If the key to Success City is preparing oneself to take advantage of opportunities, then Kaman’s Senior Director of Business Development Roger Wassmuth has worn that master key to a nub. “Taking advantage of opportunities that presented themselves on my path pretty much got me to where I am today. I enjoyed most of the path that I took,” he circumspectly says.
The path has been no leisurely stroll down a meandering way, rather Wassmuth’s career path ascended to his senior position beginning at a fast and purposeful pace. The Columbus, Ohio, native—and proud Ohio State University Buckeyes fan—entered the military in 1978 directly out of high school, where he served as a Navy maintenance technician. He even honed his maintenance skills earlier as a boy in his father’s full-service gas station. (You may remember those now extinct establishments: service attendants wore ties, and usually a smile, as they checked your oil, belts, battery, and tires while topping off your tank.) The boy started out pulling weeds on the station’s lot and eventually worked his way up to performing repairs, tune-ups, and oil changes.
The station had a service contract with the local U.S. Postal Service to maintain its fleet of Gremlins. (The little cars, not the little mischievous movie characters, although some might say the Gremlin automobile was uglier and at times caused more trouble than its movie namesake.) Even today, although Wassmuth now has a masters of aeronautical science and went to A&P school to become a licensed mechanic, he enjoys working on simpler, ground-based stock and re-lives his early wrench-turning years by slowly and surely restoring a beloved 1971 Chevy pickup truck. It’s not kept in showroom condition because it has a higher use for the Wassmuth blended family that includes three daughters and two sons—cruising to the beach. “Every time I take it out on the road, I get a thumb up from somebody,” claims the proud owner.
In the Navy
Wassmuth’s first Navy assignment was to the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier, which is apropos as Wassmuth is conducting our Skype interview from his summer home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, not far from the historic Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port.
He did three years of sea duty on the JFK. “Of all the ships I was around, I liked the carrier best because it was exciting and massive with plenty of room. There are 5,000 people on board; it’s a floating city.” he says. Wassmuth found the Navy so agreeable, that he upped his initial commitment for two more years when he was assigned to a helicopter squadron, HSL-34 Greencheckers, where he worked on aircraft built by his future employer, Kaman. (Wassmuth says the name’s pronounced similarly to ‘command.’) A Kaman civilian tech rep., Homer Helms, whose name Wassmuth remembers to this day because “he changed the direction of my life,” approached and asked the young maintenance technician if he would like to join Kaman when he concluded his Navy commitment. Helms’s pitch included “We’re like the Marines; we’re looking for a few good men.” Wassmuth recounts his thinking at the time, “I was going to night school on base at Embry Riddle and taking advantage of every opportunity I had and felt I’d done about everything I could do in the Navy. I filled out the Kaman application and they flew me up for an interview; within an hour after arriving, they offered me a job.” The young man knew the aircraft, but they wanted him to re-learn it from the OEM side. After nine intense months of training and working on the production line, Wassmuth became the youngest tech rep. Kaman ever had.
Wassmuth wasted no time between career transitions. “I was discharged from the Navy on April 30 and started at Kaman on May 1, 1984” he chuckles. “Right after Kaman training, I went to my first company assignment as a tech rep. on January 1, 1985, to the naval base at South Weymouth, Massachusetts.”
From that New Year’s Day until 1993 Wassmuth moved where Kaman needed him. Beginning with the reserve squadron at South Weymouth (HSL-74), he went as a technical representative to a reserve squadron in Pennsylvania (HSL-94) and then to the active duty squadron (HSL-37) at Barbers Point, Hawaii. It was a good place to be. “That was one of my favorite assignments because it was operational, and how could you not enjoy Hawaii?” Although he enjoyed the Aloha State, it wasn’t all play; for his technical service the U.S. Navy Squadron awarded Wassmuth the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his contribution to increase their overall operational readiness. It was a gesture that surprised and pleased the former Navy man.
Wassmuth’s halcyon Hawaiian days were cut short when the head man, Mr. Kaman himself, requested tech reps return and help him with a new aircraft project: the medium lift K-MAX. He wanted his tech reps to provide their valuable experience in the maintainability of the new workhorse aircraft that his team was designing. Wassmuth recalls, “We were integral as to where components and access panels were placed and focused on issues like the support tooling required. Mr. Kaman thought about more than just the pilot in the cockpit, but how the aircraft could be maintained.” Wassmuth, as head of field service, was also involved in hiring tech reps for K-MAX field service.
