Posted 141 days ago ago by Admin
When Todd Tetzlaff Talks… People Listen
“I’m really good at dumbing things down because I’m not that bright,” says the man who is now leading the revival of past-bankrupt Enstrom Helicopter Corporation, based in Menominee, Michigan. In a relaxed interview that spanned over an hour at this year’s recent HAI Expo in Atlanta, one gets the sense that Todd Tetzlaff is completely candid when he confesses his shortcoming. No, not because the aircraft engineering technology graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is “not that bright.” After all, Tetzlaff has held FAA engineering designee privileges with flight analyst and structural authorities for over 20 years and is also a certified private fixed- and commercial rotary-wing pilot. He bilingually and fluently speaks the advanced languages of engineers and pilots. He also was the object of a decades long tug-of-war between Enstrom Helicopter and Gulfstream for his abilities, when he bounced back and forth between helicopters and jets until helicopters won. Of course, he humbly doesn’t see himself as an object of pursuit; he was the pursuer and just grateful to be working in aerospace.
There’s something refreshing and real about the now CEO/president who so loves Enstrom Helicopter that he’d do anything, even leave his comfort-zone cubicle in Georgia to move back North into the C-suite to help save the helicopter manufacturer that was his first love. He may have been apprehensive—as any thinking person with self-awareness would be—upon being presented the chance to take a big bite from the apple of opportunity (big bites can choke), but Tetzlaff quickly and bravely concluded, “I didn’t want to be sitting somewhere in five years regretting that I’d not tried and had instead passed on a very rare opportunity, asking myself, ‘What might have been?’” Much of his life has been a war to overcome what he calls “debilitating shyness” and about winning that struggle one battle at a time. How long has he been fighting with dogged determination? The 54-year-old takes us back to his Wisconsin high school…
He's So Shy
The self-described Civil Air Patrol “nerd” was an earnest teen cutting grass in the summer to pay for flight lessons (In 1985: $25/hour wet for a Cessna 150!) so he could do more with aircraft than turn the pages in his collection of aircraft books. His love of aviation was sparked years earlier when the boy was first mesmerized by the rotating beacon at the rural airport just outside his native farm community of Pulaski, Wisconsin (aka “Polka Town”). His father’s friend took the young Tetzlaff and his buddy on their first-ever flight. They took off in a Cessna 172 from that same airport. “I remember we did something that got us a little light in our seats; my buddy got queasy, but I absolutely loved it,” recalls Tetzlaff. A few years later, in 8th grade, a Civil Air Patrol representative came to Tetzlaff’s school. “I was completely hooked,” he says. Tetzlaff started Civil Air Patrol activities right then and continued with the organization throughout high school, eventually becoming the cadet squadron commander of his like-minded peers. “It was my jam, instead of sports or other activities. I always had an airplane or helicopter on my brain.”
Actually, the teen also had other things on his mind, like high school parties. How does an introvert get his party on? Well, Tetzlaff brainstormed with buddies and they decided to take drama and theater, but stay well out of the spotlight. Tetzlaff became a stagehand, helping with set changes between scenes. It was a great gig. He wasn’t in the spotlight, and as a crewmember, he got invited to after-show parties with the cast—until he blew it. He got the “wild idea” to try out for some bit part, where he would stand in the background onstage and not say anything. He says he “messed up” and got a leading role that had him dancing and singing centerstage. “I was petrified and I begged the teacher to replace me, but he wouldn’t. I was forced to perform and while I didn’t break completely out of my shell, I survived and it planted a little seed in my brain that I could do these types of things,” he says. “It wouldn’t always be pretty or easy, but I could do it. Now at Enstrom, I’ve been cast in the lead role again.” (Thank God for good teachers who pushed us to perform. Tetzlaff is grateful to Mr. Glenn Blohowiak, affectionately called Mr. B!” by his students.)
