A family business can provide many challenges along with innumerable rewards. There are often big shoes to fill, as it’s important to uphold the company founder’s high standards. At Robinson Helicopter Company, President Kurt Robinson continues his father’s focus by bringing the best civil helicopters to customers across the globe.
Robinson Helicopter Company Takes Shape
Frank Robinson, lifelong helicopter enthusiast and Robinson Helicopter Company Founder, was inspired by a singular mission. He wanted to bring a small, affordable helicopter to the marketplace. With a mechanical engineering degree and helicopter design experience, he certainly had the skills to accomplish his goal.
When Robinson’s previous employers turned down his project idea, he forged ahead on his own. Working out of the family home, Frank Robinson established Robinson Helicopter Company in June 1973. Looking back, Kurt Robinson recalls that Frank worked on the R22 prototype design at drafting tables in the living room.
When the R22 project progressed to the fabrication stage, Frank Robinson built his small prototype helicopter in a rented Torrance, California aircraft hangar. The R22 was awarded its FAA Type Certificate in 1979, and the helicopter went into production shortly thereafter.
A Family Business Begins to Thrive
From the beginning, Kurt Robinson has played a supporting role in Robinson Helicopter Company’s growth. During the business’ early years, Frank Robinson tasked his son with performing data analysis and other logistical tasks. Slowly, all the pieces came together, and the family business began to gain momentum.
Kurt Robinson Navigates His Career Path
Upon Kurt Robinson’s graduation from college, he considered two very different career paths. He had expressed a desire to earn his MBA and gain some real-world experience.
At the same time, however, Robinson Helicopter Company’s R22 had just received its production certificate. The FAA approval cleared the way for full-scale manufacturing to begin at the Company’s Torrance, California plant.
Clearly, Frank Robinson needed to quickly ramp up Robinson Helicopter’s production and organizational resources. Using his powers of persuasion, he convinced Kurt to build his production and management skills by working in the family business. Putting his MBA plans on hold, Kurt Robinson felt that helping his father was the right thing to do.
For the next couple of years, Kurt Robinson learned the finer points of Robinson Helicopter’s operations. He helped his father smooth out production hiccups and resolve logistical problems that typically arise when growing a company.
Working closely with Frank Robinson every day, Kurt recognized his father’s ability to build a cohesive team that worked seamlessly together. “But even then, he had started to create a group of people, of employees, that we’re all working towards a common goal,” Robinson recalls.
Preparing for the Next Phase
With Robinson Helicopter Company on a steady upward path, Kurt Robinson felt it was time to resume his education. After earning both an MBA and a law degree, he felt a strong desire to return to the family business to support its continued growth.
Robinson sums it up clearly and succinctly, “at that point in time, I kind of knew that I would be coming back to the company. I guess those two years had kind of sunk the hook, so to speak, and I knew that I wanted to continue watching and helping the company grow,” he concluded.
Frank and Kurt Robinson: An Effective Team
Upon returning to Robinson Helicopter Company, Kurt Robinson formed a mutually beneficial partnership with his father. Frank Robinson wanted to focus on helicopter engineering while avoiding dealings with regulatory agencies and production logistics.
Fortunately, Kurt Robinson’s business and legal knowledge made him an ideal choice for these areas of focus. He also concentrated on providing impeccable customer service to Robinson Helicopter’s growing list of clients. Finally, Robinson executed oversight of the Company’s first computer system, an important step in streamlining many operations.
In addition to becoming Frank Robinson’s right-hand man, Kurt built a rapport with employees who had also played a role in the rapid growth of Robinson Helicopter Company. He clearly relishes the camaraderie he experienced during that time.
“So we kind of grew together, and that obviously occurred for 20 years. And along with him, there were other people approximately my age, my generation, and we all kind of came up as a team,” Robinson reflects.
Gaining First Hand Product Knowledge
With helicopter flight an integral part of the Robinson family dynamic, it’s natural that Kurt Robinson would earn his helicopter pilot’s license. Not surprisingly, he developed the same passion for flying as his father. “I obviously got my license fairly early on as soon as I got out of college, and was bitten by the flying bug and enjoyed that aspect of it, too,” he notes.
As a bonus, Kurt Robinson says that becoming a pilot helped him to more effectively support Robinson Helicopter Company’s operations. Besides improving his management skills, Robinson was able to approach customer service from an owner’s perspective. With this knowledge, he was able to better meet clients’ highly diverse customers’ needs.
Robinson Helicopter Company: The Legacy Continues
In June 2010, Frank Robinson began a well-deserved retirement at age 80. Since then, Kurt Robinson has served as Robinson Helicopter Company’s President. He speaks fondly of the top-tier teams his father built over the years.
“When Frank decided to step down, I remember he liked to say there’s really only one person that is indispensable, including himself.” He had developed his team around us, and there’s really no one person that was indispensable. And Frank used to always like to say that, including himself.
“And sure enough, we had developed by that time a really good engineering group, a good production group, and a good marketing group. So really, when he, Frank, stepped down, my job was just to continue to move those goals and ideals forward. And that’s what I’ve been doing now for the last 10-11 years,” Kurt Robinson concludes.
Frank Robinson’s Enduring Message
As Kurt Robinson leads Robinson Helicopter Company forward, he values his father’s guidance in two key business areas. First, Frank Robinson taught his son that running a company involves both triumphs and challenges. Kurt Robinson reflects on this life lesson.
“I think that probably the strongest thing that I will always carry with me, with my father especially, because going through business is not all straight up, there’s ups and downs. And it’s going through the down periods that I think really help build the company’s character and how they handle those things.”
“I think the advice my father gave me that I always carry with me is that business is not all straight up, there’s ups and downs. It’s getting through the down periods that strengthen and build a company’s character.”
Finally, Kurt Robinson recalls that his father never gave up. Frank Robinson solved one day’s problems at a time, clearing the slate for the next day’s challenges. Every day, Frank Robinson’s legendary tenacity helped to drive Robinson Helicopter Company forward. Looking ahead, Kurt Robinson endeavors to keep that grit and determination at the forefront of everything he does.
“But I think every company that is successful, generally it’s because of the tenacity and stubbornness of the person driving the company. And so that is something that I’ve always hoped to have, and to share with, and to continue pushing along the ideals and dreams of helicopter flying.”