Robinson Helicopter Company was founded in 1973 by Frank Robinson, whose vision was to produce the world’s highest quality, most reliable helicopters in the most efficient, cost-effective way possible. Upon his retirement, Frank Robinson was succeeded by his son, Kurt, who is the Chairman and President of the Robinson Helicopter Company.
Robinson introduced its first helicopter, the 2-place piston powered R22 in 1979. The R22’s simple design, easy maintenance and low acquisition cost made it popular among private owners and flight schools. As costs became less of a barrier, more people learned to fly and the demand for small, affordable helicopters increased. In 1992, following the same design philosophy as the R22 but with Lycoming’s larger, more powerful O-540 engine, Robinson introduced the 4-place R44 (later designated the R44 Raven I). Ten years later the R44 Raven II was announced, the same as the original R44 but equipped with Lycoming’s IO-540 fuel-injected engine and 28-volt electrical system. Designed by Lycoming, in cooperation with Robinson, the IO-540 enhanced the R44’s ability to perform at high altitudes and in hot temperatures. The Raven II appealed to a broader market and by 2003 R44 sales had doubled R22 sales. During that same time period, Robinson began contemplating ideas for a turbine-powered helicopter. In 2005, an agreement was reached with Rolls Royce to develop the RR300 turbine engine, a derivative of the RR250 series. With the engine in place, development of a 5-place turbine helicopter, the R66 Turbine, moved into high gear. The R66 was FAA certified in 2010 to the current amendment of the federal regulations, including the latest crashworthiness standards.
Where did the idea for Robinson Helicopter come from?
My father’s fascination with helicopters dates back to 1939, when he – as a nine-year-old – saw a picture on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of Igor Sikorsky hovering in his VS300 prototype helicopter. My father was amazed with the fact that someone could invent something that could remain stationary in the air or move in any direction. This fascination moved him to get his engineering degree and learn to fly airplanes. By the time he finished college, he had not only obtained a pilot’s license, but also a commercial rating in addition to having amassed considerable aviation experience.
In particular, my father had spent much of his time studying helicopters – how they flew and how they were controlled. As he did that, he also had ideas about how to build a small, lightweight, simple, and inexpensive personal helicopter. He began his aerospace engineering career at Cessna, developing an experimental aircraft that would later become known as the CH-1 Skyhook. He then moved on to Umbaugh, where he spent a year working on the autogiro project, after which he joined the McCulloch Motor Corporation. He then spent some time at Kaman Helicopters and subsequently Bell Helicopters in Texas, then moved on to Hughes Helicopters in Los Angeles and after which he decided to strike out on his own. The Robinson Helicopter Company was founded in 1973. Two years after that, in 1975, my father gave rise to the world’s first R22 prototype that was ready to be tested and flown. Four years after that, the first certified R22 helicopter reached the market.
Robinson Helicopter Company now manufactures the single-engine piston R22 Beta II, R44 Cadet, Raven II, as well as the turbine-powered R66 models. We also have several versions that are finely customized to specific client needs.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day starts early so that I can be in my office no later than 6am. This early start enables me to catch up on the day’s news, read emails and communicate with customers in Europe. I then focus on setting the priorities for the day. After a day of addressing all of the to-dos, I make every effort to leave work before 6pm in order to make it in time for dinner with the family.
How do you bring ideas to life?
It is difficult to generate powerful ideas blindly. As such, I am a firm believer in talking to owners, following the market and studying its trends as a guide for any ideas. Robinson Helicopter Company not only studies the market in order to generate ideas, it also creates markets and then subsequently responds to its demands accordingly.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Things that simplify flying and enhance safety. Stability Augmentation Systems (SAS)/Autopilots make flying easier and will lead to single engine IFR helicopters. Travelers strapped for time will be able to more easily depend on scheduled pick-up and deliveries in a much wider range of climate conditions.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Getting up early in the morning. I wake up early enough to have time to have breakfast, and read the news before getting to the office at 6am. This gives me enough time to get caught up on emails, and it is also enough time to set the day’s priorities in order to know where my focus needs to go.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I am a firm believer in education by means of experience in the workforce. As such, I would advise my younger self to work at other companies in order to gain a broad exposure to both management styles and philosophies to understand what is more effective and what is not.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Each one of our models is sold with a planned overhaul to ensure longevity and prolonged function. Overhauls performed at the factory are much more extensive than field overhauls because we actually tear the airframe and engine down and reassemble the aircraft on the production line. We essentially overhaul a used helicopter and make it new again.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
As an entrepreneur, communication skills are paramount. Effective communication is deeply rooted in one’s ability to listen. There is an incredible amount of information in what people say that we don’t always capture if we do not know how to listen properly. And if we do not hear everything that is being said to us, we are not fully equipped to address it all and communication crumbles.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
There is incredible value in customers’ needs and suggestions. These are almost always founded on products that have already been launched and that can be improved upon further. Therefore, it is paramount to listen to customers and to really understand their needs and recommendations in order to both enhance existing products and generate new products. Ultimately, this will also lead to better products and market leadership.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Failures are an integral part of every entrepreneur’s life. I do not think that the details of each failure are as important as the lessons that each teaches as there is incredible value in that. What’s more important than failure is what happens next. Do you quit or does it strengthen your resolve to move forward with something better? To me it’s a new opportunity.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
There is power in simplicity as a way to enhance other processes. This is particularly true for our helicopter models. Several of our features are designed a lot less intricately in order to allow for better reliability and easier acquisition, Our models’ engines are derated which ensures that they last a lot longer.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
The money most recently best spent was on a new machine for the factory that reduces labor, speeds up production and increases efficiency by thirty percent. I see it as an investment with a great return, which is why I believe it is the best spent money recently.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
The Robinson website is a powerful web service that helps the company be as productive as it can be. This is because – beyond just general information – it also enables access to customer and technical support. Our clients have an option to reach out to us when it suits them, and we are able to offer them the help they need to answer any questions they may have regarding our products. Also, our clients have the option to purchase parts via the website, too, which makes it a centralized location for several services and thereby helps us be as productive as we can.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
In terms of a businessperson’s regular reading, I would actually recommend the Wall Street Journal and Business Week. They are great resources and integral parts to much of how I understand the business world and make decisions.
What is your favorite quote?
This is definitely something my father said, which is “Make the simplest, most reliable helicopters at a competitive price.” It is something I remember every day.
- As an entrepreneur, one thing you do over and over and recommend others to do: listen
- A strategy that has helped grow your business: listen to customer needs and recommendations.
- In order to overcome failure, analyze and correct what went wrong rather than just putting a ‘bandaid’ on it and waiting for it to pass.
- Read the Wall Street Journal and Business Week regularly to stay on top of business developments.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.