Why Enstrom Helicopter Corp.? Well, Tetzlaff’s life tapestry of fate has a long Enstrom thread running through it. Anytime he cuts ties with that thread for job security or other reasons, the thread regenerates and ties him back to Enstrom. The latest tug happened this past winter when Enstrom’s new owner, billionaire investor and helicopter enthusiast Chuck Surack, tapped Tetzlaff to return back home to Enstrom Helicopter from his certification role at Gulfstream in Savannah, Georgia. No greater love hath a man for Enstrom Helicopter than to move North to Menominee, Michigan—in January! “Jets are fast and cool, but I feel chosen by helicopters because there’s nothing like the beat of a rotor blade. I vividly recall two or three times where I dreamed of hovering before I‘d ever been in a helicopter. I lived and breathed for the opening credits of (the TV show) “Magnum PI,” just to see TC’s helicopter,” he remembers.
He sure has real rotor-head passion; he even served as a flight test engineer and engineering/production test pilot at Enstrom in the early 2000s. Despite all his heli-love, the selection of Tetzlaff to become Enstrom’s CEO and president surprised many in the industry, including the humble man himself, but it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. (Tetzlaff says it didn’t surprise some who know him. A longtime friend gave him this advice—and compliment, “Just continue to be yourself; it’s what got you this far.”) He grew up about 50 miles south of Enstrom’s headquarters and his first job fresh out of Embry-Riddle in 1991 was as an Enstrom design engineer working on the TH-28 in a tight job market. (He’d already built a relationship with the company while in college, working there during summer break and winter holidays.) One of the first people he met at the company back then was an engineer named Matt Francour, whom he’s replacing as president. “Matt kept this company alive during extremely difficult times, stabilized it, and is handing it off to me ready to build back,” he says. “Matt has mentored me ever since I first arrived at Enstrom. His guidance has been invaluable as I prepared to take the lead, and I am forever grateful.”
From that first engineering job, Tetzlaff began a back-and-forth circuit between Enstrom and Gulfstream that only ended (we assume) this past winter. As the budget at one company tightened, the other one beckoned. Tetzlaff and his growing family cycled through this Enstrom to Gulfstream to Enstrom circuit five times, with a few minor detours: a couple of full-time jobs at a shipyard across the river from Enstrom headquarters and two years working at Raytheon and Boeing in Wichita, Kansas. He sums it up, “The only thing I guess I can say is I didn’t burn a bridge.”
Tetzlaff learned and grew from each move. For example, he earned his helicopter private pilot license while in Wichita (on a tight family budget) and he also learned from a life-changing comment at Gulfstream.
One fateful day, Tetzlaff’s boss at Gulfstream encouraged him, “You explain things really well; you should speak up more. When you talk, people listen.” That E.F. Hutton type of comment caught the quiet employee by surprise. “It never occurred to me that people wanted to hear more from me because I didn’t feel the need to hear myself speak. I preferred to listen and put things together in my mind before speaking.” Public speaking and even leading a business team was for others. “I never really thought of myself as a leader at all. I was happy to be in my cubicle. I regularly said, ‘I’m an engineer and that’s it.’” Yet, his boss’s suggestion motivated Tetzlaff to analyze himself and consider how he could improve his performance, which he has done for more than a decade since. “I used to be so scared of failure and speaking that I was devastated. I worked a lot on myself to overcome that fear and not to beat myself up too much.” He then humorously, but candidly, comments, “It’s comfortable now, but five years ago I probably couldn’t have done this interview. This is the most words I’ve spoken in a day in a long time.”
Another incentive that drew Tetzlaff out of his cubicle shell was curiosity. “I always had an interest in the whole aircraft. I didn’t just want to be the specialist rotor engineer or door engineer. I ventured out to other areas to learn what they were doing. So, patience with myself to speak when I was not inclined to speak, plus a desire to learn more were two keys to my success.”
These keys to Tetzlaff’s success unlocked doors at Gulfstream, where he spent years down South in a warm company climate that promoted his professional development by taking him out of his cubicle to take on wider responsibilities, such as collaborating with the FAA on numerous certification standardization topics and also leading the effort to update Gulfstream’s Airplane Flight Manual Process. That endeavor required months of negotiations and buy-in from many stakeholders prior to gaining vice-presidential approval.
Overall, Tetzlaff enjoyed over 17 years with Gulfstream (totaling his several multi-year tenures) where he progressed from a structural design engineer to a regulatory compliance resource supporting multiple projects and strategic initiatives. He cultivated a style that promotes teamwork and inclusion and became known for a demeanor that defuses contention. Tetzlaff ultimately grew to possess a trifecta winning ticket. “I am equally comfortable on the shop floor, in the aircraft, or in the conference room,” he says.
