La Fonda's Chairman of the Board, Jenny Kimball with Charles W. Robinson
It was my privilege to sit down and talk with innovator and inventor Charles W. Robinson this week. At 92, he holds 44 patents and is at the helm of M Ship Co., a US firm that develops boats with special speed-enhancing hulls, currently being used by the US to track down and intercept drug smugglers in the Caribbean. M Ship Co.’s latest type of boat is the stealthy M80 Stiletto. You can check it out in action on YouTube.
How do you decide what problem you’re going to tackle next?
It starts as an opportunity. Then the more I get into it, serendipity begins to set in encouraging me to move laterally. I can design anything after four glasses of wine; when you’re no longer handicapped by the facts.
You served as the Undersecretary for Economic Affairs for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Are things in the US economy drastically different from your time in Washington?
It will never be what it was 30 years ago. In the last decade we have finally reached a point of non-sustainable debt as we have lived beyond our means; as individuals and the government. Trying to pay off debt will take some time. It’s going to take awhile for everyone to get back to sustainable living; very few people have actually come to face that fact. I’m very concerned about democracy today, because in democracy when you give things away, it is very hard to get things back and as a result our debt has gone up. It has affected our congress, senate and government by encouraging politicians to always look for ways to sustain their campaigns; which in turn makes them more beholden to the views of their supporters. The questions at congressional hearings today are not aimed at getting the answer for us. They’re aimed at establishing their position with their supporters to reinforce their chances of reelection. Instead of enlightening and educating, the questions are to help reelect them. That’s a complete change in attitude from the days when I used to testify before congressional committees.
Regarding my time working with Secretary Kissinger, we fought a good deal, however we developed a deep mutual respect for each other. Then one day Henry came by to ask if I would be his Deputy Secretary, the number two position. I told Henry that I would think about it, which greatly insulted him. After a week Henry called me and said “well, are you still thinking?” I told him then that I would take the position. Several days later we had the traditional swearing in ceremony with 200-300 guests and all of the television companies recording the proceedings. Henry first gave an exaggerated outline of my talents and expressed pleasure at my joining with him in the conduct of foreign policy. It was then my turn to respond. I am still embarrassed by my response. I reported to the crowd that I had delayed a week in accepting Henry’s proposal and I felt that I owed him and all of you an explanation. I said that I spent the time making an in-depth investigation of the job description for Deputy Secretary. I confessed that I had only been able to find that I was to serve as the Secretary’s alter ego. I then looked around the room and stated that his was a hell of a lot of ego to alter. Fortunately Henry has a sense of humor and I survived. When President Carter came into office he suggested that both Henry and I would be happier in some other professions. Henry approached me saying he would like to get into some form of business. He had had no experience in other than academia or politics and said he wanted my help to which I agreed. Shortly later, Henry’s brother Walter, who was a successful businessman, visited him in the State Department and Henry asked me to meet him. Henry suggested that we work together in arranging for his new career in business. Walter and I went to my office and I expressed my concern over Henry’s unfocused efforts in assessing business options. Walter agreed and said that he was having dinner with Henry that night and would emphasize the need to focus his efforts. The next day Henry reported to me that Walter had stressed the need for a focused effort. Henry added, you know I can’t do that so I fired him and told him I would look to you alone for help. Walter and I have laughed over this but I did proceed with all of his business negotiations including a highly profitable consulting agreement with Goldman Sachs and the formation of his own advisory firm, Kissinger and Associates. He asked me to serve as president of that company but I told him that my three years with him had taken 10 years off my life and I couldn’t afford to lose anymore.
In the postscript to your book in 2005, you remained optimistic about the future despite your concern for the widening gap between rich and poor. We’re still talking about that gap and it’s 2012. Are you still optimistic we’ll find the right path?
We have the most serious problem with the economy and it has changed drastically in the last 30 or 40 years. I follow a management philosophy based on self-induced crisis. I feel progress in this world happens when it gets the attention generated in a crisis and you have two choices, wait for someone to create a crisis for you or create your own, which I like better. We must have greater perception in this country of the growing discrepancy between those of us who have and those of us who have not, which lends itself to greater political stress. I’m afraid we might have to go through a crisis that we have not even perceived before we begin to solve this problem. We have not yet had to sacrifice to the extent that we will have to sacrifice to solve this. We have the crisis, we just need greater perception for everyone to follow through in tightening their belts. There will be progress by crisis, which will force the country to recognize the crisis and have the will to fix it.
It was noted in a story I read about you that you don’t use a computer. That probably comes as a shock to the younger generation. How do you stay connected and organized?
I read a lot of newspapers, several a day, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Albuquerque Journal. can easily skim the papers and very quickly determine what is most important, in both US and world events. There is no formula to staying organized. All communication is through fax and phone with my businesses around the world. Opportunities always evolve in a fluid way and I can usually see where any problems may be.
I loved the story about your meeting with President Batista in Cuba on behalf of Utah Construction and President Batista expecting you to pay a bribe (which you did not.)
