From a two-man operation to the world’s first online marketplace for Robinson Helicopter parts, Rotorcorp LLC – celebrating 10th anniversary in business in 2021 – has grown into a savvy international exporter providing first-class service to a diverse portfolio of operators in more than 45 countries.
“Robinson Helicopter Company, Inc. congratulates Rotorcorp LLC on their successful 10-year anniversary,” said President Kurt Robinson. “We are pleased to have Rotorcorp as an authorized Robinson Service Center and look forward to continuing our relationship.”
Rotorcorp was founded in 2011 as an authorized Robinson Helicopter Co. Service Center by two brothers living on opposite sides of the United States and bringing very different entrepreneurial backgrounds to the table. Dan Casey was a helicopter pilot and mechanic who had recently sold his helicopter tour company in Oxnard, California. Sean Casey was a sales and marketing specialist who was closing his decade-old residential real estate brokerage in Atlanta, Georgia.
The brothers recognized parts for Robinson helicopters represented a significant global market. The Robinson fleet is the largest in the world with over 13,000 helicopters produced – more than all other civilian helicopters combined. Most of those operators are small organizations or located in remote parts of the world, and face challenges reliably securing parts in a cost-effective and timely manner
Also in the Rotorcorp’s favor: Production of Robinson aircraft ramped up significantly between 2003 and 2009, and with required overhauls after 2200 hours of operation or every 12 years, the future demand for parts was guaranteed to accelerate as these helicopters reached mandated life and calendar limits.
To be successful, Rotorcorp would need to find a way to consolidate and harness that demand online and hone its international finance and logistics skills to serve a diverse group of customers in all corners of the world.
At the heart of this plan was customer loyalty driven by excellent customer service, an area Sean Casey knew well from his real estate business. He quickly developed ambitious marketing plans to build a customer base for the new venture; Dan Casey, , came with a different perspective.
“Dan said, ‘I don’t think you understand. If we answer the phone and are friendly and knowledgeable, we’ll be ahead of 99% of our competition,’” Sean Casey recalled.
Tapping into contacts Dan Casey had made over the years to make their start, the brothers established an online presence and began taking orders by phone, email, and fax.
The strategy: Connect with customers looking for small parts orders and build credibility and trust to be the preferred option when they needed to buy a full overhaul kit – valued at $100,000 to $250,000 – once the aircraft hit the 2200 hours or 12 years of service.
“You can’t just cold call to sell an overall kit,” Sean Casey said. “But if that operator has bought oil filters and all those small parts from us to keep their helicopter operating, by the time it needs an overall, we’re already part of that conversation.”
While Rotorcorp was quickly able to secure customers by answering the phone during those first few years, the Caseys soon realized scaling larger would be more difficult.
During this period, Rotorcorp also expanded its team. Tracy Jensen, a long-time friend of Sean Casey’s had a background in sales and customer service came onboard to manage Rotorcorp’s books and other administrative tasks. A few months later, she was managing sales for $150,000 overhaul kits.
“It’s about really understanding a customer’s problem and providing solutions that are within your scope to solve,” Jensen said. “Sean and I are both creative and creative problem solvers and that is a good recipe for success.”
Now director of operations for the company, Jensen has developed standardized systems and processes that ensure customers will consistently receive the highest level of service, regardless of who answers the phone.
Transitioning from start-up to growth
By 2016, Rotorcorp faced its first inflection point. Revenues had become significant, and the company was at a point where it needed a more formalized plan how to grow.
“We were stepping out of that start-up phase and trying to figure out how to do this sustainably and with intent,” Sean Casey said.
Sean Casey understood marketing but needed a focused strategy to capitalize on what he saw as Rotorcorp’s potential. After working with the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center to organize his books, he secured one of a handful of spots – competing against 300 applicants – in the Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders Initiative, an intense eight-month training program to guide entrepreneurs as they develop and vet a three-year strategic growth plan.
The program gave Rotorcorp new tools to analyze the business and find efficiencies, such as scrutinizing days inventory, a ratio that measures the average days Rotorcorp’s inventory sits on the shelves before being sold, and inventory turnover. Equipped with a carefully honed plan and new practices, Rotorcorp quickly netted results: Revenues doubled in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
The three-year plan was working, but it also highlighted the next inflection point for the company. The brothers had different ambitions, and as Sean Casey’s technical proficiency grew, Dan Casey became less involved in day-to-day operations. If the company was going to continue growing, it needed a singular vision and clear leadership.
