Larry Roberts is senior vice president of Bell Helicopter’s Commercial Business. He spoke with Rotor & Wing just prior to Heli-Expo about what to expect in the coming months from the longtime helicopter manufacturer.
Rotor & Wing: Our March cover story features the headline, “Battling Back,” and talks about how Bell is striving to regain ground in the commercial market. What does “battling back” involve and how does Bell plan to do this?
Roberts: The best word that I can use to explain that is re-engage. We’re re-engaging the market, we’re re-engaging customers, we’re re-engaging our workforce, our engineering, our sales and marketing. We are trying to rev-up Bell Helicopter as a company to become a player in the commercial sector. And that means to continue our excellence in support services, but we recognize that also means improving the current products and looking for ways to bring new products to market. Going back into the world as well, and re-engaging our independent representative network to make sure that they are together with us, walking hand-in-hand, to address the needs and concerns of our commercial customers. We’re not waiting for customers to come to us—we’re going out to the market now and engaging our customers in their back yard.
Rotor & Wing: How long has this effort being going on?
Roberts: I think that it started with the arrival of [President & CEO] John Garrison. This is John’s vision. … Letting people know that we are here, we’ve been here, we’re going to be here—and that we still are Bell Helicopter, committed to people we have flying and bringing them new technologies and products.
Rotor & Wing: The article also describes how Bell’s foothold in the commercial market has decreased in recent years. What do you attribute this to and what’s been done to reverse this?
Roberts: Several factors. Number one, focusing on a very labor-intensive, investment-intensive program like the V-22, and also another big program like the H-1. With a very large military customer in the U.S., it took a lot of attention. We focused a lot on military and not so much on commercial. We relied too much on a very large installed base to carry our flag. And we did not put enough emphasis on developing product and staying connected with commercial customers. When you do that, the commercial market will go elsewhere. Not only did we create an opportunity for customers to leave Bell, we had competitors that understood this and took advantage of it. As we come back today and recognize that we have to have a balanced business, and the commercial market has to play a big part in that. We recognize that we have to go back … and make people aware that Bell is still in the game, still very much committed to product and support, and to demonstrate that by bringing new product upgrades, new products, and thinking about new products for the market.
Rotor & Wing: Please provide an update on the Bell 429. How has the market responded to it?
Roberts: The market has responded admirably to the aircraft. It really is a pilot’s machine … and we’re satisfied with the performance we’ve built into the aircraft. To date, we’ve delivered about 22 machines, and we’ve sold out Block 1. The initial block was 33 helicopters—they’re all sold and we’re selling into Block 2. We expect that by the end of 2011, we will have delivered, in total, somewhere between 70 and 80 aircraft.
Rotor & Wing: How many are involved with Block 2? What about 2012?
Roberts: Block 2 will be roughly a 50-helicopter run.  is a little far out considering that we’re just getting into the HAI [Heli-Expo 2011 orders]—we’re going to see what happens with the economy if it turns. But it’s not going to stop our efforts to promote and demonstrate the helicopter around the world.
Rotor & Wing: Anything new with the 206L?
Roberts: It’s important for us to keep an entry-level helicopter inexpensive and uncomplicated. So at this stage of the game, there are no plans to change anything on the 206L4.
Rotor & Wing: Since joining Bell in March 2010, what are your observations about the company?
Roberts: From the commercial side, we know that when you look at the V-22, it’s marvelous technology, and I think a lot of people don’t realize the technological advancements that Bell has made with the V-22. Unless you’ve been up close to one, you don’t really realize what it will do and what the machine entails. I was fortunate enough to be in Amarillo watching the V-22 a couple months back and was just amazed at the wrap-up of technology that’s embodied in it. So when I look at what we have with the V-22 and the [AH-1] Cobra—and you look at how that could possibly transpose to the commercial side—you see that Bell truly is a sleeping giant when it comes to utilizing some of the military technology we’ve developed over on the commercial side. The potential to bring that technology to the commercial customer is significant, and provides an awful lot of opportunity.
The second perspective I have is that Bell has very good people, talented engineers. Technology is alive and well at Bell. There are a significant number of talented people that just want an opportunity to run. Our job—my job is to try to connect those capabilities and people with the commercial operators and their demands, and good things will happen. In the past I don’t think that connectivity was probably there, but under [President & CEO] John Garrison’s leadership and the freedom he’s given us to try to connect those two, there will be some very good things on the horizon for our customers.
We continue to work on the golden have-to-haves in the commercial sector. Range, payload, speed, maintenance and safety continue to rule the world. We have significant capabilities at Bell to provide significant advantages in those areas to our commercial customers. We’re going to do that in the next few years.