How do you build a wildly successful aerospace-manufacturing company? One cold call at a time. At least, that’s how Robin Siegfried did it. He took Tulsa-based company NORDAM global by going to unfamiliar countries to knock on airplane hanger doors and strike up conversations with strangers. Listen as Robin explains how he overcame cultural faux pas and limited knowledge about aviation to build a multi-million dollar company.
Robin: Wanted to do something that nobody in our family had ever done.
Lauren: This week on The F Word-
Robin: You lost legitimately, and so don't blame it on your competitor. Maybe you learn from that.
Lauren: ... Robin Siegfried, part owner of NORDAM.
Robin: When all hell breaks loose and you don't perform, you gotta go eyeball to eyeball to that customer who trusted you in the first place.
Lauren: One of Tulsa's most notable and profitable companies over the past few decades is an aerospace and manufacturing and repair firm called NORDAM. A family-owned company headquartered right here in Tulsa, NORDAM is one of the largest independently-owned aerospace companies in the whole world. They have 2,500 employees on three continents, and massive contracts with companies like Airbus, China Air, and Boeing. We're so excited because today, we're joined by one of the men who started it all, Robin Siegfried. Robin, thanks for being here.
Robin: Good morning.
Lauren: Good morning. I want to say up front, there's no way we can cover NORDAM's whole story in half an hour, but we're going to hit the highlights. For those who aren't familiar, Robin's brother Ray started NORDAM in 1969. It was a bankruptcy acquisition, and Robin jumped in straight out of college in '72, but Robin, you didn't know anything about airplanes when you started, right?
Robin: Not at all.
Lauren: Oh my gosh. What were your thoughts entering NORDAM at the very beginning? Why'd you do it if this wasn't your area of expertise?
Robin: A challenge. Wanted to do something that nobody in our family had ever done, which is, they sold insurance, and this was a challenge because it was not solidified yet. We had no products, really, and we were wondering what we could take this to. It was the manufacturing business. I've always been one that liked to be able to put my hands on a piece of hardware, and if someone did not like the quality or the service, then they could point it out versus the family business that I was grown up with, insurance, it was a piece of paper. That taught me to appreciate the fact that if a person could not like my product, he could show me what he didn't like by putting his fingers on it and touching on it, and that was a piece of hardware. I liked that more than selling a piece of paper that was a negative.
Lauren: A lot more tangible.
Lauren: My favorite part about your story is that you actually are the one who took NORDAM Global, made it an international company. I've heard that you would go to airports around the world and just start knocking on airplane hangars. Tell us a little bit about that.
Robin: Well, we didn't really have many products. We had found American Airlines in Tulsa, and we started repairing wing structures. They pretty well liked us very well, and we got a lot of business out of them. I had then went to other airlines like Eastern and Pan Am and Braniff, most of which are not here anymore, and they liked us, so we said, "Why can't we do this worldwide?" In 1976, I left Tulsa on Valentine's Day, February 14th, for a six-week planned tour to go to New Zealand, Australia, and work my way up the east coast in the far east up to Korea and then back. That was going to take six weeks. I was by myself. By the time I had gone through New Zealand and Australia, the method of communication at that time was a telex machine because phones overseas were very expensive. My brother was telexing me that says, "Keep going, keep going. The business is rolling in," and I didn't have any contacts. We just thought we had a product in repairing these wing structures.
Lauren: What did you as this young kid from America tell the people on the other side of these hangar doors who had no idea who you were.
Robin: Well, I just knocked on those, most of which I was cold calling. This was before any security, so you could, on a runway of an airport and in the back hangar, and my specialty was if they wouldn't let me in the front door, I'd go to the back door and walk in where the maintenance facility was and-
Lauren: Find a way.
Robin: ... start talking to a mechanic. The mechanics wanted to talk to somebody that spoke a little different Okie English, and he'd tell me where all this stuff was that we were trying to fix, and then he'd introduce me to the engineers or the purchasing agent, and then that really worked, going in the back door. The six-weeks planned tour ended up being six months. I came back July 4th.
Lauren: Were you married at the time?