In 2018, Sean Casey bought his brother out and directed his focus on e-commerce. Rotorcorp’s web marketing had successfully attracted a growing overseas customer base, with orders taken by phone and email. Now, the company was prepared to capitalize on its online marketing power by building an e-commerce site, an expensive and intensive two-year process.
Moving sales online
Selling helicopter parts online is a complicated business. Robinson’s 900-page catalog includes some 10,000 parts across its three helicopter bases, the R22, R44 and R66 and operators are located all over the world.
Rotorcorp tapped into resources by the U.S. Commercial Service to undergo a website globalization survey and create a website development plan that provide dynamic formatting and optimization when translating content, ensuring customers could experience the Rotorcorp site in clean and efficient way. Robinson provided part numbers, descriptions and prices- everything else would need to be built from scratch.
Navigating shipping was another challenge. With phone orders, Rotorcorp sales staff would estimate shipping then confirm the price with the customer once it was packaged. But that doesn’t work for an online customer, who wants to see the total price after a few clicks at checkout. Shipping would need to be automated carefully for a business where costs could double if you had to upsize a box.
“If you’re scaling up, you can’t keep doing things by hand,” she said. “It’s a good thing, but it feels like you’re putting your faith in technology and a process and human nature finds that difficult to let go.”
It also invested in robust inventory management software, enabling the company to check inventory levels, log customer activity, create and track purchase orders.
“When Rotorcorp first started, people used to fax purchase orders and we still have customers who prefer to email us purchase orders,” Jensen said. “Most companies that are at our level aren’t this evolved, and that’s what puts us in a position to really grow this business and become a major force in the worldwide distribution for the Robinson market.”
In 2018, Rotorcorp debuted the world’s first online, comprehensive part sales site for Robinson Helicopters. Unlike phone orders, customers could now purchase parts in their native language and currency, without worrying about time zones.
After activating the site, Rotorcorp.com’s first sale was to a new customer based in Moldova.
“We had to go look at a map to see where it was,” Sean Casey said, “But we knew we had hit the mark with that very first order”.
Rotorcorp’s e-commerce strategy has been a key differentiator, offering customers from around the world the ability to order parts online, in their native language and local currency, and during their own business hours, said Jeremy Parkin, runs U.K-based Parapex Media, which provides market intelligence and public relations and social media consulting for the aviation industry.
“The fact that anyone can order a part online and know when it’s going to ship and arrive is very relevant and is fairly groundbreaking in our corner of the maintenance industry,” said Parkin, who also runs helicopter news site HeliHub.com.
Carving a niche
Over the last decade, Rotorcorp carved out an important niche, something that has given them a competitive advantage, said Joy Finnegan, Editor-in-Chief for Aviation Maintenance Magazine and Aerospace TechReview. For Robinson operators in less accessible regions, such as Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, or the mountains of South America, Rotorcorp fills an important service gap.
“You can’t just run over to the local airport and pick up your part, especially for something as exotic as a helicopter,” Finnegan said. “Rotorcorp has been able to find way to get parts to these remote operators.”
Finnegan credits Casey’s tenacity and leadership and outsider’s perspective to innovate a new way to serve operators.
“It is a rare thing for someone to come into the aviation industry and quickly grasp the needs of the clients and then work out a system to serve them,” Finnegan said. “You have many moving pieces – clients all over the world, multiple locations in which you store your parts, shipping, export and import regulations.”
Rotorcorp’s focus on overseas customers is a key driver for growth, said Mary Waters, department commissioner for international trade for Georgia’s Department of Economic Development. International clients diversify the customer base, cushioning an economic downturn in any one market. It also offers small business some important market insights, helping it keep tabs on global competition.
“They’re very strategic,” she said. “They research opportunities and if they think there’s a market there, they go for it. They’re just not afraid to look at new markets and that is not something applies to all small businesses.”
Adaptability is another one of Rotorcorp’s strengths.
“They’re always looking at new ways to be more effective and reach more customers,” Waters said, noting investments made as it has developed its e-commerce site. “Not every company would take that leap.”
Waters said work Rotorcorp did to gain a foothold in Brazil – “a notoriously challenging export market”– is good example of the company’s tenacity. For nearly a year, the company worked with the Georgia trade team to access research and connections with qualified partners.
“That work resulted in nearly $1 million in sales to Brazil to date, which for a small company is really remarkable,” Waters said.
As the company faced roadblocks, it continued to push ahead, understanding how to find solutions and what that may mean two to three steps down the road as they plan efforts in other markets, Waters said.
“Rotorcorp may not have always had the right answers, but they’ve leaned on the right resources to solve any challenges they’ve faced,” Waters said. “They’re really intentional about how they approach these markets and that really is a hallmark of their success. They really walk the walk.”
