CEO da Volvo Ocean Race
[this blog penned during the night, definitely not edited by anyone, or really re-checked by me either…so forgive any errors, omissions and typos!]
Well I guess this day had to come at some point, but I could have never guessed when, or what I would be moving on to either, when I started out in the 1990s.
The OC journey has been an extraordinary one for me, and for many of the incredible people I’ve been honoured to work with over more than two decades.
One of those such people (thanks Charlie) sent me a little ad-hoc list of ‘adventures’ that he’d been through in his own decade+ with me and OC, and I’ve used that as a base to just list some of the ‘moments’ that have shaped us as people and the company, and helped build what became known as the OC spirit (or maybe some things less kind from the outside sometimes!).
OC actually started life as Offshore Challenges, a VAT structure if nothing else for my own sailing projects, initially the Round Britain Race in 1993 on a crazy boat called Maverick 2 up. I was working as Marketing Director for Spinlock at the time, a full-on but very rewarding 6 years, discovering so much about business in general and of course the marine industry around the world, brand, production, communications and marketing (thanks Rodney). Then I stepped up sailing wise to the Mini-Transat in 1997 – what the hell where we getting in to, crazy solo race across the Atlantic in a tiny little boat, inspired by a Brit and ‘owned’ by the French – a meeting of fate with Ellen at London Boat Show in 95 I guess, would lead to us working together. My first real sponsorship (thanks Charles Dunstone – your own world changed a lot too since then, Carphone Warehouse…). My life would take a very different direction as a result of the Mini. Enough material for a book about those early years working together with Ellen and can’t even try to do justice to them here – so you’ll have to wait for the book that I’ll one day write I guess! My after dinner story was always that having beaten Ellen in the Mini (and so I should have done), I quit while I was ahead, and remained one of the few men not to be beaten by her!
In 1998, the extraordinary fight to get the sponsor to take Ellen to the Vendee Globe (oh that first pitch, after all nighter on the video with Dick Johnson, the computer crashed and we had to start again before the meeting that day) – first of all just to the Route du Rhum in a 50 footer – 3 different boats and plenty of drama before we made it with Pete Goss’s yellow 50′, and just enough money from Kingfisher as a test sponsorship to make it (just). Hugh Morrison got us that first meeting – and without him, I doubt OC Sport would exist today – you make your own luck, but people like Hugh are what help you make it happen. A front page picture after a sweet victory (thanks Ed Gorman) in division 2 of the Rhum, and a great team at Kingfisher (thanks Mike H, Joey and of course Geoff), and we got in to the discussion of a Vendee Globe new boat budget. A letter from Geoff (CEO) saying he just couldn’t take on such a responsibility to send Ellen in to the Southern Ocean looked like to have sunk our dream – and a letter back from Ellen and I saying well she’s going anyway, so you’ll feel a lot worse if she goes without the right boat and proper support. The Kingfisher Vendee Globe campaign was born soon after…launched at Shoeless Joe’s in London…Plans of the Merf Owen designed ‘The Fish’ as internally she was know was shown off to the media…
Pippa Blake launch (Peter really was my hero) with the AC legend Bruno Troublé as compere (helped that the Cup was on in Auckland at the time, home of our IMOCA 60 builder Steve Martin), and our friend and designer Merf Owen losing his hair, and off we set with the boat back to Europe – by sea! Bruno Dubois who would play a major part in our story later on with Dongfeng onboard, with an eventually smelly ‘one set of thermals)’ (its another story) Andrew Cape, and Martin the Boat Captain get Ellen going as far as Cape Horn and then jump off on to Pelagic with yours truly waiting at that amazing part of the world. Ellen solo back to UK, quick turnaround, and hey, lets just go and win the OSTAR/The Transat in IMOCA class…MichDesj couldn’t believe it and wouldn’t believe (maybe still, who knows – but its water under the bridge now!) and suggested it probably wasn’t possible without cheating…hmm, he didn’t know Ellen (she simply could never do so), and that only served to motivate the most motivated person I’ve met even more!
An incredible Vendee Globe, another book in itself of course (you can read Ellen’s today, but you’ll have to wait for mine now!), even leading for a fleeting moment over Mich – even if we knew it was just a function of Rene’s maths for distance to finish – it didn’t matter – it was a sweet moment! Extraordinary scenes in Les Sables, and some shitty negative press too – when a story is that good, there is always a journalist or two that wanted to kill the fairy tale with lies. You get used to after a while, but still it hurt at the time!
