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Donor Spotlight: Alan and Robyn Roberts

April 10, 2014
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Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

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THE COUPLE BEHIND THE 'COPTER

Alan and Robyn Roberts take business and Aggie recruiting to new heights

by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

Alan Roberts often rolls his eyes mockingly when he hears the term. Roberts, the chair-elect of the 12th Man Foundation and the founder of Giddings-based Pumpco, Inc., doesn’t “do” Twitter and doesn’t have time to read Internet message boards.

Nevertheless, he and his wife, Robyn, are well aware of the social media hashtag and the nickname because they have heard about it numerous times from others. Truthfully, the typically understated couple are amused by it, but they just want to make sure that everyone knows they did not actually create the moniker.

That’s just not their style.

Alan, a 1979 graduate of Texas A&M, refers to the maroon helicopter he owns by its model number, the “Bell 429.” But practically every other Aggie who follows recruiting calls it the “#SwagCopter,” which has taken a life of its own since A&M head football coach Kevin Sumlin first used it to take his recruiting efforts—literally—to new heights.

Roberts offered A&M assistant coach Clarence McKinney use of the $5.4 million helicopter when the Aggies’ staff needed to make the absolute best use of their time in recruiting. Sumlin initially took Roberts up on his offer prior to the first game of the 2012 season against Florida.

Houston St. Pius X was playing Sealy in a Thursday night, nationally televised game on ESPN. Sumlin was particularly interested in making a strong, positive impression on Sealy wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and St. Pius quarterback Kohl Stewart.

He hopped in the chopper after A&M’s afternoon practice, and the pilot flew past the rush-hour traffic on Highway 290, circled the crowded stadium and landed the helicopter at a nearby baseball field. Sumlin later appeared on the sideline of the football game.

"Robyn and I both feel very strongly about what young people can learn from being part of a team...That’s why we feel so good about donating our time and money to the 12th Man Foundation in support of athletics."

- Alan Roberts '79

Not surprisingly, both Jones and Stewart eventually signed with the Aggies.

“We practiced that Thursday and by just sheer need to get to the game, there’s only one way to do it,” Sumlin said at a press conference in November 2013. “You can’t drive; it’s in north Houston, and you can’t get through north Houston at 6 in the evening because of traffic. You can’t fly into Bush, because you have the same problem with traffic. But if you land at the baseball field right next to it, you don’t have that issue.

“The ability to go to a practice until 6 and get into that stadium (in Houston) in less than an hour is unbelievable. Or we can get to Dallas in an hour and 40 minutes. People think it’s for show, but it’s also for necessity if you’re going to complete practice with your own team.”

In addition to landing Jones and Stewart, who is playing pro baseball in the Minnesota Twins’ system, Sumlin used the SwagCopter to recruit Kyrion Parker and Tavares Garner in 2013 and Myles Garrett in 2014.

“It seems to be working, because the helicopter is undefeated when it comes to signings and commitments,” Sumlin joked. “We’re going to keep it going, I know that.”

On National Signing Day in February 2014, the Roberts’ helicopter was also drawing attention in Austin. When asked about Sumlin and the A&M recruiting presence that has included the head-turning, attention-grabbing helicopter, Texas coach Charlie Strong dismissed the idea of an aerial arms race.

“The university (of Texas) speaks for itself,” Strong said. “We don’t need gadgets. We’re not going to be a gadget program.”

Alan Roberts laughs at the notion that his helicopter would be considered a “gadget.” To him, it is primarily a valuable tool for his pipeline business, allowing him to travel long distances and to remote locations in a short time.

But the successful entrepreneur is also delighted that Sumlin and his staff are using it to help the Aggies build a team that may soon contend for a national championship.

Another one of Roberts’ “tools” has already played a major role in helping the Aggies win a national title in another sport. Roberts and former A&M women’s basketball assistant coach Vic Schaefer would often take Roberts’ airplane to Kansas City to recruit Danielle Adams, the star of A&M’s run to the 2011 women’s basketball national championship.

“It’s really nice to be able to help the various programs,” said Roberts, who was raised in Refugio near the Texas Gulf Coast. “In Vic Schaefer’s case, he really didn’t like to fly. So, we would go together, and while he would talk to the player and the family, I'd typically hang out with the pilot or do some work. Then we would fly back. We’d stop in Dallas for dinner at a place like Pappas Steakhouse and then we’d drop him off back in College Station.

“Robyn and I both feel very strongly about what young people can learn from being part of a team. That’s why we really wanted our daughters (Jennifer, a 2013 A&M graduate, and Allyson, a current A&M student) to play sports through high school. That’s also why we feel so good about donating our time and money to the 12th Man Foundation in support of athletics. It’s not just about wins and losses, although those things are very important. It’s also about the intangible qualities you develop and the lessons you learn on those fields and courts that will benefit you the rest of your life. Those traits can be extremely valuable.”

The Roberts have certainly been extremely valuable difference-makers in Texas A&M’s evolution as an athletic department. Fairly early in Gary Blair’s tenure in Aggieland, the Roberts and other donors were invited by the 12th Man Foundation to accompany the A&M women’s basketball team to Oklahoma, where the Aggies were playing the Sooners.

The facilities at OU left an indelible impression on the Roberts.

“When we were asked by the 12th Man Foundation to join the team on a trip to Oklahoma, we were very excited,” said the very personable Robyn Roberts, Class of ’89, who coached both of her daughters in basketball for many years. “We were allowed to tour the Oklahoma facilities before the game, and we saw that Oklahoma had a commitment to basketball that was at a totally different level than what we had at A&M at the time.

