Posted 127 days ago ago by jhadmin
Roger Smith, the president and CEO of avionics pioneer Genesys Aerosystems based out of Mineral Wells, Texas, talks like the cow-town sheriff in the classic Western flick Silverado, yet there is no hint of a mid-Texas frontier drawl. How’s that? Remember, that sheriff was portrayed by British actor and comic John Cleese, who once said, “He who laughs most, learns best.” Smith seems to take that message to heart. He frequently throughout our interview peppers his answers, delivered with crisp, proper articulation befitting the Queen’s English, with lighthearted chuckles and laughter. Yet there is nothing light or laughable about the company he co-founded.
Genesys Aerosystems has taken serious avionics strides, such as shipping over 40,000 autopilot systems over the last 35 years and pioneering the world’s first FAA-certified 3D Synthetic Vision EFIS (electronic flight instrument system) and GPS/WAAS navigator. Still, one didn’t expect to hear this longtime Texan deliver his first answer in an English accent. “I will sometimes say I’m from the east side of town,” he chuckles. “Our town seems to forgive my accent; if I was from the next county over, I’d be a foreigner.”
Things that are not foreign to Smith are hard work and a willingness to make calculated moves. He graduated in the 1970s into a faltering economy with a liberal arts degree from Keele University with honors in English and philosophy. During college Smith had a job shoveling pottery glaze from big bags into little bags. “It was very stimulating work,” he ruefully recalls. “On a good day they let me write on the labels.” Determined to reach a better destination with his life and career, the grad decided to take his shoveling job and shove it. Directly out of college, Smith did a short stint with Marconi Electronic Systems while devising his escape plan.
Go West, Young Man
“I decided I wanted to live in Texas and stuck a pin on the map in Austin. I then wrote their Chamber of Commerce, and there were two aerospace defense contractors and one of them (Tracor) hired me. Having made the move to a new hemisphere—and culture—Smith stayed put in Texas with the company that hired him. It wasn’t always easy to do as mergers and acquisitions followed. Furthermore, Smith helped Tracor go through a pre-planned bankruptcy. “Decisions are very simple to make in bankruptcy; if it doesn’t help to get cash in the door, then it’s not worth doing.” Then his former employer, Marconi Electronic Systems, bought Tracor. “It turns out I didn’t burn too many bridges, because Marconi kept me on the payroll,” he says. Marconi then merged into military contractor conglomerate BAE Systems. Smith remained through the series of mergers and acquisitions, working and learning. A personal discovery he made was that, he liked producing widgets more than the services side.
Just Do It
As Smith had received a liberal arts degree in England , now as a U.S. businessman he was tempted to earn an executive MBA from The University of Texas. He informed a senior mentor, George Melton, of his desire to return to school. Melton advised him to stay out of school and apply for different positions within the company to broaden his horizons.
That would mean Smith leaving his comfortable, and marketable, current management position to make a somewhat lateral, if not backwards, move to a completely new role in project management. Smith pondered the risk and says with the perspective of hindsight, “George Melton advised me well to transition in my work, when he said, ‘Just do it.’ That was probably the singular best career advice I received. I would definitely not be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for his advice.”
Why? Because Smith got paid while gaining real world experience and escaped the burden of student debt and expenses. This freed him to make his next career leap forward.
Risk Generates Genesys
Smith became general manager of a business unit at Cobham Commercial Systems (another M&A had occurred), a unit that promptly went up for sale. Rather than stand still and have the rug potentially pulled from underneath him, Smith and three talented others moved to make a leveraged buy-out of the unit. While an LBO sounds clinically clean, in reality it involved a heaping dose of gut-wrenching risk; Smith had to cough up his savings. With a serious, appreciative tone he recalls, ““I’ve got a wonderful, supportive wife; basically we mortgaged our retirement to buy into the company. Because of her, I was able to take that risk.” Then his cadence lightens, “Fortunately, we were quickly successful, otherwise I may have had to become a Wal-Mart greeter until I turned 120, or whenever I die.” He adds that his early experience shoveling clay into various bags might have saved him from that fate, “I could have fallen back on that; I could shovel like a champ,” he laughs.
Thus, through a leap of faith and calculated risk, Genesys Aerosystems was created from the chaos of corporate unit divestment. The company became known for providing affordable, low-weight autopilot systems for rotorcraft of all sizes. “It’s the answer to a lot of things that a lot of people have been needing, particularly the EMS guys,” says Smith. To find that answer, Genesys linked up with former NASA engineer, and “very smart guy” Roger Hoh, who wanted an autopilot for his R44. ”Our first prototype was far from ready for primetime,” Smith admits, “but we worked and navigated a tough road to get it certified.” Now Hoh has the autopilot he wanted for his own R44, and Robinson Helicopter Company is offering the Genesys HeliSAS (two-axis autopilot and stability and augmentation system) as an option on its R44 and R66 models. Smith chuckles that the private owners of Robinsons are “a rather cost-conscious bunch,” but acknowledges that the Robinson HeliSAS option uptake rate has been “pretty decent.”
Why “pretty decent;” why isn’t it higher? Smith answers, “If someone has only flown small, light helicopters, they are so used to flying without an autopilot that getting them over the hump is kind of tough to see the world the same way as a little general aviation fixed-wing pilot sees it, which is that an autopilot is an obvious thing. I think we’re going to find a tipping point for uptake of autopilot systems for general users; it’s happening, but at this point an autopilot in a helicopter is seen differently as an autopilot in a fixed-wing aircraft.” So, people don’t know they’re missing something if they’ve never had it? “That’s exactly right,” Smith confirms.