How to follow that? Well in 2004/5, the solo record attempt really did beat it – in stress, in fatigue, in risk, in media coverage, in genuine achievement, and also in return for our loyal sponsors Kingfisher (B&Q, Castorama), plus a whole bunch of others (BT thanks Kim, Musto thanks Nigel, and Omega being the early ones from the start). Another book, another story, but with some moments that made us cry and would make you too if you knew all the details. A few broken mobile phones my end, as being the human punchbag took its toll as Ellen sailed at her, and the boat’s limit, around the world in her trimaran, nicknamed ‘Moby’, in record time.
But then I’m forgetting a whole bunch of other races that would develop Ellen’s skills, and our own management ones, before the solo record – including one of our bigger fails, at least sporting wise, as we crashed out of the Jules Verne record challenge half way around the world, as Kingfisher 2’s mast broke as far from land as you can be on the planet! But we managed a positive front page of The Times “better to try and fail, than to not try at all”, and even the mast eventually turned up in bits on an Australian beach the following year!
‘The Ellen years’ could never be repeated, an exceptional and unique person, dedicated teams, fantastic partners, and an extraordinary roller coaster ride in every respect. We could have just left it here, but instead Ellen and I decided we would build a company out of these successes – not many do (they are probably wise!) in sailing, preferring instead to start/stop projects as the money flows or not.
At the same time, one of sailing’s most colourful characters had been working away inside our team – Nick Moloney fought his single-handed demons (after a Mini Transat capsize left him swimming under the boat) on the Route du Rhum in 2002 (ah, forgot Ellen scored a great win in the monohulls on that one!) and then the Vendee Globe, and got through the toughest bit under Australia in a big storm (one of those occasions I let the airport gate shut in front of me to the confusion of the staff, and let flight leave without me – “Mark, its Nick, I think I’m going to die”. He survived the storm and made it around Cape Horn, only to come a cropper when keel was ripped off by a container off Brazil. One day trip to Rio for me to get him home (visa complications to get him out!). More emotion packed in Nick than any other sailor I know, and some great memories of the fight to keep forever.
In between of course, we’d also widened OC in to three athletes (the now famous, and Volvo striped, Sam Davies and her first solo campaign in the Figaro, backed by Skandia – thanks Andre and co), and also ‘saved’ The Transat / OSTAR / Transat Anglaise just a few months before the start. I didn’t make it easy for my team at OC – heading off for 2 month trek expedition to the South Pole, and coming back only a few weeks before the start, expecting of course for everything to be perfect:-). OC was now though Multi-athlete and multi-project, now on both team and event side. What a ride The Transat was – taken on at last minute to stop what was the first ever solo ocean race from dying, some loyal support from Omega (if only Anna Kournikova hadn’t been so difficult to handle!!), a big financial loss, but huge emotional and professional gain and pride. Bernard Stamm calling me as the his boat capsized, no longer with a keel on, will be a moment not to be forgotten either. A well deserved win for MichDesj too – all good now then. We had earned some event organiser stripes – most people running teams will never understand just how hard it is to be on the event side!
My then pregnant sister luckily surviving the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka, but not without some major stress, added to an extraordinary winter, good and bad, in 2004/5. Once her and Steve had managed to get home to Thailand, I flew to see them for a day – flying during New Years Eve, with Ellen and Nick both at sea. All on you could say.
A first experience of Asia for real, with a tour of from Japan to Singapore and China in particular as Ellen’s final shot with B&Q (boat and sponsor) in 2006- experiences that would help us later in China for sure, but that would also lead ultimately to the end of the Ellen era – time for her to bail before the constant demand of sponsor funded celebrity (that she never sought) pushed her in to a new and equally passionate domain, and a journey she would lead herself without me. I think looking back we almost certainly stopped at the right time. It was a perfect partnership in many ways, with of course its ups and downs, but a decade was probably always going to be enough for both of us.