Robin: I was not. We just got so much business out of that, and it was a lot of fun. It was very challenging. The most challenging thing was getting where we were, where we had the international language for aerospace because most of all your developed products initially were made by American companies, and for liability purposes, they said, "We're not going to translate our manuals and technology into any other language beyond English because they may mistranslate, and therefore, cause an accident." That really was a good decision for us because I could always find someone that would speak enough English that he could read it, and so all your language in aerospace is English. If they want it translated for their mechanics, they'd do it themselves.
Lauren: That took some pressure off y'all to feel like you had to constantly adapt to these different languages-
Lauren: ... and cultures.
Lauren: Let's talk about cultural differences for a second. All the language was in English, but I'm sure, especially as you worked your way into Asia, there were a lot of different norms you had to conform to, and you built NORDAM pre-Internet, pre being able to look all this up ahead of time. How did you adapt to other cultures when probably sometimes you didn't know what you were getting yourself into.
Robin: I did most of the bookings through a company here that we now own partially is WorldTravelService, which was a booking agent. It's a travel service. I'd ask them for culture books, you might say, and so I would read those. This is where you don't shake hands or you bow or you kneel down or you take your shoes off when you go into their homes, just little basic things like that in some cultures are very, very important. One of the ... You try to deal with that as best possible, and I'm probably the ultimate leader that doesn't do that because I'm a born-and raised-Okie. One of the things that I remember doing is when you're in Japan, you do as the Japanese do, you might say. Part of entrepreneurship is relationships with your customer. They must like you before they're going to buy your product. If they don't like you the first time, get them comfortable to where the 10th time, they like you. You just keep going back. Keep going back because you know there probably have a need for their product, but they just don't want to talk to you for whatever reason. The Japanese were very culturally-orientated. They like to drink very strong alcohol, and they like to eat stuff that's raw. I am not a raw-fish person or raw, and this is way before sushi was brought to America, which I don't eat to this day. You might say I'm a steak-and-potato guy. They would take you to their restaurant once they became familiar, and this may take 10 visits. The restaurant, you had to take your shoes off, many of the restaurants where you sat on the floor, and you had a table kind of at your lap top. Very uncomfortable. I had pillows around. You had to eat what they gave you. You had to finish your plate. There's not anything on my plate that I recognized. It's all squishy stuff. I knew that if I ate some of that, I was going to barf on the table. I'm fighting not liking this stuff. I'm fighting a cultural issue. I'm trying to develop a relationship with these people so that they will like me and then buy my product. I had all these things going against me. When they weren't looking or went to the restroom, I would put the stuff that I wouldn't eat in my socks, and I just keep it in there. Then when I got back to my hotel room, I'd-
Lauren: Sorry, I'm like losing it.
Robin: ... wash my socks out, throw them in my bag. After a couple of visits to Japan, my wife says, "How come all the time you come back from Japan, your socks smell like crazy, and it's not deodorant. It's some sort of food service, and they're all wet?" I told her, and she said, "Throw your socks away, please." I never got caught. It worked, and I got a lot of business. You really do what you have to do to get the customer to like you.
Lauren: Along the way, did you ever mess up and get caught culturally where you're like, "Ugh, I really screwed that up," to where, messed up your business, or do you feel like you're able to fake it long enough to sustain relationships?
Robin: I'm sure that, over the years, I made a mistake to where individuals didn't like you. That's going to happen to anybody. Nothing major to where you got kicked out. You may have a personality issue with a certain person where you just avoid one another, or you put another person from your team on that person. That happened many times. You gotta, you go with what you're pleasantly pleased with.
Lauren: Along that same vein, you're a master salesman, clearly. You know how to win people. For the entrepreneurs who are listening, what do you think is the key to building and sustaining relationships? Do you have to have a ton of money to do it, or are there key core values that anyone can carry with them?
