““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Robinson Helicopter's Frank Robinson
Frank Robinson readily admits he's not your typical CEO. "When I worked for the big aerospace companies, I was always a bit of a maverick," he explained to me in his relatively small, Spartan office just off the production floor of Robinson Helicopter Co. in Torrance, Calif. "I don't think I could have gotten anywhere if I had stayed with any of them. The only way I could do it was to start my own company where I could set my own rules."
At age nine, Robinson knew what he wanted to do with his life. "I saw a picture in a newspaper of Igor Sikorsky hovering his prototype VS-300 helicopter," he said. "I became fascinated that somebody could build an aircraft that could remain motionless in the air and move in any direction. This was the basis of my long-term dream all through school and college." It was a dream he pursued systematically, aiming his studies at the University of Washington at helicopter design and later working only for manufacturers that built rotorcraft.
After earning a B.A. degree in mechanical engineering in 1957, Robinson took a job at Cessna Aircraft, which was developing a helicopter, the CH-1 Skyhook. Said Robinson, "I got my first helicopter ride in a CH-1. But a few weeks later, the pilot who took me up was killed in a crash of the same aircraft. Our desks were next to each other and we had become friends. Most people would have been turned off by that, but it made the challenge more real to me."
After working for five other manufacturers, Robinson formed his own company in 1973. Two years later, he took the prototype R22, a two-seat helicopter he had designed and built mostly himself, on its first flight. In 1979, the FAA awarded the helicopter its type certificate. Today, some 7,000 R22 and R44 (a four-seater) helicopters are flying.
Although he could easily afford it, Robinson does not own a business jet. He does, however, use business aviation in the form of an R44. "For the last 20 years or so, I've spent most of my summers at my vacation home on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound," he said. "I can walk upstairs and onto the helipad, hop into my helicopter and be at SeaTac Airport in 25 minutes. I leave the helicopter at the general aviation terminal and hop on an Alaska Airlines jet to L.A."
Robinson believes a lot of people who use private jets still end up wasting time getting to the airport. "In many cases, they could have a ground or rooftop helipad put in, so that they could use a helicopter to get to their private jet. This seems to me to be a natural extension of the use of their jet."
Robinson's views on management, starting up an aircraft company and success follow.
How would you describe your management style?
Not authoritarian, but very independent. I ignore the accepted ways of running a business. From the very beginning, I've based most decisions purely on my own intuition. The experience I gained from working for six companies that manufactured helicopters gave me the intuition to make decisions without having to go to a board of directors.
Who are your key people?
The department heads, key engineers and others-about a dozen. They've all been with me more than 20 years. In fact, the entire company has very low turnover.
What characteristics do you look for in your key people?
They have to know their jobs and have good common sense when it comes to handling people. Some managers are good technically, but not good with people, and vice versa. Over the years, I've had to let go a lot of people who were deficient in one or the other characteristic.
How do you handle firing employees?
I don't have any real problems axing someone who really needs to go. During the formative years of the company, we had a lot of layoffs and weeding out. But we ended up with a really, really good workforce. We're not union, which has given us a lot of freedom to do the pruning when it needs to be done.
What do you consider the primary role of the CEO?
My case is different, because I started the company and grew with it. I was involved in everything-the design of the company, aircraft engineering, test flying, manufacturing, purchasing and so on-which required the diverse background that I got while working with the other companies.
What lessons did you learn from starting Robinson Helicopter Company?
Never go to venture capitalists. I spent a lot of time talking to venture capitalists-it was one of the most useless things I ever did. They expect to get all their money back in a few years and with a return of 30 percent or more. That's an unrealistic goal. If you have to shoulder that burden from the beginning, you have an impossible task. So I didn't raise any money this way.
How did you get your start-up capital?
I didn't have any money, except for the equity in my house, which I put on the block along with my other personal assets. I did have a few patents and patentable ideas that I assigned over to the corporation when I formed it. It wasn't until I got some individual people interested that I was able to raise outside money.