Although his career to this point had focused mostly on the military, Wassmuth gained the title product support manager and adapted to the needs of the K-MAX civilian sector. Supporting a civilian aircraft is much different from military aircraft support. The military paid for all the support structure and provisioning of their aircraft, but for K-MAX “We had to set up a complete sustainment organization that made sure spare parts were provisioned, a training program established and maintenance manuals were available for the first delivery. The commercial sector is all about making money and availability,” Wassmuth sums it up. He says the K-MAX was designed for efficient maintenance, parts usage, and aircraft simplicity. It was a package that was defined and implemented from initial conception.
Wassmuth had been with the K-MAX almost since its beginning, which prepared him to take advantage of the next career opportunity that presented itself. The director of K-MAX marketing left Kaman. “At that time the business development sales folks were typically pilots. Kaman asked me, a non-pilot, to assume that role,” Wassmuth fondly remembers. At the time that Kaman requested Wassmuth transition to his new sales role, company management said something that, in-hindsight became increasingly insightful over time. They said, “You know almost everything about this aircraft. You know after the customer gets past the purchase price, the most important things are support and reliability.” Kaman made the paradigm shift from pilots promoting aircraft to someone like Wassmuth with a more maintenance and technical background, who could talk from experience about how Kaman could support the buyer and aircraft after the sales contract was signed. “Exactly,” agrees Wassmuth. “I know a lot of the responsibilities that are involved in getting and keeping aircraft off the ground.”
On paper it was an innovative idea to sell the K-MAX by promoting after-sale advantages, but over the next three years Mr. Kaman became less involved in daily operations and the decision was made to discontinue K-MAX production in 2003. The director of K-MAX marketing found himself without a product to sell. Still, those years were not wasted, Wassmuth says, “I’ve had a lot of mentors and received a lot of advice. Mr. Kaman over a number of years shared his experiences and what he had learned about dealing with customers and what made them tick. It was an advantage and an honor for him to share those lessons he learned with me.”
Just as Kaman had recruited the then young military maintenance technician at an opportune time, Hamilton Sundstrand came calling and recruited Wassmuth to support their military aftermarket. Wassmuth stayed with his new employer for eight years, briefly left for a little over a year, then returned to Hamilton Sundstrand to head up business development for domestic sustainment programs for their joint strike fighter program. Upon his return, he sent a congratulatory note to a former Kaman boss who was promoted to president of Kaman Industrials. That courteous gesture was returned when the new president wrote his short reply: “Hey, thanks! Do you want to come back to Kaman?” (Courtesy counts.) Yes, Wassmuth was interested and came full circle to where he began, but his career was not going in circles.
This time he started not as a young trainee, but as Kaman’s seasoned senior director of business development to lead the team in the aero-systems division. What makes a good team member? “Dependability, a positive attitude, and a willingness to learn. With those attributes, you can overcome a lot,” Wassmuth replies, “You can be really smart and knowledgeable, but if you are undependable or have a negative attitude, it will harm the team and make accomplishments difficult to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, you need smart people, but attitude is extremely important. You can have a great team, but you can have just one person who damages the whole makeup of the team and environment. You have to get negative people onboard or move them along.
Unlike when he was promoted to director of K-MAX marketing, Wassmuth now has much business to develop, including promoting the resurrected K-MAX that found new production life in 2015, in part due to demand for its hot-and-high operational capabilities. “It can lift 6,000 pounds at sea level and 114 degrees F and it starts to separate itself even more at higher altitudes. At 15,000 feet it lifts 4,000 pounds, a similar load to much larger helicopters” notes Wassmuth. “The larger helicopters have their place, but it takes a lot of expense to run of those machines compared to a K-MAX.”
That soft-sell approach is an opportunity that fits Kaman’s market and niche aircraft. “Instead of having three S-70s for firefighting and external lift, have two S-70s, and three K-MAXs with less acquisition and operating costs . We’re not trying to completely replace aircraft like the S-70, but we’re trying to get customers to think of their entire fleet and exponentially expand their overall capabilities. There’s a place for us in it. Instead of having three Maserati sport cars, and all of the expense of maintaining them; you can have two Maseratis and three pickup trucks for less money and get more work done,” Wassmuth says. The wrench-turning executive has been getting work done, and helping others do the same throughout his ascending career, but sorry, unlike the K-MAX his restored Chevy pickup is not for sale.