Frank Robinson, who turned 79 in January, likes to joke about his employees forcing him into retirement to pay him back for asking a former employee to retire at age 80. However, it is difficult to imagine Robinson Helicopter without Frank Robinson at the helm, although his children Terry and Kurt occupy leadership positions at the Torrance, Calif. company. Robinson is comfortable with leaving the factory for weeks at a time and happy that his team can run the company efficiently in his absence. Many of his employees have worked for Robinson Helicopter for 20 years and some for as long as 30. And while the economy offers its own challenges, Robinson still delivers about 15 helicopters a week and is well into the development program for its first turbine-powered helicopter, the R66.
Will Robinson replace the R22 with a stripped-down version of the R44?
We have not pushed the R22 for several years. Instead we have pushed the Raven I R44. It’s not a stripped-down version of the R44, it’s the same aircraft. Well, it has some changes but it still has a 12-volt electrical system and it still has a carburetor. But it’s a very reliable aircraft.
Does the Rolls-Royce 300-powered R66 bring Robinson into a different marketplace?
It expands the market. But really, we can sell it to the same customer and he can operate it the same way that he does the R44. We worked with Rolls-Royce in
making various changes in that engine to reduce the amount of servicing required.
We’re trying to keep it real simple, like the R44. We don’t control Rolls-Royce, but we made that known to them and they’ve become converts to my philosophy, with a few exceptions. Their requirement for internal cleaning of the engine with
washdowns–I can’t imagine why they’d do that. Of course, going to the single-stage
centrifugal compressor, getting rid of all those axial vanes and everything that the
Allison 250 had is going to help that a lot.
Why aren’t manufacturers like Bell competing with the R66?
When we announced the R66, Bell made the decision to discontinue the production of the JetRanger. Their sales were so low for the JetRanger, almost nothing compared to the R44. Then with the R66 coming, it was the one market where they still had an advantage, in the market for an aircraft that requires a turbine engine.
Is it too early to say how the R66 market looks?
We don’t even do any surveys. We have lots and lots of dealers and owners and operators who want to place deposits on the R66, but we won’t take any deposits until we get it type certified. That’s the position that we’ve always taken. [Look at Eclipse], they hyped it and hyped it, and now they’re broke.
Has Robinson’s vertical integration paid off?
Every year even more so. The primary reason is so we can control quality and the scheduling. We hate being at the mercy of an outside vendor. If a vendor doesn’t
perform, the vendor is ourselves and we can immediately shift as many people and everything that we have to in that area. Critically if you can forecast where you’re going to have a problem, then you can jump on it. With outside vendors you don’t even know if they have a problem until they’re six weeks behind on the delivery.
How’s the economy affecting your business?
We’ve laid off people starting in November, December. I’m sure it’s well over 100, probably 150–less than 10 percent of our workforce. We’re still delivering 14 or 15 helicopters a week; we were doing around 20 a week. It isn’t because we don’t have the orders. We not only have the aircraft sold with nonrefundable deposits, but a lot of customers had to delay delivery because they couldn’t get bank loans.
Is it worse outside the U.S.?
Actually, it is–and for the same reason. They can’t get the financing to pay the
balance due. Last year we exported over 70 percent of our helicopters. This really hurts. And the U.S. dollar getting stronger is not helping the situation; it’s making it much worse. We have dozens of helicopters waiting for owners or dealers to obtain financing necessary to pay the balance due.
Will you have a big celebration for Robinson Helicopter number 10,000?
We’ll tout our banner when we hit that 10,000 mark. And we’ll hit it in a couple years I imagine. We’re still here, we’re still afloat. Our company is basically healthy.