Charles W. Robinson has a new type of boat for sale. She's called the M80 Stiletto, and she looks like something out of a Batman movie. Her distinctive double-M–shaped hull, made of tough carbon fiber, gives her a top speed of 50 knots (about 60 mph) and a smooth ride in the roughest of seas. Robinson says her agility and stealthy profile make her ideal for Navy SEAL operations in shallow coastal waters. And at $6 million, she's a bargain by military-industrial standards. "There's a great video of her on YouTube," he adds, speaking by phone from his home office in Santa Fe, N.M.
Born in Long Beach, Calif., and reared on a ranch in the Mojave Desert, Robinson graduated from UC–Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in international economics; he then went to the United States Naval Academy, where he excelled in marine engineering. His subsequent service aboard the USS Tuscaloosa took him to Normandy on D-Day, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Still he found opportunities to tinker, like the time he cobbled together an elaborate, unauthorized ice-making machine for his crewmates in the cruiser's storage room. (His superiors were not amused.) The inventive streak continued while he was working in his first job after business school at Golden State Dairy Products. One of his early ideas was for a more efficient type of grain harvester; another was for an ill-fated aerosol product called Nucaroma — new car smell in a can.
Looking back, he says, "I had a great advantage — I was never handicapped by experience." That was particularly true in 1952, when he moved to Peru to launch the Marcona Mining Co., an iron ore operation financed by Cyprus Mines and Utah Construction (the latter led by the late Ed Littlefield, MBA '38). As Robinson recalls in his 2005 memoir, Uncharted Seas, "Neither [of the parent companies] had operated in Latin America, nor had they been involved in international iron ore mining, so they could bring to bear no experience. They looked to me to figure it out on my own." Within four months of his arrival in Peru, Robinson's team had constructed a mine, a port in nearby San Juan, an airstrip, a paved road, and a new town for the mine workers. After a year, the operation had generated enough cash to return the entire initial investment.
Robinson's next goal was to reduce shipping costs so that he could sell iron ore more profitably to burgeoning markets in Japan and Europe. Brushing aside skeptics, he sought financing and commissioned a fleet of ships, at bargain prices, from emerging Japanese steel makers. The enormous vessels — up to 10 times the size of World War II–era Liberty cargo ships — enabled him to deliver iron ore and other raw materials back to Japan for a small fraction of the previous rates. By the late 1960s Marcona was running the largest dry cargo shipping operation in the world and using the profits to launch new mining operations in Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, and India.
While Robinson was busy building his company, he also was gaining a reputation in diplomatic circles as an authority on Latin America. In 1974, shortly before Marcona was expropriated by the Peruvian government, he received a surprising phone call from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asking him to be undersecretary for economic affairs. Although Robinson was hesitant to leave Marcona at such a critical time to work under such a strong personality, he accepted the appointment. Later, as deputy secretary of state, he took heat for proposing a controversial price-stabilizing moratorium on U.S. grain shipments to the Soviet Union. Yet he also took pride in the goodwill he fostered with heads of state, particularly in Iran, the Philippines, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
After leaving the State Department, Robinson worked in investment banking and developed property in New Mexico. His current venture began 10 years ago over dinner in Venice, Italy, where he and his wife of 54 years, Mara, own a 16th-century palazzo. Sitting at the table were representatives of the Venetian transportation authority, and they had a problem. It was becoming obvious that the bow waves of high-powered water taxis and passenger ferries (vaporetti) were eroding the historic buildings lining the city's famous canals. Did Robinson know someone who could design a vaporetto that wouldn't leave trouble in its wake?
Robinson put down his wine glass, requested a napkin, and began to draw. During his time at Marcona, he'd taken a keen interest in the design of his mega-ships, from their massive stems to their 30-foot-diameter propellers. He had 10 patents alone for a system to flush iron ore slurry from their hulls. More recently, he formed a partnership with sailing enthusiasts in California to improve the design of world-class racing yachts. One of his ideas was for a hull that could capture the bow wave and channel aerated water directly under the craft, lifting it higher and making it go faster.
Robinson realized that a similar approach could be perfect for a new kind of passenger ferry. Shortly after returning to the United States — at the age of 82 — he recruited Bill Burns, a young naval architect out of UC–San Diego, to help him launch a small marine design firm called Mangia Onda, or "wave eater" in Italian. (Later the name was shortened to the more American-sounding M Ship Co.) Its first major vessel, a 150-passenger vaporetto, was delivered to Venice with much fanfare in 2001.
Around the same time, the Pentagon's post-9/11 Office of Force Transformation (OFT) announced that it was shopping for speedy "littoral combat ships" that could be used in strategic waterways close to shore. Putting two of their patented M-hulls together laterally, Robinson and his colleagues came up with a prototype for the M80 Stiletto and delivered it for $6 million, far below the price of vessels made by traditional military contractors. Time magazine was so impressed that it named the M80 Stiletto the Best Military Invention of 2006.
Today the sleek gray prototype is being used in the Caribbean for drug interdiction. "The sailors love her, she's so cool-looking," Burns notes, sitting in his glass-walled conference room overlooking San Diego's waterfront. Yet persuading the Pentagon to buy more M Ship Co. vessels has not been easy. Shortly after the Stiletto's debut, the OFT director died and the Bush-era operation quietly was shuttered, leaving the Stiletto without her biggest boosters. "Just before Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski passed away he took a tour on the prototype and said he would stand behind her as long as he could," Burns notes sadly. "If he were here today, you'd see a fleet of these in the water, because they work really well."
After a lifetime of business travel, Robinson is a study in old- fashioned efficiency. He carries no PDA or laptop — indeed, he doesn't use a computer at all. His traveling clothes fit into one small briefcase. High-level contacts are written on a sheet of paper in his breast pocket. If he wants to communicate with colleagues at M Ship Co., he telephones or writes a letter and has it faxed. "I probably speak with him three times a day," Burns notes, "and he'll write me a one- or two-page memo maybe three times a week: 'Here's how I think we should be going forward; please give me your feedback.' We do that for everything, from boat designs to business strategies. It's an old-school approach that I like, actually — though it would be great to shoot him an email or a link once in a while."
In addition to his work at M Ship Co., Robinson is the father of three grown daughters and has served on the boards of numerous corporations and nonprofit organizations, including Nike, Northrop, Pan American Airways, Arthur D. Little, the Allen Group, Fireman's Fund, Del Monte Foods, Crocker Bank, Homestake Mining, Clark Oil, the Trilateral Commission, Mills College, the Brookings Institution, and the Presidents' Circle of the National Academy of Sciences. He also served twice on the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, where he was an early and ardent proponent of courses dealing with globalization and entrepreneurship.
Robinson credits his remarkable energy to four factors: a bit of exercise every day, even if he's in a hotel room; ample sleep; a light diet; and lots of red wine. "Also," he adds laughing, "you should make a careful search to select parents with longevity genes." Perhaps the most important factor in his lifelong success, though, has been a willingness to take risks. He's coined a phrase for the philosophy: management by self-imposed crisis. "If you're afraid of failure, you'll never make progress," he explains. "I try to project the way the world is going to be five years from now, and then I proceed to develop a business approach on that basis." Retirement, he says, can wait.
"I want to be just like him!" says Nike Inc. cofounder and chairman Phil Knight, MBA '62, who has known Robinson since 1971. "The fact that he's still going strong at this age, that's inspirational in and of itself. But prior to that, he was one of the two best mentors I ever had. He gave a lot of good advice to the company and to me personally, and then he was very successful in his own life, both in business and as the number-two man in the State Department. So he's been inspirational all the way."
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