In 1956 I reached agreement with the president of the Cuban construction company which was our joint venture partner for a project to build a tunnel under Havana Harbor. However he then said you haven’t yet talked to the “boss,” and I’ll have my limo pick you up at 2:00am. After arriving at the house of the construction company president I was told that the “boss” would see me at 4:00 am. Although I was never told who the “boss” was I began to suspect Cuban President Batista. This was confirmed when we arrived at the Palace gate at 4:00am. I waited in the reception area. Then a General tapped my shoulder and said I could go in. I met the President, and we spoke about the weather, and other idle chitchat. I have been stupid at times without trying but this time I was trying to be, very stupid. I began to speak to him about the infrastructure of the project, then after 45 minutes, the President said to me, “Mr. Robinson don’t you have anything else to say to me?” I said, “No Mr. President, I very much appreciate this opportunity to meet with you.” He then pushed a button and called the General to come take me away as soon as he knew we were not going to pay any bribe. As I left, the construction company president asked me how it went, and I said, “Pretty well.” I got back to the hotel, packed my bags, went to the airport and got on the first flight out. I wasn’t going to waste any time to find out if my safety was at issue. There was no way I could engage in illegal bribery.
In your memoir, you share a list of abilities/attributes that one needs when considering a high-level presidential appointment (or running a business.) Your book came out in 2005. Any additions to that list? (Original list: ability to build and work with a team to guide and support programs; willingness to take risks and take responsibility for them; flexibility and a willingness to change course when necessary; willingness to devote all of one’s energy- on call 24 hours a day and 7 days a week – to make sacrifices in one’s personal and family life; and an understanding of the importance of accepting responsibility for failures while sharing with your team the satisfaction of success.)
This is still what I believe and what continues to apply.
Can someone learn to take risks or is risk taking a trait some people are just born with?
Everyone is born with a certain amount of curiosity. Some take their potential and expand on it, others don’t. Two key words that measure your capacity to innovate are, “what if.” As a freshman in college I decided to try chemistry. During a class, there were two chemicals on a shelf above our table; one was the most reactive the other was the most oxidating so I said to myself “what if, I mixed the two together?” Soon, there were sparks flying and then there was an explosion in the basin after I flung the sparking fluid in. I and everyone else soon realized Chemistry was not for me. In any ratio you use to measure your success always remember, you are penalized by the failures more than you are praised for your successes. People associate with me because of my willingness to take risk; it offered them the chance to think more creatively. It’s this type of association that creates innovation. Intelligent risk taking, is accepting that there is a real risk involved. Sometimes we learn more from our failures than our successes.
Do you still wear bow ties?
I have never worn anything but a bow tie, for the last 80 years. I never thought about why I do it, it just seemed right. While at the State Department there was a journalist preparing an article based on his thesis that bow ties were coming back. The writer asked me why I wore them and I responded that no one would ever wear a bow tie if they had any self-doubts. There has to be an element of self-confidence involved.
What is your first memory of Santa Fe?
We had a small opera company in San Francisco providing opportunities to young artists. One of our members had a great tenor voice and we sent him to Germany where he had an opportunity to perform. John Crosby, head of the Santa Fe Opera, heard him and invited him to Santa Fe to sing the lead in “La Traviata.” My wife, Mara, and I made our first visit to Santa Fe for this performance. We were most impressed with the sophisticated cultural life here but after La Traviata we were invited to a local bar called Jimmy’s and Tiny’s. There we found our San Francisco artist strumming a guitar and singing “Danny Boy.” This convinced us that Santa Fe was not only cultural but a great place to relax. Later we moved to DC where I served for three years in the U.S. State Department. After President Carter’s election I moved to New York to become Senior Managing Partner of Kuhn Loeb on Wall Street. To compensate Mara for this added move I bought her a house in Hyde Park Estates in 1977 as a place she could come to by herself when I was occupied on Wall Street or traveling. Then in 1978 we made the move to Santa Fe permanent. In 1979 our newly constructed house in Wilderness Gate was completed and we have been there since.
What one thing identifies Santa Fe as the City Different?
Santa Fe has a cultural life, from the size of the community, beyond anything anywhere in the world; there are outstanding contributors for the museums, universities, and the opera. Mara, primarily due the credit for this recognition, and I were given an award for our contributions to the arts. Mara couldn’t attend the ceremony as she was in the hospital. I accepted on behalf of us both, while speaking to the crowd I thanked everyone and gave them my philosophy on marriage. I told them that every successful marriage involves compromise; Mara’s interest is culture, mine is in sports. Ihave developed a cultural veneer, solely for my wife…….but, she still hates sports!
Mr. Robinson is a fascinating individual, the very definition of an entrepreneur. He served with and brought on to the Nike Board, Tom Paine – Head of NASA, Ralph Pfeiffer, Jr. -Head of IBM International Operations, Jill Ker “Jo” Conway- Smith College President, and Ralph DeNunzio- President of The New York Stock Exchange. Each are all counted among his friends as well. He definitely holds true to his statement that risk takers align themselves with like personalities to create innovation and opportunity for everyone. Interesting Note: Phil Knight and Mr. Robinson both received MBA’s from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Although Phil graduated 15 years later it was through this contact that he requested assistance from Mr. Robinson (he calls him Chuck) in 1971 to resolve a financial crisis in Blue Ribbon Sports – later to become Nike. Chuck arranged for the necessary financing. Later when on Wall Street, Phil met with Chuck and asked him to come on the Nike board. When he found that Nike sales had increased to $60 million annually but there had been no increase in the original capital of $140,000 Chuck said he couldn’t accept unless capital was increased to at least $25 million. Finally, Phil agreed to the increase of $35 million of Class B Stock leaving management completely in Phil’s hands. Chuck served on the Nike board for 33 years and sales have now increased to $24 billion.