Safe Flight Instrument Corp.'s Randall Greene

Business Jet Traveler » February 2008
Randall Greene
Randall Greene
Friday, February 1, 2008 - 4:00am

Following in the footsteps of a successful father is rarely easy, particularly when it involves a business founded by the father. Randall Greene, now chairman, president and CEO of Safe Flight Instrument Corp., faces this challenge. His father, Leonard Greene, started the company in 1946.

A prodigious inventor, the elder Greene pioneered stall-warning, angle-of-attack and other safety and performance systems for all types of aircraft, both civil and military. Today, the privately held company boasts that two-thirds of the world's aircraft fly with Safe Flight equipment. Annual sales, not revealed publicly, are approaching $40 million.

"It's hard to work for your father--at least in my 20s it was hard for me to work with my father," the younger Greene told me when I asked why he left the company after working there from 1972 to 1980. "We were banging heads all the time. I think it was tougher for him than it was for me, but it was tough for both of us."

We sat in Randy's office in Safe Flight's headquarters and manufacturing facility in White Plains, N.Y., close by Westchester County Airport where the company hangars its Falcon 20, Beech Baron and Agusta 109. The facility's roof is approved for helicopter operations. The office had been Leonard's and stayed Leonard's even when Randy returned to the company as president in 2001. Randy moved into the office only last winter, after his father's death at age 88 in November 2006. Copies of patents held by the Greenes cover one paneled wall.

"Safe Flight has about 120 patents," said Randy proudly. "I have seven and my father has most of the rest. He was a brilliant, brilliant inventor. Not just in aviation, but obviously aviation is where he made his business." Echoing Mark Twain's famous comment about his father, Randy added, "When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was a lot smarter than my father. But he got a lot wiser as I got older."

Longevity is common at Safe Flight, which has no mandatory retirement age. Leonard's former secretary, now in her 80s, still works there, managing the office.

I wanted to find out what makes this company tick and how Randy managed the transition to CEO after his father died. 

What is different about Safe Flight?

This business has been built on innovation that is based on direct, or very close, hands-on contact with the operators and pilots of airplanes. I think it's an advantage we have over our competitors because those companies, for the most part, aren't run that way. They need to percolate ideas up through marketing or engineering, or respond to requests for proposal. We fly piston airplanes, jets, helicopters and gliders, and develop ideas from this experience.

After college, you flew for an air-taxi operator and then moved to Safe Flight.

I worked for the Forest Service and an air taxi in Taos, N.M. Then I worked for Safe Flight from '72 to '80 as an engineering test pilot and manager of advanced systems.

And it was your decision to leave the company after eight years?

Yes. I was banging heads with my father and had the itch to do something different. I got on with Bendix in the general aviation avionics division in Fort Lauderdale. I had a great job there-actually two jobs: new product development and engineering.

Was your working for Bendix a concern for your father?

No. Bendix made radios, radar, autopilots and displays. It wasn't a competitor of Safe Flight.

You worked some 20 years for several other companies, and even started your own business, Commander Aircraft Co. in Oklahoma. What did you learn?

I think a business organization has to reflect some of the personalities of what it is and what it does. If you have a multi-division holding company with different kinds of businesses, the management challenge is very different from that of a single manufacturing company. At the Garrett Corporation-now Honeywell-I was exposed to a Navy-style matrix organization. I found that wonderfully effective in a large corporation, because an individual always has two ways to go. If you're an engineer, you report to the engineering v-p in one organizational direction, and to the product-line manager in the other, and have immediate access to upper management that you need for both the technical and the business sides. That's a great structure, but it requires a certain critical mass. You can't do that in a company our size.

How did you view the situation when you came back to Safe Flight?

My particular problem here was that my father was a genius, which he exhibited in several ways, but primarily as an inventor. There's good news and bad news in an inventor. It's wonderfully innovative for product development, but it's also unconstrained. You never have any idea what he's going to invent next. It doesn't have to be in the business that you're in and often it isn't. Leonard got interested in chess; he has a patent for three-dimensional chess. He was interested in scuba diving; he invented goggles that removed the refraction caused by water.

He would figure out the way to solve a problem and then the engineers would be tasked to implement it. So you really had one manager and lots of people who worked in response to his genius.

What did you do?

There were two things, both very important. The first was that I was determined we were not going make a mistake I had seen occur at other companies, where the new manager imposes a structure on the organization, without observing first what made the company work before he or she got there. So I stood back and looked at the facts. The company had been around 60 years and was making money. The business model was working.

The second part was harder. I had to look at my father's skill set and my own. There were points of intersection, but his first degree was in chemical engineering and mine in philosophy. I had to find a way to reshape the organization to get the same results without the same kind of leader. What did I need to do to accommodate my abilities?

What did you end up with?

There was not a vice president in the company under Leonard. The organizational structure was essentially flat-it was just him and everyone else. So I appointed several vice presidents and moved the organization chart into more of a pyramid, giving authority and responsibility to key managers. The executive vice-president and I lead the management team. We also have a controller, a v-p of sales and marketing, a senior v-p of engineering and under him, a v-p of research and development. This seems to be working both financially and technically. I don't micromanage.

How do you characterize your job as CEO?

