ed cooley

In Praise of Persistence

Written by Max Lyons, this piece first appeared in Rotor Magazine’s Spring 2016 issue during Lyons’ time as chairman of Helicopter Association International’s Board of Directors.

I would like to share a story with you…

27 years ago, I was ferrying a new helicopter from Texas to Oregon. My companion was its owner. During the flight, I asked him what the secret to his success was. He paused for a moment and then said just one word: “Persistence.”

My associate that day was Edward H. Cooley, CEO and chairman of Precision Castparts Corp. (PCC), based in Portland, Oregon. Then as now, PCC is the world’s leading manufacturer of jet engine castings, blades, and fans. Earlier this year, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway purchased the company for $37 billion.

Ed was a quiet, humble man, much more of a listener than a talker. Managers who worked for him at PCC described his management style as “gentle persuasion.” Prior to his death, I got to know him as a customer, close friend, boss, and mentor.

Ed didn’t start out to manufacture aircraft components. Instead, he had a passion for helicopters.

After serving in World War II, Ed graduated from Harvard with an MBA, writing his final thesis on the future of the helicopter industry. In fact, he was present at the first meeting of the Helicopter Council in 1948, which later became Helicopter Association International. As an engineer and new MBA, Ed looked for a job in the equally new helicopter industry, interviewing with Bell, Piasecki, and Kaman but to no avail.

Unable to land a job with a helicopter manufacturer, Ed accepted a position with Oregon Saw and Chain, which manufactured a revolutionary saw chain for the lumber industry – a far cry from helicopters. Ed later took over the casting division for the company and morphed it into what became Precision Castparts.

In the late 1980s, at 65 years old, Ed showed up at Hillsboro Helicopters to finally resume his lifelong interest in helicopters by getting his helicopter rating. I became his flight instructor and until months later when someone told me who he was, I had no clue that he was one of Oregon’s most prominent businessmen and philanthropists.

In 1991, Ed suggested that he and I should buy Hillsboro Helicopters. I thanked him but turned him down. My dream was to be a pilot, not a businessman.

Ed was persistent, though, and in September of 1992, he and I took over the company. In the late 1990s, my wife, Carol, and I purchased the company, now called Hillsboro Aviation, from the Cooleys.

Ed continued as one of the Hillsboro board members and never lost his interest in improving his flying skills and knowledge. He was still in the process of working toward his commercial and instrument helicopter ratings when he passed away on December 4, 2000, at 78 years old.

As I look back on my life and career and Ed’s influence on it, there are many key lessons that stand out. Among those is the importance of passing on your knowledge by mentoring and coaching the next generation. There is also the art of gentle persuasion – which I haven’t quite yet mastered – and of course being patient and persistent.

When we first met, like most pilots, my mind was set on building my flight time and moving on as quickly as possible. When Ed presented me with the offer to stay, work with him, and run the company, there were many reasons not to. The pay wasn’t great, and at the time, there were many more glamorous positions in the industry, flying bigger, sexier machines in exotic parts of the world.

In the end, I chose to settle down and to be patient, to focus on beginning a family and working every day to build a company, one employee and one brick at a time.

As I approach my fourth decade with Hillsboro, I reflect on all of the challenges that at times made me doubt my ability to navigate through them. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Ed’s voice reminding me to persist, to pursue my goals even when it was difficult to do so.

My suggestion to the next generation is to be patient. Making another dollar an hour or flying a bigger, sexier aircraft is all very alluring But don’t be too quick to jump from job to job.

Find a location that you love and an organization and people that you respect and hopefully love to be around. Work hard, be honest, and be persistent. The money will come later.

I was extraordinarly lucky to have known Ed. He was a great influence in my life, more so because of the way he lived and treated others than for any formal teaching – although he had a profound impact on me in that way as well.

During Ed’s final days, my last conversation with him began, “I want to share a story with you. The story is about a young man who met this older man who became his mentor and friend and how that chance moment changed the younger man’s life.”

I hope each of you is lucky enough to meet your own Ed Cooley and if you do, to recognize that moment for what it is. In the meantime, be persistent…

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  1. wonderful, wonderful essay, Max!!! Thank you! I didn’t realize my Dad had tried to get a job with a helicopter company before landing in Portland at Oregon Saw Chain.
    Again, a wonderful piece that I will save for my children!