Robinson Helicopter founder-president retires

 - September 21, 2010, 10:11 AM

Frank Robinson feigned insult when asked about his possible retirement at a 2009 press conference.

“Why?” Robinson shot back with a grin when asked about it. “You know what [the late comedian] Jack Benny said when they asked him what he was going to do with all that money when he died? He said, ‘If I can’t take it with me I won’t go.’ He didn’t need [a retirement] and I think I don’t either.”

In reality, Robinson, 80, the iconic founder of the world’s most prolific producer of civilian helicopters, had been thinking about retirement for some time and had been carefully grooming a succession team at his company for years. He resigned on August 10 as president and chairman of the board of privately owned Robinson Helicopter. Robinson’s son Kurt, 53, who joined the company in 1987, is the new CEO. Kurt Robinson said his father will remain active in the company, but plans to move from California to his home on Whidbey Island, Wash.

Frank Robinson founded his company at his kitchen table in 1973 with the goal of realizing his college dream of producing simple, low-cost helicopters for the civilian market. Robinson’s interest in helicopters dates back to his childhood. “I was nine years old when I saw a newspaper picture of a Sikorsky VS-300 prototype hovering. I was intrigued that someone could make a machine that could stand motionless in the air,” ­Robinson said in 2007.

Robinson aimed his education and career path exclusively at helicopters. He received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington and did graduate work in aeronautical engineering at the University of Wichita. He worked on various helicopter programs at Cessna, Umbaugh, McCulloch, Kaman and Hughes, all the while unsuccessfully trying to foster his employers’ interest in his low-cost helicopter idea, while at the same time refining the concept during his spare time from his home workshops. 

“I started working on it before I graduated from college and kept at it while I worked for other companies,” Robinson said. “I bought machine tools and riveting equipment and set it up in my basement or garage, where I did a lot of experimenting. I was married at that time and it always created a bit of conflict–whether to spend money on an engine lathe or new drapes for the house. I continued to pitch the idea of a small, two-seat personal helicopter at just about every company I worked for, but I could never convince them. They were making a lot of money building large, expensive and overpriced helicopters for the military. I was working on the Apache program at Hughes in 1973 when I decided to leave.”

Robinson spent seven-and-a-half years designing and testing his two-seat R22 light piston helicopter himself, before achieving FAA certification in 1979. Much of the work was done in a small hangar in Torrance, Calif. Today, Robinson remains at Torrance but employs 941 and operates out of a 480,000-sq-ft, modern, vertically integrated manufacturing plant where it makes the two-seat R22 and four-seat R44 piston-engine helicopters and soon will begin serial production of the five-seat turbine (RR300)-powered R66.

Today, 65 percent of the company’s sales are for the export market, and Robinson has a global network of more than 110 factory-authorized dealers and 290 service centers in 50 countries, including China and Russia. The company delivered its 8,000th helicopter in 2007, a record 893 helicopters in 2008 and 433 in recession-ravaged 2009.

Frank Robinson’s philanthropy has benefited various education and aviation organizations through the years, including millions of dollars donated for financially disadvantaged student scholarships to the University of Washington. He has received numerous national and international aviation awards for his contribution to rotorcraft.

Kurt Robinson Takes the Controls at Robinson

Kurt Robinson was named president and chairman of Robinson Helicopter on August 10. He joined his father’s helicopter company in 1987. Robinson holds an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of California at San Diego, as well as an MBA and a law degree from the University of San Diego. He recently served as Robinson’s vice president of product support and he holds a commercial helicopter pilot rating.

“It’s not what I do for a living, but I try and fly as often as I can,” he told AIN
Robinson thinks that his management style will be more collaborative than his father’s. “Frank could do it all,” he said. “He had the business sense, the engineering sense and the financial sense. What he has been doing for the last ten to fifteen years is grooming a collection of us to replace him. Frank made a lot of decisions on his own, but we’ve obviously grown and we have a team of people here now who run the company. My role is to work with that group of top people who have been here a long time and who run the company.”

That team is expected to remain in place and Robinson said he expects a “smooth transition.” Kurt Robinson said he expects the company’s sales to increase from last year’s. “They have stabilized and are slowly coming back. We’ve watched things grow a bit.”

He said Robinson plans to maintain its strategy of eschewing outsourcing and continuing centralized manufacturing at its U.S. plant and streamlined management, which he credits for Robinson’s success to date. “We expect to be competitive in the years ahead.”