I spend a lot more time than I ever dreamed on personnel. I had expected to spend more time on product development, but half the time I'm the HR czar. Leading and managing the troops is a huge fraction of each day.

How did 9/11 affect your business?

We tend to ride up and down with the rest of the aviation industry, because we're an aviation supplier. So after 9/11, our business went down, though not right away. In 2001, we had a large military program, most of which was delivered in 2002, but the rest of our business was down substantially in 2002 and in 2003.

What did you do to compensate?

We went to a 35-hour week for everybody, which basically meant that the hourly people worked 35 hours and the rest of us worked a full week. We all took a pay cut, which allowed us to lay off fewer people, down to about 95 employees. It was really only the second time in 60 years that we ever laid off anybody. From our

low point in 2003, our sales have almost tripled in four years. We have about 135 employees now and expect to hire 15 more this year.

Why do you use business aviation?

I can give you an analogy. Back in the '70s, I knew the chief pilot of a global construction company that had a GIII. One day I said to him, "You know, I never see you flying for work. Is this really your airplane?" He said, "I'll tell you, this airplane pays for itself a million times over. We go to a town of 5,000 in Canada with one huge company and one Holiday Inn. There's a contract that everyone's bidding on. Our competitors call up the purchasing guy and invite him to lunch at the Holiday Inn. We go up with our airplane stocked with gourmet food from New York and invite him to lunch on the Gulfstream. While he's eating, our guy says, 'I know you play golf. Why don't you bring your wife and this weekend we'll go down to Palm Springs? We'll just play some golf.' Guess who gets the deal? The Gulfstream just paid for itself for the next five years."

We usually talk about corporate aviation being a way to get more face time with a customer, a way to get key people, engineers and marketing people to their jobs-and all that stuff is true. But there's an intangible part of sales that really is one of the assets of having a corporate aircraft. It's hard to quantify but that chief pilot could.

How long have you had your Falcon 20?

We bought it in '98.

How much does it fly?

We usually fly it about 150 hours a year. But last year we flew it almost three times our normal rate. Of course, its primary function is for the development and testing of our new products, and sales demonstrations.

What's your typical trip?

We fly it all over the States. We had it reengined in 2005. Going from the original GE CF700 engines to the Honeywell TFE731, it's now a completely different airplane. Imagine going from a barely three-hour airplane to one with a comfortable five-and-a-half hour range. In fact, last February we made it nonstop from White Plains to San Diego in six hours and 41 minutes, which must be an endurance record for a 20. I've been to Europe five times in it since we retrofit the 731s. I went down to Brazil in November.

CEO Files Résumé: Randall A. Greene

Position: Chairman, president and CEO of Safe Flight Instrument Corp. Serves on the boards of the Corporate Angel Network (chairman), Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, National Aeronautic Association, Connecticut Bishop and Diocesan Executive Council and Round Hill Association (director).

Previous positions: President, Aeronautical Systems Corp., Boulder, Colo., 1991-2001; founder and president, Commander Aircraft Co., Oklahoma City, 1988-1991; various managerial positions with AiResearch Electronics Division and AlliedSignal Corp., 1982-1988; engineering test pilot and systems program manager, Bendix Corp., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 1980-1982; engineering test pilot and advanced systems manager, Safe Flight, 1972-1980; pilot, Taos Air Taxi, Taos, N.M., 1971-1972.

Education: B.A., Boston University, 1969; Queen's College, Cambridge Univ., 1970-1971; M.A., General Theological Seminary, N.Y., 2007.

Personal: Age 62. Married 25 years with one son, 19. Lives in Greenwich, Conn. Airline transport pilot, airplane; commercial, airplane, helicopter and glider; flight instructor; about 7,000 hours flight time in more than 200 aircraft and simulators, 1,000-plus hours in the Falcon 20.

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Fintan P. O'Hare
on March 21, 2013 - 11:36pm

I worked with MR. Greene illustrating his book "Inventorship" and was constantly amazed at his brilliance. I was sorry that I hadn't met him earlier in my career. He was soft spoken and direct. He never seemed to waste a word. As he described the anecdotes I was to illustrate I was impressed with his thought process. How he always seemed to look at every situation from different angles or "Another Way". I was in his office one day and as he was describing what he wanted me to illustrate, we were interrupted several times by someone on his speaker-phone. The voice on the phone was telling Leonard what he was doing and Leonard was giving the voice instructions.I finally figured it out. Mr.Greene was talking to a test pilot who was calling from the air. Leonard Greene was among those who had changed me in the most positive way. It was an honor to have known him.

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Deanna Harms
on July 17, 2013 - 11:59am

This continues to be one of the nicest Q&As I've read in Business Jet Traveler. Good questions and great answers. Anyone looking for an example of corporate transformation, different leadership styles and shared risk/reward would do well to study Randall Greene's example.

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Roberto Pino
on October 9, 2013 - 2:21pm

I had the pleasure of working at Safe Flight a few years back. Having previoulsy worked at large companies, I found Safe Flight to be a breath a fresh air, with a real family and caring managemt style. Safe Flight Customers appear to have a genuine trust when doing business with Safe Flight, surely a result of Mr Greene's team sound management style and a content and supportive employee base.

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