This professional background, combined with his personal self-improvement efforts, shapes his leadership style. “I’m not an old-school authoritarian. I want to nurture members whenever I can. I try to clearly explain things in a way the person I’m talking to understands what I mean. I don’t just try to sound smart.” Then next, he makes his classic quote that opened this profile of being really good at dumbing things down because he’s not that smart, which is actually an astute observation. (If you want to know if you really understand something, explain it to your grandmother. If you can’t, then maybe you—and I—don’t really grasp the concept to simplify it to its core.)
Astute self-deprecation aside, Tetzlaff is smart enough to admit his weaknesses and to surround himself with talent to shore up his shortcomings. “I try to surround myself with a great team I can rely on because there are many things about marketing and other areas I don’t know, but other areas (engineering and certification) are my strength and forte.” He’s encouraged by the way his new management team is coming together. “I’ve known many of the people here for years—and those we are bringing back and bringing in new to Enstrom—all their passion is key and unbelievably off the charts. If it wasn’t for the people on our team this would be an incredibly pressured task, but they are committed to our success,” he says. “I’ve had sleepless nights and expect more such nights because I feel a great sense of responsibility to our friends, community, customers, and employees. We’re the only aviation game in town; it's not like a mechanic can go from Enstrom and get an A&P job across town, and Chuck is investing a lot into Enstrom and it’s not play money; he expects results. Now that we are back, I want Enstrom to become a place where people are confident they can make a career.”
Family and Music
In addition to surrounding himself with his trusted team, Tetzlaff has two other valves that relieve the pressure that’s upon him: his refuges of music and family. In fact, Tetzlaff is living with his son, Ryan (an electrician), during these transitional days while searching for the right home for his wife Lissette and him to settle in. (Lissette, a registered nurse, is still in Savannah, wrapping up odds and ends.) “It’s a bummer she isn’t up here yet, but it’s kind of been a blessing because I’m working so much. I don’t feel guilty about not spending time with her because I was at the office for 12 hours,” he says. The Tetzlaffs also have two grown daughters, with older Marissa in veterinarian school at Michigan State University. The youngest, newlywed Kristina lives a few miles from Enstrom. She is also an RN at the same hospital her mom used to care for patients; Tetzlaff describes her as Lissette’s “mini-me.” The family enjoys light hiking in the brisk beauty of Wisconsin and Michigan, and kayaking in local waterways as well. This busy season of change has kept the family from getting together for their outdoor activities, but Tetzlaff is still getting in shape for a special outdoor event. In the past he’s run a few 5-Ks and Enstrom Helicopter is sponsoring an upcoming run. “Someone overheard me say that I should run in it—so speaking up got me in trouble! I’m starting to get in shape for that,” he confides. (We’re publishing this to seal that commitment.)
Tetzlaff also finds comfort in privately plucking his bass guitar at home. “I love music; you can find me at a concert somewhere near the front row by the biggest speaker,” he says, but, as you probably guess, he’d rather play his four-string instrument in private. “I didn’t think I knew how to play, but then I got asked to join a church band in Savannah. I’m not sure I was good enough, but they were super kind and encouraging. They let me make a little noise.”
Near the end of our interview, Tetzlaff directs some noise at the Federal Aviation Administration. “FAA certification is our greatest challenge. I went to the GAMA’s (General Aviation Manufacturers Association) board meeting a couple of weeks ago. I had wondered whether Enstrom wasn’t getting needed attention from the FAA because we are a smaller and resurrected OEM. However, the bigger players are frustrated with the FAA as well; we’re all in the same boat. It’s never been easy to get something FAA certified, but many individuals at the table said the situation now is the worst they’ve seen. It is stagnation across the board.
We’re now in a situation where we are not begging to sell helicopters, but begging for certification support so we can deliver the helicopters we’ve already sold!”
Tetzlaff has not only found his voice as a passionate leader fighting for his company, but he also sounds like a rising voice for his industry. It wouldn’t be the first time Tetzlaff spoke up despite his nature and one suspects it is not the last time the rotorcraft world will hear from this thinking man.
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