Robin: There's many key things that will make you a success or not. First of all, you have to have a product. Sometimes, entrepreneurs don't have the product or the service they're trying to get there. You have to have a product at bay and a customer to buy it. Nothing happens until somebody sells something. Many times, we would tell a customer, "Yes, we can do that. Give me the purchase order, and I'll make it happen," and I had no idea what I was doing. We were scrambling. We're looking for new products. We always kind of on the cuff would not invent a widget and go out and try to sell it. We would try to define a marketplace that was not being serviced properly or the product was finished yet in the customer's mind, or it need to be modified. You modify that, make it better, make your service better, and then the customer will come, but you have to have a product that's sellable, and you have to have a team that you're comfortable with in being able to help you in all these situations, and you have to have trust. You have to have accountability. If it's not measured, it's not going to get worked on. I had a fetish, almost, to measure everything that we did. Now, what is measuring? You always have these financial things that people measure from, and those are measures, and those are all good, but you have to take it before it even becomes a financial measure. You have to take the vendors that you're using and measure their quality and their performance and their delivery and their weight and whatever you're trying to do. You have to measure the processing time that takes through to make the product through your facilities. You have to measure all the outside support you get from every vendor there may be. Every quarter or every month depending upon what was appropriate, we would measure everything, and it may be a book that would take you three hours to read, but it's going to be able to have you understand the processing of the business. I didn't figure this out for at least 20 years though. You don't have time to measure when you're still looking products. The team, you have to be trustworthy and open your kimono to the people you're working with, telling the financial situation with the product or the company, show them your financials because then he'll understand what you're trying to do financially, and-
Lauren: Isn't that risky, though, being so open with your customers?
Robin: Well, I'm not being open financially with my customer. I'm talking about my internal people that I'm working with.
Lauren: I see. I see.
Robin: No, I would not like to show my customer my financial-
Lauren: I didn't think so.
Robin: Because then they'll use it against you to get your price down or beat you up in some sort of way. Your customer understands what he's paid for, the quality he gets and the service and delivery to get it there. That's what he wants to know.
Lauren: As you were building these business relationships and telling your customer, "Oh, yeah, we'll get that to you," even though you said you were scrambling, you must've built a reputation of always delivering because people grew to trust you and grew to knew you and follow through on your word.
Robin: That's where the relationship comes in. When all hell breaks loose and you don't perform, you gotta go eyeball to eyeball to that customer who trusted you in the first place, and you say, "I screwed up, and this is my plan to get it. Give me time, please," or, "Give me more money," or give him a discount to hold off, but if you're ... You must do that personally, and therefore, having a relationship with the customer is at the top of the list because when you do get in trouble, he may listen to you and give you a more of a chance.
Lauren: Do you have any specific stories that come to mind regarding that?
Robin: Oh, yeah. You're always going to get into trouble at whatever cost. It could be an outside agency like the FAA in our part who is the quality rule maker going down and everybody's happy, and all of a sudden, the FAA changes the rule. That screws up the quality, the price, the delivery, and you have to go to the customer and try to work with him and explain. When you get in a jam, you need to bring all the people involved in it, including the customer, possibly, and figure it out. You have to sit down and develop a plan to be able to rectify yourself. Hopefully, you can do that without too much financial impact that may be negative on the program.
Lauren: For building those relationships, is it all about wining and dining, or is there more to it than that?
Robin: Well, that's part of it because to get the person to be able to look at your product, you have to do that in some sort of format, and it may be a graphic piece of paper you show him. You always try to get him to come to your location and tour your factory to prove it. Throw out the red carpet. I mean pick him up at the airport, get him in a nice hotel, buy him the best steak in town or whatever, and have him meet all the people in your factory that is involved in his product, and make him feel wanted. When you do that, that relationship is more solidified. It's becoming more and more difficult now as I understand it to the wining and dining, but I can tell you that the people that are at the top in all these big companies, they love it. They just don't want their lieutenants to do it.
Lauren: On this podcast, we talk a lot about hard seasons and overcoming hard seasons. I know that 2001 was a really hard year for everyone in aviation because of 9/11. I know NORDAM had to go through a lot of layoffs. Can you talk more about that time?
Robin: Yes, 9/11 affected the whole world's economy negatively, and when that affects negatively, you had people that didn't want to fly airplanes because four of them went down, and therefore, half of our business is related to the airplane community. We get paid when they fly and fill up those airlines. People quit flying, so therefore, the airplanes became grounded because there were empty seats. That affects us. The business chest were same way. The economy goes down, the people don't have the money to be able to buy a new airplane, so they don't. Cessna doesn't get their airplane order, they offload it on us as a vendor. It's a trickle-down effect. How do you deal with that? You gotta get your team together. You gotta modify your 10-year plane, which everybody should have a written plan. If you don't, the bankers are going to require it at some point. You gotta pare down. You gotta think of everything you can to save money, and you gotta continue to go out there and look for new products to replace those, and that's probably the most difficult because it takes capital investment to be able to develop new programs and processes when your business is down and you don't have that. You got the old relationship back going with your bankers or your investors. Relationship is so key. We were never known as an engineering manufacturing company in our industry. We were known as a marketing company. People just couldn't understand that because everybody had known us as manufacturing goods, but to get to manufacture goods, you have to market and you have to develop those relationships. It all comes out to what to one thing: Nothing happens until somebody sells something. Then it's a trickle down to be able to start making it.