2007 and the time leading up to it were massive – with Ellen’s support (we were still 50/50 at OC, putting everything back on the line each time), we created the Barcelona World Race and launched it – nearly killing the company in the process thanks to a certain character in Barcelona (another one for the book), but equally met some great people like Toni Guiu, and we brought iShares in to sailing with the launch of the Extreme Sailing Series – by picking up an idea created by Herb, Daan and Mitch – and bringing it alive which took a lot of effort and money! iShares though was without doubt one of the ‘best’ sponsorships we did that lasted 4 years until Barclays sold them – in that there wasn’t a sailor on the Board, it was a 100% commercially sound sports sponsorship that more than paid its way and even got re-signed at the height of the financial crisis with a queue of people at their office reception picking up redundancy letters when I went to sign our contract extension. Two ground-breaking events that would really help shape the sport going forward to one degree or another (stadium sailing in front of spectators, guests onboard, and plenty more, and in BWR case, an actual circuit even if today its still not managed to make it to maturity it deserves despite Keith’s efforts). But these new events would cost me a lot of hair too – and in real terms energy and thick skin that you can’t grow back easily it seems! Oh, and along the way take a massive risk on building an IMOCA 60 before having all the funds to pay for her…a crazy Spaniard or two thrown in to make it more complicated than we needed, big cashflow crisis in the company, to make it more serious than we needed. Oh and get married at the same time. And hit 40. Really it was a huge year. But OC spirit carried us through, and all three ‘events’ ultimately became successful (wife bit included!). Extreme Sailing Series has weathered many storms and now with my last real input in to the company, the transition to foiling boats has been made – transitions are very difficult for events, but from watching the images from Muscat, it looks like it will work very well. 10 years of a great event, that still pleases and touches new people all over the world each year. Of course it has to always evolve, but those core pillars we created in 2007 are still working very well indeed – and plenty of consequences in the sailing world elsewhere too from them. All good! Lets grow the sport with what we learn, not fight about who thinks they are better…
In parallel in 2008 what seemed like a nutty one day trip to a country I’d barely heard of at the time – Oman – stunning place, and great people – with the ‘General’ putting his faith in us, and us taking a bit of a punt too. We went to see if we could sell Ellen’s boat via an Australian who had somehow ended up in Muscat with connections, and ultimately we ended up helping put sailing in to a new country (without the Aussie) that was virtually boatless at the time. A mind-blowing day where John ‘the machine’ McKenna and I wrote a strategy and presentation for 4 government ministers in 3 hours, presented it in an enormous palace hall while Ellen smoothed the way, and we managed to spark the flame of what would become Oman Sail. Probably one of the most impactful projects, in real human terms, we ever got involved in. And thanks to the General and the later recruited CEO, Oman Sail has become something quite amazing since – from women’s programmes to kids sailing schools, from tourism promotion through top pro international campaigns, to helping to change social attitudes in all sorts of ways. We can’t take credit for much of that delivery, but the start of that project, and the successful round the world trip non-stop with first ever Arab to do so onboard, was yet another OC roller coaster ride that needs a few chapters in that book one day.
Amongst that we also sank our latest IMOCA 60 ‘BT’ and rather than take the insurance money (the boat was under the water off the Azores) we foolishly perhaps did all we could to save her and get to a Vendee start line, but sadly not the finish – maybe this year JoJo you will get your win that you deserve with our Gitana friends! The boat would be rebuilt, sold and would go on to help the career of a well known British sailor that loves his stunts with a 3rd place in the Vendee. The boat was vindicated at last. The human cost of building her had been high at the time, so this was a nice line to draw for us all.
The Transat came around again in 2008, and would bring us together with without doubt one of the best sponsors in terms of human relations that I’ve had the honour to work with – The Artemis Transat and the Artemis Offshore Academy (and a quick TJV project with Sam Davies again in between), have done fantastic things for the depth of solo sailing talent in the UK – via 28 British Figaro entries up to now, and a top rookie win too. The Artemis guys are true gentlemen and women, an absolute pleasure to work with.
In 2010, Ellen was ready to launch her EM Foundation (not to be confused with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, which remains one of our best achievements ever – donate now!), and I was nearly out of gas personally. Enter Remi Duchemin, undoubtedly the most talented businessman in sports that I’ve met. Buy out Ellen and set her free on her new journey, give the shares to Remi, and see him bring in a whole new set of energy, vision and pure ability to make new projects and ideas happen for real, breaking down all the barriers thrown at you on the way. Probably equally for me the start of a long journey towards the day I would leave my own baby – 7 years in the end though since then. With Remi, we were able to take OC in to new territory – initially saving the Geneva Marathon just a few months before it was due to be held (but nothing in place), and then with another event that will stay very close to my heart (and does other nutty things to my own heart rate too) – the Haute Route bike race for amateurs. 7 insane days across the Alps for 250 pioneering riders including me in 2011 (I think!), pushing yourself beyond reasonable limits of suffering – but what a prize to complete it – dragged along by another sailor “Dog” Andrew Palfrey. A tragic loss of life in 2nd or 3rd edition after a crash, but no blame on OC was laid, but still it made us think hard again for sure – such horrible emotions that day and in the weeks that followed. The risks of an event organiser are rarely well understood. But the number of people inspired with this life-changing experience kept on growing, and now 4 different events exist in the toughest mountain ranges of the world. Will probably be the connection for me back to OC for some time to come.
