Frank Robinson Featured

10:13am EDT February 2, 2006
In 1939, Frank Robinson saw Igor I. Sikorsky piloting a small helicopter, and he knew right then that that was his future.

He spent 16 years working for six helicopter companies before starting his own at age 43.

“I wanted to learn all aspects, not just designs of helicopter rotors,” Robinson says. “Moving around like that, I was able to get a broad background in the aircraft. I never allowed myself to be specialized in any one thing.

He has since been called the Henry Ford of helicopters, and his company has won numerous awards, including the Igor I. Sikorsky International Award in 1990 and 1991 for record-setting flights. Robinson shares his thoughts on building a company, entrepreneurship and his plans for the future.

On doing your own thing: When I worked for the larger companies, they used to exasperate me — the multitude of management they had, the bureaucracy and the meetings — always holding meetings. It’s better to give the job to one intelligent, sensible person, let him go off someplace and do the job.

On taking chances: I really wanted to develop a small, personal helicopter. It took a little longer than I thought it would. I had to rotate around to six different companies because I couldn’t convince any of them to do it. They all wanted to build bigger helicopters for the military.

When I got to be 43, I read somewhere if you haven’t started you life’s work by the time you’re 40 years old, you’re not going to do it. I was already three years past due. I decided to gamble my house and everything that I had, knowing the odds of success were very, very poor.

I was at a point in life that if it failed, I could always get a good job. I could start over.

On his approach to business: If I have a religion, it is keeping things simple. There is a tendency, nowadays, with any product, people want to make it more complicated. Even with the use of language, they want to change the names of things. One irritating thing to me is changing the name of personnel to human resources — utterly ridiculous. Why change one simple, easy-to-understand word with two meaningless types of expression?

When you make products simple, they are going to be more reliable, easier to understand, less expensive, and the main thing is, they are going to be much easier for the person to use.

On hiring: I have been successful in developing a really good group of key people. I only hire the very smartest engineers based on their scores and grades, and I hire them right out of college. I found it best to let them learn the practical aspects of designing helicopters here rather than try to hire people from other companies. They do about as many bad things as good things to you.

There’s a lot of difference between people as far as their intelligence and common sense. I really value common sense very highly. I also look for people that are very creative. Very few people are actually creative. They can be really smart but not be creative.

On managing: You have to follow codes of ethics. And you have to have certain principles that you follow if you want to keep the loyalty of the people that are working for you. You have to be very open and very honest about everything that you do. They have to have confidence in you; they have to trust you. If you try to go out and BS them, that’s a disaster. Your word has to be good.

On growth: One thing that has brought it up the past few years has been the weak American dollar overseas. We export nearly two-thirds of our helicopters.

Our business is going to continue to grow. It still could have its peaks and valleys. The use of helicopters is always expanding, and I’m convinced will always continue to do so.

On longevity: Just about all of my key people have been with me for over 20 years. It’s been a very stable work force, stable management. That all really helps.

On the other hand, you could say it’s like incest. A little bit of outside blood from time to time would be good. And we have done that on some occasions but not very much.

On loyalty: They have to have confidence in the organization and the product they’re working on. You have to treat them right. They have to feel that you’re sharing a significant part of the company’s success with the employees.

One thing that has helped us a lot is that our company is quite stable. They feel that they have a good job, and they are going to be able to keep it for a long time as long as they good job.

On management changes: Most of the people, over 1,100 of them, are involved in production. In the old days when we were much smaller, I’d have company meetings where I’d call everybody together and be able to talk to them as a group. That was quite a number of years ago.

Now, I don’t communicate with them as a group. The only way you can do that really is to put out a memo stapled to their time cards or paychecks. Those are more for official directives and things of that sort. As far as meetings are concerned, I’ve always felt that meetings are one of the most wasteful things in industry.

We avoid having meetings as much as possible. Most decisions don’t have to have a meeting.

On succession: I really would like to figure a way so that the people who helped me build this company would be the recipients of it and the ones who would continue with the company. I don’t have the solution to that problem yet.

I’ve looked at Employee Stock Ownership Plans; I’ve looked at other types of succession plans. I can’t say that I’ve really found one that I strongly favor yet. But it is something that will have to be done.

HOW TO REACH: Robinson Helicopter Co., (310) 539-0508 or www.robinsonheli.com