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Former fighter pilot talks business with Durham students

A former fighter pilot jetted into Durham University Business School to talk to students about his transition from the cockpit to the boardroom.

Dan Robinson was invited to speak to Masters students about how his high-flying career in the air force helped shape him to take over the family business after his father’s sudden death.

The 37-year-old, who spends his time between New York and Hartlepool, is now chairman and chief executive of North East construction company Gus Robinson Developments and was happy to share his experiences.

He told students: “Flying a jet fighter can be like playing five different computer games at once whilst holding numerous conversations simultaneously. Ultimately, it’s about processing multiple inputs of information, prioritising quickly and making sensible decisions.

“Much like business, you are required to make a series of decisions based on the information that you have available at that time. These decisions ultimately have to be aligned to your ultimate goal. It’s about a series of small steps that lead to a much bigger effect.”

Dan, who is the only non-American to fly the F-22 Raptor, spent 13 years in the Royal Air Force and US Air Force before leaving to undertake an MBA at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

From there he went to work with an asset management company in New York before returning to take over the family business in 2011 following his father’s untimely suicide.

He explained: “That was the worst two weeks of my life. I had a lot going on in New York when I got a call from my father asking me to take over the business. I told him I had to go to the hospital about a broken shoulder but would jump on a plane in a couple of days’ time.

“Sadly the next day he took his own life. He had been battling manic depression all of his life, which his family knew about but outwardly it wasn’t common knowledge.”

Since his father’s death, Dan has helped to restructure Gus Robinson Developments with a clear focus on larger-scale building projects particularly within the social housing sector. The business, which was founded in 1975, has an exceptional community ethos and its own charitable foundation which works with young people to improve their skills and aspirations.

Dan added: “I took over a business which needed over-hauling from top to bottom. We had an excellent reputation for quality work and great people and that has never changed. But the structure of the company and its strategy needed thoroughly changing and that has what has been happening for the past two years.

“Now we are in as healthy a position as we have ever been in and are winning some fantastic work, particularly here in the North East where we have been working on building quality sustainable housing, schools projects as well as some major maintenance contracts.

“Although things are still tough in the economic climate, we are continuing to strengthen our position.”

Dan addressed Masters students at Durham University, many of who are hoping to pursue their own careers within business management.

Professor Ian Stone, head of the Centre for Entrepreneurship at Durham University, said: “The students have been learning about organisational structures and how the entrepreneur fits in to lead and inspire.

“Dan’s talk was excellent and really brought to life the theory behind what the students have been studying. His story is inspirational not just in terms of what he has achieved as a fighter pilot, but as a business leader who helped bring together an organisation at a very low ebb, to engage staff and stimulate growth.”

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