’” Living in a tent, then, was more of a lifestyle decision to commit to “the life we dreamed of” on a farmstead, not because they had literally no money.
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Sheehy campaign spokesperson Katie Martin attacked his potential Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Jon Tester.
“As a former Navy SEAL and successful business owner, Tim Sheehy fought for this country and created hundreds of jobs for Montanans, running multiple mission-led, service-oriented businesses. Tim has been blessed to live the American dream he was willing to die for,” Martin said. “While Tim has bled for this country to ensure America's homeland was safe, Jon Tester got six times richer as a career politician in Washington collecting millions in taxpayer dollars while delivering zero results for the state of Montana.”
According to financial disclosure records, Tester’s net worth increased from $1.7 million to $6.7 million during his nearly 20 years in office, with the bulk of that growth coming from the acquisition of additional land on his farm in rural central Montana.
“Tim looks forward to continuing to campaign across the state and tell his story of service and job creation, unlike Jon Tester who spends his time wining and dining D.C. lobbyists,” Martin continued. (Coincidentally, on Tuesday evening, Sheehy was in Washington for a fundraiser co-hosted by high-powered GOP lobbyists like Jeff Miller, as Punchbowl News reported.)
Martin also noted that Sheehy has publicly acknowledged his family’s investment in Bridger before, including in a Wednesday article in the Montana Free Press.
However, Sheehy’s new book appears to be the first time that he’s gone into depth about his family’s involvement in his business, detailing the dollar amounts of loans, the arrangements he made with his brother in exchange for funds, and the connections his brother had in the finance industry.
Notably, before he gets the chance to challenge Tester, Sheehy will need to defeat Rep. Matt Rosendale, a far-right congressman who lost to Tester in 2018 and is heavily courting the MAGA base of the party.
If Sheehy is hoping that talking up his start-up story will propel him to electoral success, however, his own memoir is having the ironic effect of revealing some cracks in that story.
It is true that Bridger Aerospace has been a business success story. In January, the company went public, with a valuation of nearly $900 million, and it is a major private employer in the state. It does extensive business with the federal government; in 2018, the company’s first lucrative contract was awarded by the U.S. Department of Interior that was then run by Sheehy’s friend and fellow Montanan, Ryan Zinke.
Sheehy writes that the idea began forming around 2010, when he was serving overseas in the military and observing firsthand the use of aerial surveillance aircraft and equipment, which he thought could have broader uses.
In 2014, after leaving the military, Sheehy’s initial plan was to use aircraft to help ranchers track their livestock, but switched the focus to firefighting and fire prevention in 2015. He began by acquiring a Twin Commander, an aircraft with two propeller engines. Now, the company has what it claims is the country’s largest fleet of “Super Scooper” planes, which are purpose-built to dump water on wildfires.
The memoir Mudslingers aims to tell the story of that growth—and it does so with candor.
“There are moments in the life of a new business where you find yourself doing things you’d rather not do, making phone calls you’d rather not make, and asking for favors you’d rather not ask for,” Sheehy writes, in leading up to the description of him asking his father and brother for more money. “When you’re in survival mode, it just happens. And you learn in life to never say never.”
One major figure in the book is Sheehy’s brother, Matt. At one point, he writes, “I owe almost all of my business success to my brother, Matt, and have learned countless lessons from him since I was a baby.”
Matt Sheehy, who is six years older than Tim, has extensive financial industry experience, including stints at private equity and venture capital firms. He appears to have been instrumental in Bridger securing a deal with the powerful Wall Street firm the Blackstone Group to fund a $200 million acquisition of Super Scooper planes—a move that teed up Bridger’s first big federal contract.
“As I discovered throughout this process, it’s almost impossible to enter the U.S. aerial firefighting market unless you are already in it or are an exceptionally wealthy family or individual,” Sheehy writes. “My brother and our finance lead, McAndrew Rudisill, eventually found our partner in the Blackstone Group.”
On the campaign trail, that same candor about what it took for Sheehy to launch Bridger has not always been on display.
At several events and in several interviews, Sheehy has repeatedly said that he built the company from “scratch,” returning often to the “bootstrap” imagery.
“When I got out, my wife and I spent every dollar we had, and with a couple of other veterans, we started our business,” Sheehy said at a September fundraiser. “And it was a pure startup bootstrap, every cent we had. And we probably wouldn't have made it if there wasn't a handful of folks in our community that said, ‘Hey, you know, you're a veteran-founded business, you guys served our country, and we're going to help you.’”
Indeed, a voter listening to Sheehy’s remarks might be left with the distinct impression that he got no outside help whatsoever to start the company.
“We started our company in my barn and just me and my co-founder, all veteran founding team,” Sheehy said at an August meet and greet. “And it was every cent we had from the military that we’d saved up and we bought one old plane from the government and developed a sensor software system to map wildfires. And then we bootstrapped it from there to create about 450 jobs, one job at a time.”
In Montana, a state that favors wealthy self-made businessmen—like its governor, Greg Gianforte—and farmers—like Tester—Sheehy appears well aware of the value of a bootstrapping brand.
“The Montana spirit of grit and hard work, you know, goes back hundreds of years, I think,” Sheehy said in a June podcast interview. “But, you know, the spirit here that… we’re going to go out, we’re not going to ask for government handouts, we’re not going to ask for freebies, we’re gonna forge ahead and create something that works.”