Posted 5 years 148 days ago ago by Admin
When doing a profile on Kurt Robinson, plan on an early interview—as in 7:00 a.m. early. That’s when he’ll be taking your call. Of course, the chairman and president of Robinson Helicopter Company will have already been in his office about an hour, reading the Wall Street Journal, answering emails, and talking to contacts in Europe. Still, he understands that some people just start late.
Robinson is motivated to work early so that he can get home early. “I like to leave the office by 5:00 so that I can spend time with my family,” he says. “We always try to eat dinner together. Sometimes I get out of here at 6:00, but that’s generally a bad thing. I guard my time away from work as much as I can. I don’t really have a lot of time off, so when I do it’s really important to spend time with my wife and two kids.” And therein lies an insight into Robinson: The name is synonymous with both a pioneering aviation business and a proud family.
The genesis of what would become Robinson Helicopter Company began back in 1939. Kurt Robinson’s father, Frank, was nine years old when he saw a picture in the Seattle Post Intelligencer of Igor Sikorsky hovering his prototype rotorcraft. That something so large could hover stationary above the ground fascinated the boy and inspired his life’s work.
The Robinson family patriarch worked his way through college and graduate school, focusing on helicopter design. Upon graduation, he began his career at Cessna Aircraft Company, and moved from there through a list of manufacturers that comprise helicopter history: Umbaugh, McCulloch, Kaman, Bell, and Hughes.
Though the engineer’s expertise and experience was prized, particularly as a tail rotor expert, a bigger idea than aircraft components was sparking inside him. Frank was convinced the industry needed an innovative, small, low-cost helicopter. It was an idea he believed could launch the rotorcraft industry to new frontiers. Yet, he could convince none of his employers to take his spark and fan it into a flame.
Determined not to let the idea extinguish, the entrepreneur struck out on his own in 1973, founding his company in Torrance, California. Six years later, the first R22 was delivered. It became the world’s top selling civil helicopter and eventually garnered the most world records in its weight class. Over the years, the growing lineup of Robinson aircraft would earn a stellar reputation for being some of the most reliable rotorcraft in the world.
Home From College
Kurt was in college during the embryonic years of Robinson Helicopter, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of California, San Diego. His plan was to remain in that beautiful border city upon graduation, but the senior Robinson had other ideas. “My father talked me into coming back home in 1980,” says Robinson. “He thought it would work well for him and me to work together. I agreed.”
In those early days, the son did “whatever needed to be done,” he says. “I worked in purchasing, but mainly production. I was involved quite a bit in setting up the systems for building the helicopter, including production control and computer systems. I was also out on the manufacturing floor and I really enjoyed it.” When told that it’s remarkable that one so young and relatively inexperienced plunged into production systems, Robinson replies. “Well, I was working with a lot of people and we were all just trying to figure it all out. But yes, it was tough.” Even though his father had worked for numerous helicopter manufacturers and had a handle on how things were done, he did not want to use his former employers’ methods merely out of habit. “My dad really wanted to challenge ideas, and in some ways he liked the fact that some of us didn’t know (traditional ways) and were trying to figure out new ways. That helped us.”
Early Lessons Learned
While Robinson didn’t gain aeronautical engineering skills studying economics, (Did Nobel Prize winning economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek ever even touch a helicopter?) he acquired practical experience outside the classroom that served him well in his new job. “I had worked at other facilities all through high school and college, including an automotive repair place. The owner and operator of that center was named Joe Good. I absorbed the way he handled people. If I could be half as good today (no pun intended) as he was, I would be so proud of myself.”
He also absorbed how Good handled procedures and systems. “I looked at how he organized and did things,” Robinson says. “Some of the best career advice I received, and can give, is to look around and study how other people do things. Adapt what’s good, challenge what’s not good, and make improvements from there. I think that’s really important.”
After working for two years at the fledgling helicopter company, Robinson moved back south to earn his MBA from The University of San Diego. “I like to solve problems and issues. My idea was that I would go around, as a smart ass 20-something, saving companies and ride into the sunset,” he chuckles. His father convinced him that coming back to Robinson Helicopter would be a better option; he could help build a business almost from the beginning. “My father thought that more important to the company than my MBA would be a law degree,” says Robinson. “I committed to law school (again at The University of San Diego) with the knowledge that I would return back to the company with that degree and use those skills, which I did in 1987.”
One law school skill that has served Robinson well is knowing how to ask questions. “I like to drill down with more and more questions until I’m very happy with the answers I receive. By asking questions, I understand why a person is doing something, and hearing everyone's answers allows me to build a better consensus. Questions also allow me to communicate disagreement. If I ask enough of them then people get a better idea of what I’m thinking and why I think another avenue may be a better way to go.”