HeliSAS generated a lot of notice and buzz throughout the rotorcraft industry, but Smith sees Genesys Aerosystems as more than a one trick ‘com-pony.’ When asked if he considers Genesys as a revolutionary company, Smith affirms, “I believe we are. There are some specific technical and functional firsts. The EFIS display line has racked up a number of those, and we’ve already talked about HeliSAS. Yet, it isn’t a set of patents that set us apart from everyone else; it’s that our stuff is useful.”
Smith strives to not only create useful “stuff,” but to be useful himself when it comes to his adopted town of Mineral Wells. He chairs the local Chamber of Commerce. “As an owner of Genesys, I’m getting more involved in community development,” he says. “There are a limited number of people that show up, but our number of active participants is growing and that’s satisfying. I plan to stay involved for the long haul.”
Distance Enhances Devotion
His commitment to Mineral Wells and Genesys means he and his wife may have years of future trips from their family home in Austin to the smaller town. Smith makes a weekly commute from Austin to his Mineral Wells house close to Genesys. He believes that physical distance makes marriage closer than it otherwise might be under more conventional circumstances. “When my wife comes to visit in Mineral Wells, I get home from the office much earlier! Spending time with your spouse sporadically on a weekly basis makes time with them much more special in a way that’s more devoted than you would be if you saw each other routinely every day.”
Personal Interests & Business Challenge
Although Smith routinely runs a 5K three mornings a week, he has no “obsessive hobbies” and no indulgences other than his fondness for a fine meal. He adds, “Oh, and I like a good martini,” (likely shaken, not stirred). “I like to ski, but I’m not good at it. My wife and I like to head out in our RV and enjoy simple hikes.”
Yes, life seems good, but there’s not much down time. “As a business owner I’m never away from work,” he says. That rewarding work can be challenging. “Our greatest challenge is recruiting engineers. Aerospace is not as enticing to software engineers as it used to be. They’d rather develop games. We used to select from the absolute cream of the crop when I began in this industry. Aerospace then was considered new, exciting, and cutting edge.”
Surprisingly, a lesser challenge for Smith and Genesys is avionics regulations. “Yes, certification is difficult, but frankly the harder the regulatory process is the more it benefits us, because we’re good at it,” he candidly states. “We develop avionics very effectively within the rigid regulatory process.” For example, it only took Genesys six months, from first conversations to flight, to get their avionics into the Grob fixed-wing trainer.
Lessons For The Industry
The process isn’t always so smooth when it comes to introducing technology to helicopters. Smith says that’s not as much due to regulations as to the unique nature of the rotorcraft industry. He says, “Helicopters and helicopter pilots are different (from fixed-wing).” He tells a final story to elaborate on an industry that can be crazy at times, but he cheerfully says “It’s my kind of crazy; I love it.” Still, the industry he holds in affection could learn how to better embrace innovation. Pour yourself a spot of tea, industry. Listen and learn from a British expatriate who loves you and has perspective on your uniqueness:
In the beginning of his aerospace career, in England with Marconi, Smith was in an air-data group that designed a superior, swiveling probe that provided compensation for rotor downwash and demonstrated other advantages that a regular tube could not provide. The young man’s first flight to the U.S. was to Bell Helicopter to help secure a contract for that probe to improve the accuracy of rockets fired from Bell aircraft. His mission was successful; today if you look at AH-1s and AH-64s you’ll see these swiveling probes on both sides of the canopy.
As part of the sales preparation process, Smith attended a Marconi internal briefing. Histogram sales charts were displayed that began with little blocks that quickly grew into big, massive blocks. “The business development guy raved about the huge opportunity this product provided. It was the greatest thing; everybody clearly needed it. It was vital within a military context, but it was also going to provide benefits to the commercial helicopter pilot,” Smith recalls. A director at Marconi bought the enthusiasm; looking at the histogram he said, “OK, we go from little bungalows to skyscrapers in four to five years.”
Smith has since learned that it doesn’t happen that fast and easy in the real rotorcraft world away from pro-forma charts. A sale may require a standout product, but it also needs a willing purchaser. “Being right always helps, but it’s not the only thing you need,” he remarks.
That was Genesys Aerosystems’ situation launching HeliSAS. Smith recalls, “It took a long time to get traction, even in EMS. We needed a certain amount of faith and persuasiveness to get there.” Smith has noticed over his decades-long career that the rotorcraft industry slowly and warily embraces innovation. “It has got something to do with the complexity of the helicopter itself; it’s got something to do with the cost of operating it; it’s got something to do with the nature of the mission. It’s probably got something to do with the conservative nature of the community.” It all comes together to create a challenging industry that Smith believes has the greatest opportunity in all of aerospace because of gaping, unmet needs. Smith is still trying to crack the code, “I’m curious about how to solve that. I can be righteous about how to solve some of it. Even though there have been great strides in improving the helicopter accident rate, there’s still a long way to go. Nobody’s flying a crash-proof helicopter yet.”
With a proven history of pioneering and patenting safety-enhancing technology and with his curiosity securely intact, the guy ‘from the east side of town’ and his company might help develop that future aircraft—and is improving today’s.