2010 also saw us bring in outside shareholders for the first time – firstly Ernesto B on the Extreme Sailing Series, which helped us take the event global, then some French private equity from Paris (thanks Matignon and Stephane) and expertise from Patrice Clerc (eg ASO / Tour de France and Remi’s previous boss), that moved us on another round of expansion. This would ultimately lead to today’s owners of OC Sport as its now known, taking on a majority stake in 2014 – now over a 100 people working full time. The company is in good majority ownership with the family owned Telegramme Group – and I’m disappointed in many ways to leave them earlier than we all imagined in 2014. The OC Spirit I’m sure is going to live on, the company is now quite big, operating in 15 or more countries each year, in different domains, on events and teams, inshore, offshore, on the flat, and in the mountains. I’m sad to leave a load of people that have been with me for in some cases a decade or more – but its in good hands.
To them and those that moved on previously – thank you – my OC journey was all about you guys and girls (actually we were for a long time more girls than guys) – incredible loyalty, hard work, dedication and usually lower pay than elsewhere! There are many times that I was close to stopping, but its the people – both responsibility to them, and equally the energy they gave me – that kept me going. Breaking some rules and taboos (and some legendary parties that broke many cultural rules too!!), never accepting the status quo, taking (sometimes crazy) risks that no-one else would do, and simply never ever walking away from the challenge or letting people down. #whatevertittakes What an honour to have led you, and the company, over two decades. In particular, the decaders Lou, Josie, John, Susie, Charles, Albert and so many others not far off a decade cumulative wise (yeah you are allowed to leave and come back sometimes!), Emily, Marine, Clem, Francois, Pris, Blandine, Andy, Julie and those that left and didn’t come back (I forgive you!!) but made a massive contribution like Kate, Dana, Hels, Stuart, Joss, Jaime, Charlie,(sorry to not name you all, you know who you are!), and we’ll all meet soon hopefully at the planned OC Revival meet this summer You are now all over the sailing, and wider sporting world, if you’re not still at OC – the OC web is powerful, watch out 😉 And of course the ‘OC web of love’ – insider knowledge required to understand that one!
Race team projects have kept the spirit of the company going throughout its history, and the gap we had after the Vendee 2008 for a few years, on the big boat front at least, while we were focused on events wasn’t healthy. So when Knut wanted to entrust us to bring together the Dongfeng project in the last Volvo, it was something I couldn’t refuse. Another book to write some day (well one exists, but even that only tells part of the story!), and a great podium finish (just), with a brand new sponsor (and country) for the sport of offshore sailing, and my OC journey had returned to my roots as a sailor.
From competing in the Whitbread in 1989, it had been a long time coming back to. But even last year (well actually until a few weeks ago!), I never imagined I would also end up back on the event side of the Volvo Ocean Race. Knut’s shoes are big ones to fill (literally too…), but I”m going to give it a go, and hopefully some of the experiences that got me to nearly 50 years old are going to help me do it well. Its a big responsibility – the Volvo Ocean Race is probably the most important event in the sport in terms of its reach and ability to inspire, and its commercial reach. I hope I will not fail those putting their trust in me today. As the CEO of our first big sponsor said in a one line email, as Ellen crossed the finish line first in the 2000 The Transat, her first big boat event, aged 23, “remember you are only as good as your next result”. Tough, but true in many ways. So I’ll be giving it my best Geoff, don’t worry. He did send a ‘well done’ a few minutes later nonetheless…
2015 was a year of two halves for me – a fab son born in NZ and the rollercoaster ride of Dongfeng Race Team with a great ending – until June – and then family tragedy for the second half – losing OC’s longest serving employee in September (my Mum – no better person to trust as your accountant for 22 years) and then my amazing sister, aged just 45, in November after a valiant year long battle with cancer. These things bring you new perspectives on everything, and also make you maybe more fragile, and I guess they were also a catalyst for change too whether you seek it or not. I hope I can continue to make them, my father who is battling on too, and my own little family proud again in some way. For me, I will continue to be driven by using sport to inspire people – in small or big ways, as competitors or spectators, as businesses or individuals. And even for myself – I have to enter twice as many crazy competitions now to ‘live’ for my sister, that was my promise to her, as does my fantastic wife too!
Thank you to the family, friends, suppliers, partners, sponsors, colleagues, sailors, riders and runners that have helped make these 23 years of OC the most extraordinary period of my life.
Time to move forward again.
*EDIÇÃO DA REDAÇÃO/ EDITORIAL EDITION
*Edição – Adilson Pacheco