His Own Man
It is now approaching 30 years since the son returned to the family business. Robinson now employs over 1,100 people who manufacture and sell multiple models of aircraft. Furthermore, over 400 service centers provide worldwide support. Through all this growth, have the years unfolded as Robinson first expected? “I wasn’t sure at the time if I could work for my father for the long term; he’s a pretty tough guy. But it turned out to be a very good working relationship, one that I enjoyed with him until 2010 when he retired.”
Upon that retirement, the son became president. The father’s company vision to broaden and expand the helicopter industry by building helicopters that more people can use is completely shared by the son. However, he executes that vision somewhat differently. “My father was a phenomenal engineer and also a very good business manager. My skillset is different. So obviously I’m not following in his shoes directly, but we have a very talented engineering staff and other talented people. We’re still very much an engineering company. I again go back to what I first learned: Take what’s already good and then try to improve upon it.”
Part of that improvement process is continually hiring the right people. Robinson has one thing he looks for in every employee, no matter their job. “Without a doubt, it’s passion,” he says with enthusiasm. “When I interview somebody, I’m really looking for that, because I know if they have passion they’re going to do great. If I hire a CNC (computer numeric controlled) machinist, I want someone who is really into machining. I want a welder who’s very much into welding, or an engineer that’s very much into aerodynamics or whatever their specialty is. Then my job is to feed that passion and let them develop. I don’t want someone who just wants to clock in and clock out.” The president claims he can go into all departments in his company—accounting, personnel, ... all of them—and find people who are very passionate about what they do. He says, “That really motivates the entire department, the entire team, and everybody.”
Some of those passionate employees mentored Robinson as he worked his way up through the company. “Wayne Walden has been our plant manager here since the early ‘80s. He’s developed and run this plant and I have a lot of respect for both his knowledge and the way he handles people,” he says. “I very much watch how people treat others, whether they are customers or employees. What respect do they give? How do they solve problems? Those type things are important.”
Another area that Robinson is very much watching, with a more jaded eye, is the worldwide aviation regulatory environment. “You’re supposed to have these cross-border agreements with reciprocity, but boy I just don’t see it working,” he says with a note of exasperation. “Obviously, it’s well documented the difficulties we had getting the R66 approved in Europe. It took four years. What happened during those four years? You can’t see anything that’s relevant. We didn’t change anything. It was a four-year delay in which we piled up piles of paperwork. In particular I’m concerned that a lot of times we’re trying to push something through that we believe is a safety item and we get held up. Something may be approved here in the United States, but then we have to start all over again with other countries. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.”
Another concern Robinson has is how the legal system handles accident liability cases. “Lawyers try to mold an accident into a theory that they try to sell,” he says. “They try to find an argument that allows them to get a money judgment, regardless of the facts. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t know if it’s ever going to change because it’s too profitable for the lawyers, but it’s a system that doesn’t promote safety or benefit the industry the way that it should.”
Furthermore, as with regulatory delays, Robinson believes the legal system can actually harm safety. “We all want to make helicopters safer and better. We clearly look at every single incident and accident and try to learn from them and make improvements. But the legal system can really drag you down and you waste a lot of time and resources. That legal cost has to be borne by somebody, and it ends up getting passed on to the people that fly the aircraft. There’s got to be a better way.”
While government bureaucracy and lawsuits are two areas of concern, Robinson also sees two areas for optimism. “One is growth,” he says. “Look around the world and there are so many underdeveloped areas that are growing. Even in developed areas like Los Angeles, it’s so congested and crowded that it can take two to three hours just to drive across town. These are all opportunities for rotorcraft. At the end of the day, we transport people.”
Another reason for optimism is technology. Robinson says, “To see how far helicopters have come from the 1980s when I started flying to now is just amazing. Technology will continue to develop, and it is making it easier and safer to fly. Things like the HeliSAS (autopilot system) are just phenomenal.”
He also believes that one advantage his company has is that in addition to himself, many influential engineers in the company are pilots. “The people in our company get out there and get involved with our customers. We listen intently to their likes and dislikes.
When Robinson looks back over the years at what his family’s company has contributed, he is in awe. “We started out to develop a helicopter that was popular, and I really do think we have changed the industry,” he says. “To have been on this ride is what I’m most proud of. We’re kind of a unique company; raw material comes in one end and a helicopter flies out the other. It’s just stunning. I really do see unlimited potential for both Robinson Helicopter and our whole industry.”
Now that’s passion.