Lauren: You left the company in 2003, but NORDAM is still a family-owned company. Your niece is the CEO. Your son and other nieces and nephews also still work for NORDAM. Tell us a little bit about their transition from one generation to the next.
Robin: I would say it's been extremely difficult. They have chosen to do something different, and they have chosen not to have some of the old timers around to assist in the transition or be a part of that, and as it worked, the company is not as big as it was.
Lauren: Why do you think that is?
Robin: Why is it not as big as it was? I think they've become more of a financial-oriented company rather than a marketing company. As far as transiting the leadership of a business, I would say that personalities always get involved. People think that they know better than some of the old timers. That would not be my method of approach. My method of approach is milk the old guys that know as long as you can, and if you don't like the price that they've earned for being there for 30 years, they'll probably negotiate a cheaper price to hang around part-time.
Lauren: I've heard through The Grapevine that you're working on a memoir. True or false?
Robin: I'm writing a book of my life right now. I probably got another year of that. I've been working this year, 1,700 all year, and it's bringing back old stories like the Japanese sushi in my sock. There's many stories like that from all walks of life. I'm a big game hunter, and I've got lots of stories, out in the bush of Africa and everything. One time, there was a salesman who wanted to take me on a deal to try to close. We had a company airplane. I've always been a guy that wants people to show up on time, and this guy was always late. He's not there on time. This was his first airplane ride with the boss on the company airplane, and he's 20 minutes late, so I left. He never got to go. We did the deal without him, put another person over that because he didn't show up, and he was never late again.
Lauren: Well, the question that we like to end every episode with is what encouragement would you give entrepreneurs who are trying to grit their teeth and grow their business? What would you leave them with?
Robin: Hard work. Make sure you're doing things ethically and morally correct. If you don't, there'll be repercussions, and that's called justice. Understand what justice means. If you do this the right way, it may cost you a little. If you do it the wrong way, it's going to cost you more. Understand the importance of loyalty. If you're going to buy into a company or a product or relationships, be loyal to them. Make all of you understand what the final goal is and how to get there. Be loyal and work hard as a team together to be able to accomplish what your plan said. Understand the role of change. Change is not necessarily bad. Understand what that change will do to you, your compadres, your products, your company. It may be healthy. Understand sportsmanship. When you may get beat by your competitor, and he did it fairly, and you just weren't good enough, that's okay. You're going to have to improve yourself. You're going to have to gather your team together to understand you lost legitimately, and so don't blame it on your competitor. Maybe you'll learn from that, and therefore, be a better sports for it. Listen to others. Some people don't like to listen. Listening is the best attribute that you may have to be able to gain knowledge from the marketplace, the customer, the competitor. Listen to what they have to say because it might be really valuable. Always communication hardware and software has changed our life. People don't write anymore. They type it on an email and send it. I would suggest do all. I do this myself. Send a written note to someone once a week. It doesn't take two minutes and the cost of a stamp, but you won't believe how much reaction you will get from sending a note, a thing that we've lost because of the new method of communication.
Lauren: You're right. That does go really far. Well, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. This has been such a treat. I've so enjoyed it, so thanks for coming in.
Robin: Thank you very much.
Lauren: Next week on The F Word.
Adrienne: I think some people kind of get scared away by these hundred-pound, thousand-pound gorillas that, how could I even start this business? There's already this huge competitor.
Lauren: Adrienne Kallweit, the founder of the national franchise SeekingSitters, talks about fighting to set herself apart from her competitors.
Dustin: The F Word is brought to you by 36 Degrees North, Tulsa's base camp for entrepreneurs. To learn more about our workspace, community, and resources, visit 36n.co. The F Word season one is recorded at KOSU Studio, hosted by Lauren King, and produced by Julie Combs.