“During that trip, we got to know Coach Blair and Vic Schaefer, and we saw the vision for what A&M could be. As we learned about the vision for a future basketball facility at A&M, we just felt like it was a win-win situation because it’s something we feel good about supporting. We know the value of athletics and teamwork, and we want to see Texas A&M basketball be as successful as it can be.”

"We know the value of athletics and teamwork, and we want to see Texas A&M basketball be as successful as it can be."

- Robyn Roberts '89

The Roberts did their part, making a seven-figure gift toward the Cox-McFerrin Center for Aggie Basketball. Fittingly, the women’s practice gym is now named for Robyn and Alan Roberts, who have taken great delight in the Aggies’ rise to national prominence in women’s basketball.

The Roberts didn’t stop with that one major gift to women’s basketball. They also contributed a major gift to the complete renovation of Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park, and the couple recently contributed one of the lead gifts to the redevelopment of Kyle Field by purchasing the rights to one of the Founders Suites.

“The redeveloped Kyle Field is going to be great,” Alan said. “We’re really excited about our suite and how we can use it, and I thank God I’m blessed enough that I can participate. We’re also excited about what is happening across the campus. Texas A&M is riding a wave of momentum, and I think we are seizing the moment.

“It takes a lot to recruit those kids, and the new Kyle Field is definitely going to give us an edge. It’s going to inspire a lot of great kids to come to Texas A&M.”

Roberts is quite inspiring in his own right. The youngest of three boys in his family, Roberts graduated with a BBA in accounting in 1979 and then took a job with a CPA firm in Victoria for two years.

Roberts said he was terribly bored in that role, and he decided to quit. He still vividly recalls the day he told his parents about that decision.

“My dad was furious,” recalled Alan, who has been honored previously by Texas A&M’s Mays Business School as Distinguished Alumni. “He never had a college education, and he was not happy I was giving up on my degree field. My dad was a welder. I had worked as a welder’s helper from the time I was 15, and I was convinced I could do something on my own by doing repairs on oilfield stuff. I would leave Victoria at 5:00 a.m., drive 90 miles to Giddings and get there between 6:30 and 7. This was during the Austin Chalk boom, and I would pick up donuts and just go from door to door looking for work from the oil companies.

“I had a used pickup, and I did every job I could find. I would build a fence, make repairs or whatever else I could find. I spent about four months driving from Victoria to Giddings every day until I finally moved to Giddings. A friend had a 24-foot trailer, and I stayed there with two or three other guys.”

From those humble beginnings as an oilfield service company, Pumpco, Inc. has become a giant in the pipeline construction industry. Over the years, Pumpco has flourished both in the territory it covers and services it provides to the oil and gas industry.

Pumpco now has more than 1,000 full-time employees, and the payroll in 2012 surpassed $78 million.

Roberts now owns several companies and does work across the country. He is currently involved with projects in North Dakota, Wyoming and Louisiana after completing projects in Oklahoma and New Mexico. He also does as much work as possible in the Lone Star State.

Alan and Robyn say there have been many memorable moments in the growth of both their business and their family…including one that occurred at the same time.

On a critical day in 1993, Alan prepared for an important meeting that would help take the company from 100 employees to 350. As Roberts prepped for the 11 a.m. meeting that would kick-start what was then the biggest job in the organization’s history, his mind raced with anticipation and butterflies churned excitedly in his stomach.

"The redeveloped Kyle Field is going to be great. We’re really excited about our (Founder's) suite and how we can use it, and I thank God I’m blessed enough that I can participate."

- Alan Roberts '79

This was expansion day.

Meanwhile, back in Pumpco’s home office in Giddings, Robyn also began to realize—judging by the tightening sensation in her midsection—that this was an exciting day for growth. Robyn wasn’t experiencing pre-meeting jitters; she was enduring labor contractions.

The business manager side of her was tempted not to call Alan. At least not until after the meeting.

“I remember my coworker saying, ‘Robyn, your contractions are two hours apart, and you have an hour drive to the hospital in Austin. Get outta here now,’” Robyn recalled. “Well, I ended up calling Alan as he was going into the meeting and telling him, ‘I wish I could wait, but I think it’s the day.’”

Indeed, it was. Allyson, the couple’s second daughter, was born later that evening. The family grew. So did the company.

It was partly because of the growth of the company and his family in the early 1990s that Alan began looking into purchasing a plane and/or a helicopter. He began taking helicopter pilot lessons in 1994, but Robyn soon convinced him to look at other options.

“We made a family resolution,” said Robyn. “I said, ‘If you can afford the toys, then you are going to have to afford an operator.’ He thinks too much about business, and he gets distracted with a phone call or an issue. He won’t be thinking about the flying. You need someone to just do the flying.

“To me, we bought these airplanes and helicopters for transportation to have him home at night safely because he was leaving at 4 in the morning to drive to Dallas or somewhere. In the early ’90s, he’d be driving early in the morning, and I would wake up and talk to him on his old mobile phone from the house phone just to make sure he didn’t fall asleep. For me, the helicopter is about his safety and my peace of mind. But like many other things, it has evolved over time. I’m happy we can use some of the tools to help Texas A&M.”

So is Kevin Sumlin. And Gary Blair. And Aggie fans everywhere.



Follow the 12th Man Foundation on Twitter @12thManFndtn and Rusty Burson @12thManRusty

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