Another thing that helped was the publicity I got from aviation magazines, starting with Aviation Week. From this publicity, I got a lot of inquiries from people who wanted to buy the R22 or to be dealers. I put together a marketing organization and began taking partially nonrefundable deposits.
Right from the beginning, I wanted to establish a reputation for credibility. The basic condition-which I made sure people understood-was that they could have one half of their deposit back at any time and for any reason. The fact that half the deposit was nonrefundable gave it credibility with banks and other lenders. It was a small deposit, only $300 for an individual and $5,000 for a dealership. This was in the late 1970s. The target price for the helicopter was about $40,000.
Another condition was that the money collected for the deposits would be used only to produce or purchase production tooling and parts.
What are the most egregious mistakes that a CEO can make?
Not doing what you say you're going to do. Also, mistakes in hiring and misjudging people.
When I got ready to go into production, I tried hiring workers from the aerospace industry. They were high-paid, underworked, unionized and difficult to retrain-and had an attitude. When a bigger manufacturer got a new government contract and started hiring again, they would leave. We did better hiring people off the sidewalk who didn't have experience with the aerospace companies and then training them ourselves.
What is your typical workweek?
Until a short time ago, I always worked six days a week. I usually showed up before 8 a.m., never took lunch or breaks and would go on until about 6:30 or 7. Sometimes I'd come in on Sunday. Now I take more time off in the summer.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I have a 61-foot Ocean Alexander powerboat I enjoy operating. It has two 660-horsepower Caterpillar diesel engines-very well equipped and very comfortable. I take it up to British Columbia every summer.
What keeps you up at night?
Quite often, I wake up at 2 or 3 o'clock with something on my mind and I'll stay up several hours. One thing I have learned is not to go with any decisions I make in the middle of the night, because they are always so pessimistic-everything looks much worse than it is.
There are about 7,000 Robinson helicopters operating today-that's a lot of worries and a lot of headaches. How to prevent accidents is always a top priority with me. The number of accidents each year is about the same, which is good in a sense because the percentage of accidents to aircraft has gone down from where it was in the beginning. Over 90 percent of our serious accidents, according to the NTSB, are attributed to pilot error.
What advice do you have for a mid-level executive with his sights set on the head office?
I'm not a good one to ask. I've always said what I thought and that was not very popular at the big companies I worked for. I'm more apt to go against the pack than with it.
What are your plans for succession?
I'm working on it. I just can't convince myself of the urgency that other people seem to give it. I'm bound and determined to live to be at least 100 and I don't believe in inherited wealth. I think that a company should be run by the people who are most able to run it. Whether they happen to be related to you or not should be secondary.
To what do you attribute your success?
I've always been very stubborn, had a lot of self-confidence and been very independent. You have to have the perseverance to stick with your dream when you run into obstacles where there seems no hope of overcoming them. You just have to hang on and take things one day at a time until you find a way to get there.
CEO Files Résumé: Frank Robinson
Current position: President and CEO, Robinson Helicopter Co., which he founded in 1973.
Previous positions: Cessna Aircraft, 3.5 years, CH-1 Skyhook; Umbaugh Aircraft Corp., one year, certification of the Umbaugh 18 gyrocopter; McCulloch Motor Co., 4.5 years, design studies; Kaman Aircraft, one year; Bell Helicopter, two years, tail-rotor expert; Hughes Helicopter Co., four years, research and development of tail rotor for Hughes 500 and "quiet helicopter" program.
Education: B.S. in mechanical engineering, 1957, University of Washington. Did graduate work in aeronautical
engineering at the University of Wichita.
Personal: Age 77. Born in a small town in Washington state, the youngest of four children. Grew up on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, where his father, a former coal miner, bought inexpensive beachfront property, "a refuge for people who were dirt poor during the Depression." Now lives in Torrance, Calif., and has summer homes for himself and his family members on the same Whidbey Island property. Has six children and six grandchildren from two marriages.