Recognizing the growing importance of the Latin American market, Rotorcorp added a native Spanish speaking sales representative, bridging an important language gap from some of its key customers. English in the default language in the aviation world among pilots and maintenance crews, but that doesn’t extend to the business office where purchase orders may be placed.
“There are so many people that we work with for whom the helicopter is like the wrench in a toolbox for a much bigger company,” Jensen said. They need helicopter parts, but also $1 billion in parts for a ship or trucks for the company. In that case you need a native speaker.”
Nurturing Customer Loyalty
For Jerry Trimble, who owns a flight school and maintenance operations in McMinnville, Oregon, Rotorcorp represents important access to time-sensitive parts with a good balance of price and service.
“They’ve always delivered and did what they said they will do,” Trimble said. “You wouldn’t think that would be a big deal, but in today’s market, that’s big.”
Rotorcorp has proven itself a trusted partner, Trimble said. “It’s not just anyone I’ll send $100,000 to,” he said.
Trimble, who has been a Robinson owner and operator since 1978 and helped Frank Robinson deliver R22 ship serial number 0002, said he values Rotorcorp’s attention to details and customer service.
“We can’t afford to inventory a lot of parts, so we need to order and get it delivered, ideally within a week or two,” he said. “Rotorcorp’s ability to be sensitive to those needs really helps.”
“I can call one place and have the comfort that it will be the best, quickest, least expensive route rather than spending a lot of time looking for parts,” Trimble said.
Adjusting to the Pandemic
Rotorcorp’s investments in e-commerce paid off in important ways once health measures implemented as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in across the globe. Most of Rotorcorp’s customers are in essential industries that still needed access to parts. Rotorcorp shifted all but its shipping and receiving staff home and implemented health and safety measures to keep its operations going. Navigating interruptions to the global manufacturing and shipping world were more challenging, especially as Robinson, which shut down production for two months initially, faced the threat of additional closures as cases spiked in Southern California.
Robinson customers include critical industry operators, including agriculture, fishing, law enforcement, search-and-rescue, oil and gas and other industries that need to ferry workers to remote locations. As the pandemic unfolded globally, many service centers shut down or reduced operations, leaving some operators scrambling for time-critical parts.
“People have a perception that helicopter operators are gentlemen pilots with expensive toys, but we learned that the Robinson fleet is composed of people who use their helicopters as a tool – we think of them as flying pickup trucks.” Jensen said. “Our global food supply is dependent on these helicopters and these people rely on a consistent supply of these parts and the ability to move through that process of acquisition, shipping, customs and get these parts as fast as possible.”
Rotorcorp pivoted, temporarily shifting to a rolling approach to group orders, submitting them as they reached the needed threshold instead of by a set calendar to get them processed in time.
Its nimbleness paid off. During 2020, Rotorcorp grew its customer base by 10% or 150 new accounts. To be sure, these were small customers, but for Rotorcorp, it’s a foothold to cultivate future sales.
“If we can demonstrate technical expertise and product knowledge and give them an incredible experience, then that’s 150 more leads in my bucket that will potentially buy overhaul kits from us,” Sean Casey said.
Looking ahead, Aviation Maintenance Magazine’s Finnegan said Rotorcorp’s challenge will be to finding new ways to serve customers.
“They’ve come in and made a company out of nothing and very quickly grown to be a huge partner of Robinson,” she said. “They have made tremendous strides and grown rapidly and learned huge amounts by supporting their customers and learned about what Robinson operators really need from them and established that service. Now their challenge is to continually step up do better.”
Rotorcorp is in the first year of its second three-year strategic growth plan, a strategy that has helped the company focus on specific goals rather than “chase squirrels.” Ultimately, the company hopes to shift more sales online, even selling entire overhaul kits that way. To do that would require other shifts – the current system can’t securely or cost effectively handle online sales above $10,000. Solutions may eventually include a mechanism to accept cryptocurrency.
For now, the company continues to focus on making its online experience more efficient and easier for its customers to use. Recognizing that customers can’t operate if they don’t have the parts they need, Rotorcorp wants to enable customers to see inventory information in real time, offering them the most up-to-date information on how quickly they can have a part delivered – a feat that takes careful coordination and communication with Robinson.
The existing fleet of Robinson aircraft signals robust demand for years to come, but Rotorcorp is carefully watching emerging technologies, including those for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). As uses for UAVs grow, Robinson may be well-positioned to capitalize on the new segment, ultimately creating new markets for Rotorcorp.