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Robinson Helicopter is pulling out of economic turbulence

Robinson Helicopter, known for its low-cost choppers, was nearly grounded by the recession but is poised to soar again with a new CEO, an expanded factory and a new model that's generating buzz.

March 27, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Robinson Helicopter CEO Kurt Robinson took over when his father, the company founder, retired.
Robinson Helicopter CEO Kurt Robinson took over when his father, the company… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The thump-thump-thump of rotor blades above the South Bay is the sound of the world's largest civilian helicopter maker emerging from the economic downturn.

After two years of layoffs and slumping sales, things are looking up for Robinson Helicopter Co., which for decades has manufactured low-cost helicopters for use by television news operations, banks transporting money between branches and, of course, police departments that depend on them for surveillance and rescue missions.

The Torrance company has a new chief executive, a book full of orders, an expanded factory and a new five-seat chopper that's generating plenty of buzz in the industry.

"When the economy went in a tailspin, it hit us hard," said CEO Kurt Robinson, the 53-year-old son of founder Frank Robinson, who retired in August. "We're ready to bounce back."

Central to the company's hopes for recovery is the new chopper, dubbed the R-66. Just arriving in showrooms, it is by far the company's most technologically advanced rotorcraft, capable of flying faster, higher and with more people and cargo than anything it has ever built.

Robinson may not have the name recognition of firms such as Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. or Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., whose bread and butter is military choppers. Still, analysts said Robinson's new jet-powered rotorcraft — as opposed to the smaller piston-powered choppers that the firm has been known for — could give Robinson more visibility.

"The R-66 opens up all kinds of opportunities. There's no doubt that it will enable the company to grow," said Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Assn. International, an Alexandria, Va., trade group.

After years of growth and record sales, Robinson struggled during the recession as customers cut back orders, cash-poor owners flooded the market with used choppers, and the financing for new helicopters all but dried up.

In 2010, the company churned out just 162 choppers — an 82% plunge from the 893 it sold at its peak just two years earlier.

Robinson's payroll went from about 1,400 workers in 2008 to about 900 currently. Robinson is privately held, with little public information about its finances. Dun & Bradstreet Inc. estimated its 2010 sales at $75 million. Company officials said sales previously hovered around $100 million.

The R-66 is the company's first new model since Frank Robinson's retirement. He built the business from scratch into the nation's largest civilian helicopter company. But after a grueling recession all but grounded the firm, it's now up to his son Kurt to make it fly high once again.

The company is a vestige of a once-vibrant era in commercial aircraft that helped to define Southern California in the post-World War II years as an industrial powerhouse. Assembly lines across the Southland hummed with the production of Boeing Co.'s 717, Douglas Aircraft Co.'s DC-8, and McDonnell Douglas Corp.'s MD-80.

Today, at a time when unemployment is hovering around 12.2% in California and new manufacturing jobs are few, Robinson holds the prospect of stability and growth.

Robinson's expanded factory, where its two-seat R-22 and four-seat R-44 are built, now hugs almost half a mile of runway at the east end of Torrance Municipal Airport.

For now, the new space where the R-66 will be made is empty. The light-gray floor has the radiance of an untouched ice rink. The company has finished about two dozen R-66s. And they have orders for 106 more. Soon, as production of the R-66 ramps up, hundreds of cutting machines, soldering tools and air wrenches will clutter the area — just as they have in the adjacent factory for more than 30 years.

Most major aerospace companies subcontract the fabrication of parts, but not Robinson. It makes nearly all its parts in-house at its plant. Swarms of workers operate high-tech machines that grind, bend and slice metal into helicopter parts.

Helicopter noise in Torrance remains a challenge for the company. But Kurt Robinson said the company always tries to be a good neighbor. "We live and work in the community, so we do our part to minimize" noise, he said.

Robinson is the rare aerospace company that does no work for the military. It produces strictly civilian aircraft.

From the beginning, the company thrived by selling helicopters for a fraction of the prices of its competitors. The R-22 sells for $250,000 and the R-44 goes for about $350,000 to $425,000. In a big leap, the company is pricing the R-66 at $800,000. In contrast, the R-66's closest rival, the Bell JetRanger, can cost about $1.4 million.

"We can operate them at half the cost of other agencies," said Bob Muse, a helicopter pilot with the El Monte Police Department, the first police force to purchase an R-44 in 1998. "They're not as flashy-looking as other helicopters. I know that, everybody does. But it gets the job done."

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