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From A Loft With A View

For the past six years Ken Read's office has been the world, but now the world comes to his office. Working at North Sails is pretty different from sailing a Volvo Ocean Race.

June 19, 2013
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Ken Read at PUMA's nav station

Ken Read at PUMA’s nav station

Having traded in his nav station onboard PUMA Ocean Racing’s mar mostro, the author is now riding the pine of a four-legged desk at North Sails in Rhode Island. Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

In January, I walked into my new office on Thames Street in Newport, R.I., and started my first day of 9-to-5 work in six years. The first thing I did was surf the Internet. I checked to see where the Vendée Globe guys were, what the Volvo Ocean Race was up to, and what the latest gossip was in the America’s Cup. I was “in” the office, sporting a new big title on my business card, President, North Sails Group, but my mind out was still “out there.” Was I really ready to leave my high seas workplace for the full-time responsibility of leading the world’s largest sailmaking company?

In 1996, Dan Neri and I sold our sailmaking company to North Sails and began a crazy 17 years that have come full circle to us sitting next to each other in the office again, albeit on a slightly grander stage. Long gone are the days of the two of us managing 15 employees in a little loft with a small turnover. When we joined North, Dan went one way in the company and I went the other. He became involved with the manufacturing activities for the company and eventually lived in Minden, Nev., for six years overseeing the “3D” plant, which makes all the 3Di, as well as the larger 3DL sails currently distributed around the world. I, on the other hand, gravitated toward the selling, servicing, and sailing side of the company. I could make a case that Dan has had as much to do with product advancement in sailmaking as anyone in the world over the past decade. As Dan was busy creating and refining North’s key technology, I was globe hopping, taking four separate sabbaticals from North Sails to compete in two America’s Cups and two Volvo Ocean Races.

Leaving the grand-prix sailing scene behind was a major decision in my life, one I did not take lightly. I had to convince myself that I would be happy returning to a more traditional work environment. As difficult as it was at the time, racing around the planet with PUMA was as rewarding as anything I have done in my career. Being an ambassador for a team and the sport was a phenomenal opportunity, which only made my decision to reenter the “real world” all that much more difficult.

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If it weren’t for the opportunity I’ve been given, I’d probably be in the beginning stages of another Volvo campaign, or in the midst of some other great racing adventure. I consider my new job one of the best in the marine industry. I get to wave the flag for sailing and work with really smart people, like Dan, every day. The challenges of running a company this size are immense, but because I was a customer of this company through both Volvo campaigns, I got a perspective that most people never get to see with the company for which they work. I can relate to the importance of reinforcing how the customer must always come first, how the products must reflect what is great about sailing, and how everyone in the marine industry must create products that add value to the experience for all sailors. We are in the entertainment business, competing for our clients’ free time and attention.

There are many more races I hope to do, but I’ll do them wearing an official North Sails hat. After more than 30 years in the sailmaking business, outgoing North Sails Group president Gary Weisman decided it was time to go off and catch as many fish as is humanly possible. He has helped build a small sailmaking business into an amazing technology company, so he deserves every fish he can land.

Fortunately my new job doesn’t come with any chains attached to my desk. In my first month I was able to get out on the water to look at new sails on the 137-foot J Class Hanuman. Then, I went to play with my new Marstrom 32 catamaran in Miami. Before heading back to shovel my house out of the big blizzard of 2013, I spent time with a bunch of young Olympic hopefuls at the ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami. Talk about a breath of fresh air. It was great to see kids fresh out of college, sailing because they love it.

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Back in Newport, our first visitor to the new office was designer Bill Tripp, who stopped by to talk about his new 46-foot Hinckley project, as well as his latest megayacht design—a 280-foot ketch for which we’re making the sails. Then in walks Stu Johnstone to talk about the exploding J/70 class, and from off the street came a few crazy friends from the local Laser frostbite fleet, each of whom should have their head examined. Sure, they’ve pestered me to come sailing, but I politely say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Only a couple months into my new job, I’m starting to see the wisdom of my decision: Here I am, part-time skippering a desk, part-time navigating through the sailing world with eyes wide open. Plus, it feels great to be sitting next to my old business partner again, trying to improve the sport one sail at a time.

Click here to read more from Ken Read’s Gaining Bearing Column.

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