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FATHER’S FOUNDING


The genesis of what would become Robinson Helicopter Company began back in 1939. Kurt Robinson’s father, Frank, was nine years old when he saw


a picture in the Seattle Post Intelligencer of Igor Sikorsky hovering his prototype rotorcraft. That something so large could hover stationary above the ground fascinated the boy and inspired his life’s work.


The Robinson family patriarch worked his way through college and graduate school, focusing on helicopter design. Upon graduation, he began his career at Cessna Aircraft Company, and moved from there through a list of manufacturers that comprise helicopter history: Umbaugh, McCulloch, Kaman, Bell, and Hughes.


Though the engineer’s expertise and experience was prized, particularly as a tail rotor expert, a bigger idea than aircraft components was sparking inside him. Frank was convinced the industry needed an innovative, small, low-cost helicopter. It was an idea that he believed could launch the rotorcraft industry to new frontiers. Yet, he could convince none of his employers to fan his spark into a flame.


Determined not to let the idea extinguish, the entrepreneur struck out on his own in 1973, founding his company in Torrance, California. Six years later, the first R22 was delivered. It became the world’s top selling civil helicopter and eventually garnered the most world records in its weight class. Over the years, the growing lineup of Robinson aircraft would earn a stellar reputation for being some of the most reliable rotorcraft in the world.


HOME FROM COLLEGE


Kurt was in college during the embryonic years of Robinson Helicopter, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of California, San Diego. His plan was to remain in that beautiful border city upon graduation, but the senior Robinson had other ideas. “My father talked me into coming back home in 1980,” says Robinson. “He thought it would work well for him and me to work together. I agreed.”


In those early days, the son did “whatever needed to be done,” he says. “I worked in purchasing, but mainly production. I was involved quite a bit in setting up the systems for building the helicopter, including production control and computer systems. I was also out on the manufacturing floor and I really enjoyed it.” When told that it is remarkable that one so young and relatively inexperienced plunged into production systems, Robinson replies, “Well, I was working with a lot of people and we were all just trying to figure it all out. But yes, it was tough.” Even though his father had worked for numerous helicopter manufacturers and had a handle on how things were done, he did not want to use his former employers’ methods merely out of habit. “My dad really wanted to challenge ideas, and in some ways he liked the fact that some of us didn’t know (traditional ways) and were trying to figure out new ways. That helped us.”


EARLY LESSONS LEARNED


While Robinson didn’t gain aeronautical engineering skills studying economics, (Did Nobel Memorial Prize economists John


Maynard Keynes and Friedrich


Hayek even touch a helicopter?) he acquired practical experience outside the classroom that served him well in his new job. “I had worked at other facilities all through high school and college, including an automotive repair place,” says Robinson. “The owner and operator of that center was named Joe Good. I absorbed the way he handled people. If I could be half as good today (no pun intended) as he was, I would be so proud of myself.”


He also absorbed how Good handled procedures and systems. “I looked at how he organized and did things,” Robinson remarks. “Some of the best career advice I received, and can give, is to look around and study how other people do things. Adapt what’s good, challenge what’s not good, and make improvements from there. I think that’s really important.”


After working for two years at the fledgling helicopter company, Robinson moved back south to earn his MBA degree from The University of San Diego. “I like to


HIS OWN MAN


It is now approaching 30 years since the son returned to the family business. Robinson Helicopter Company now employs over 1,100 people who manufacture and sell multiple models of aircraft. Furthermore, over 400 service centers provide worldwide support. Through all this growth, have the years unfolded as Robinson first expected? “I wasn’t sure at the time if I could work for my father for the long term; he’s a pretty tough guy. But it turned out to be a very good working relationship, one that I enjoyed with him until 2010 when he retired.”


Upon that retirement, the son became company president. The father’s vision to broaden and expand the helicopter industry by building aircraft that more people can use is completely shared by the son. However, he executes that goal somewhat differently. “My father was a phenomenal engineer and also a very good business manager. My skillset is


solve problems and issues. My idea was that I would go around, as a smart-ass 20-something, saving companies and ride into the sunset,” he chuckles. His father convinced him that coming back to Robinson Helicopter Company would be a better option; he could help build a business almost from the beginning. “My father thought that more important to the company than my MBA would be a law degree,” says Robinson. “I committed to law school (again at The University of San Diego) with the knowledge that I would return back to the company with that degree and use those skills, which I did in 1987.”


One law school skill that has served Robinson well is knowing how to ask questions. “I like to drill down with more and more questions until I’m very happy with the answers I receive. By asking questions, I understand why a person is doing something, and hearing everyone’s answers allows me to build a better consensus. Questions also allow me to communicate disagreement. If I ask enough of them, then people get a better idea of what I’m thinking and why I think another avenue may be a better way to go.”


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