26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs: Frank Robinson

From: Inc. Magazine, April 2005 | By: null



Frank Robinson Robinson Helicopter

for whipping an entire industry into shape

In an industry that almost seems to pride itself on its ability to lose money doing just about anything, Frank Robinson is thriving in one of its toughest niches. Last year Robinson Helicopter's R44 model was the best-selling nonmilitary helo in the world. No. 2? The Robinson R22. All told, Robinson outsells all other North American manufacturers put together. Close to 6,000 Robinson helos sit on flight lines around the world -- an astounding figure considering that a run a tenth that size is more than enough to make an aircraft a bestseller.

Robinson spent the 1960s as an engineer for Bell and Hughes and other makers of multimillion-dollar helicopters, trying along the way to interest one of them in his vision for a reliable "personal" helicopter affordable for flight schools, small businesses, and even individuals. In 1973 he gave up and decided to go out on his own, founding Robinson Helicopter in his living room. The R22 prototype was flying two years later, and when the production model was introduced it quickly broke all records for small- helicopter performance. Sales took off.

The appeal wasn't so much the R22's low price tag -- at about $125,000, it was the first helo that could compete on price with a small airplane -- as it was the machine's reliability and ease of maintenance. Unlike airplanes, helicopters rely on staggeringly complex gearboxes to cushion the engine from the large and rapidly varying forces on the rotor blades. This complexity translates to a need for frequent maintenance, along with high operating costs and high failure rates. Robinson slashed the number of parts in the power train by about a third, making simpler, airplanelike maintenance possible. For even better reliability, he tinkered with the designs of everything from rotating hydraulic valves to the pilot's control bar. And unlike other manufacturers, he insisted on making most parts in-house, where he could demand millionth-of-an-inch tolerances.

But accident rates in his helicopters were still too high. The problem, reckoned Robinson, was that the Federal Aviation Administration was making it too easy for airplane flight instructors to become helicopter instructors, leading to legions of poorly trained pilots. "Airplane pilots have exactly the wrong reactions in emergency situations," says Robinson. "It's easier to teach someone off the sidewalk to fly helicopters safely than it is an airplane pilot." So he lobbied the FAA to quadruple the minimum number of hours of training needed to get an instructor's license, as well as double the hours before a pilot could solo. Still dissatisfied, he started a safety course that has become the gold standard of helo training, open to all pilots -- today it has a five-month waiting list and is required by most helicopter insurers.

At 75, Robinson seems to be just getting warmed up. To increase market share even more, he has brought out specially designed and equipped helos aimed at lucrative niches such as newsgathering and law enforcement. About 1,000 employees are now turning out 15 or so R22s and R44s each week at Robinson's plant, for customers in more than 60 countries. Sales were up 50% to record-setting levels in each of the past two years. "And we might do even better this coming year," says Robinson. The lesson here? Safety might not be so bad for profitability after all. And when a smart engineer tells you he has a vision, listen up.

David H. Freedman

26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs

  1. Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart Omnimedia
    because she took one for the team
  2. Richard Branson, Virgin Group
    because he's game for anything. In fact, everything.
  3. Michael Dell, Dell Computer
    for being brilliantly straightforward
  4. Jim Sinegal, Costco
    because who knew a big-box chain could have a generous soul?
  5. Diane von Furstenberg, Diane von Furstenberg Studio
    for staging an elegant comeback
  6. Julie Azuma, Different Roads to Learning
    for offering hope and help to the parents of autistic children
  7. Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing
    for setting limits
  8. Ray Kurzweil, Kurzweil Technologies and other companies
    because he is Edison's rightful heir
  9. Craig Newmark, Craigslist
    for putting the free in free markets
  10. Jack Mitchell, Mitchells/Richards
    because his family business makes an art of customer service
  11. Frank Robinson, Robinson Helicopter
    for whipping an entire industry into shape
  12. Mark Melton, Melton Franchise Systems
    for giving immigrants their shot at the American Dream
  13. Michelle Cardinal & Tim O'Leary, Cmedia and Respond2
    for rewriting the rules for husband-and-wife teams
  14. Mike Lazaridis, Research in Motion
    because someone had to stand up for all those frustrated engineers
  15. Trip Hawkins, Electronics Arts and Digital Chocolate
    for still scrapping
  16. Warren Brown, Cake Love and Love Cafe
    because only in America will someone quit a secure job as a lawyer to start a bakery
  17. Muriel Siebert, Muriel Siebert & Co.
    for being a notable first with a worthy second act
  18. Chuck Porter, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky
    for verging on reckless
  19. Katrina Markoff, Vosges Haut
    for setting a completely unreasonable goal for her business
  20. Barry Steinberg & Craig Sumerel, Direct Tire and Auto Service
    for showing the power of the peer group
  21. Victoria Parham, Virtual Support Services
    for serving as a mentor to military spouses
  22. Tom LaTour, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants
    for staying at fleabag hotels so that we don't have to
  23. Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, Mitchell Gold
    for creating a true comfort zone
  24. Izzy & Coco Tihanyi, Surf Diva
    for kicking sand in the face of conventional wisdom
  25. Tony Lee, Ring Masters
    for saving 16 jobs, including his own
  26. Rueben Martinez, Libreria Martinez Books and Art Galleries
    for simultaneously building a business and nurturing Latino culture

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