Ken Read (52) has been commanding sailing headlines for the past thirty-plus years, starting with his collegiate days at Boston University where he was a three-time Collegiate All American and the Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s College Sailor of the Year (1982), through his time as a J/24 and Etchells champion and a respected sailmaker in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Along the way, Read amassed a fine record of more than 40 wins in National, North American and World Championship regattas, and he was twice named U.S. Rolex Yachtsman of the Year (1985 and 1994).
Ken Read ponders the upcoming tack while Tony Mutter helms the Mar Mostro, onboard PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 8 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient, France. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)
Dennis Conner shoulder-tapped Read to serve as his helmsman during the 2000 and 2003 'Stars & Stripes' campaigns, and Read has also served on the afterguard of plenty of high-profile big-boat campaigns, including George David’s all-conquering 'Rambler' program. More recently, Read served as the skipper of Puma Ocean Racing’s entries in the 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 editions of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), where the team finished in second and third place, respectively. Additionally, Read has worked in various capacities for North Sails since 1996, and in January of 2013 he was promoted to the high-profile role of President.
I recently caught up with Read on the phone to get his pulse on sailmaking in an modern era that features wingsails in the Cup, One Design in the VOR and a heavy Grand Prix focus on sport boats and smaller keelboats.
Am I correct that before the 2008/09 Volvo Campaign you served as the Vice President of North Sails?
Yes. I worked under Gary Wiseman and I concentrated on sales and development and marketing and service. I really had my paws in a little bit of everything. My direct report was to Gary Wiseman who was, at the time, President of North Sails.
What role if any did you have with North Sails when you were racing with Puma? Did you resign the position or take a leave of absence?
We called it a sabbatical. Technically, I was still with North Sails but to be honest, at the time I was their biggest customer. It was a unique learning experience for me because I got to see life from the other side for six years. I hope like crazy that I’m bringing that experience back and helping to try and make things better using that specific experience.
Ken Read drives while navigator Tom Addis eyes the weather just to leeward. Onboard PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)
Let’s talk a little bit about your role as President of North Sails? You started in January?
Yes—essentially January 1st. I got into it a little bit last December. Tom [Whidden] and I agreed [that I’d take the position] right after Thanksgiving of last year, [but] Tom and I and Gary [Wiseman] and Jay Hansen have been talking about this for a long, long time. In essence, Gary decided he was ready to retire and so [he] needed somebody to fill those shoes, and then instead of just simply filling those shoes as they were, we decided to try to intentionally improve-or try to improve the model-at the same time and [to] start looking at ways to do things do better.
How is your role as President different to what you did as Vice President?
The buck stops here! I can’t blame Gary any more for all the problems and then take all the credit for all the good… [laughs]
There’s a lot of things happening in North Sails and we pinpointed a bunch of things that we thought were priorities right out of the block. North Sails is a phenomenal manufacturing design and engineering and manufacturing company that makes the best-I am totally convinced-products in the world, no matter what category of sailing you want to do, from Snipes and Lightnings to Mega Yachts.
I have had to spend very little time with the manufacturing and engineering side. What we have really concentrated on-for the first time ever, really-has [been building] a real sales management [team in North America]. You do what you know best and I went back, as soon as I got this job, and hired Kimo Worthington, who had been my right-hand man through two Volvo races, and who I trusted implicitly.
Even though he has no formal sales training, he has training in getting shit done so really the first thing [that] I did was to go spend a little bit of money. We are really working hard-and it’s not nearly done yet-to really improve the distribution of North Sails. Not from a selling standpoint, but from a customer-relations standpoint, and that’s a big project and I needed some help and Kimo is the right guy.
What do you see as your biggest challenges and biggest opportunities as the head of the world’s biggest sail maker?
We need to grow the sport. I think the momentum is turning right now to be quite frank. We see more positives right now in the sport than we have seen in a long time but we can’t just sit back and wait for the phone to ring and wait for people to take-up sailing. We need to actively help grow the sport and that is one of my big time roles and jobs. We need to be a little more customer-friendly. We are already working on 3Di, [which] we think [commands] a dominant position in the market, but we can never stop there.
PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG, skippered by Ken Read from the USA, in tough seas, on the approach to the finish of leg 8, from Lisbon, Portugal, to Lorient, France, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. (Credit: PAUL TODD/Volvo Ocean Race)
Is it fair to say that this is the biggest changing of the guards at North Sails in several decades?
Yes. The good news is that we are just scratching the surface. It’s a breath of fresh air and I think that things [can] get a little stagnant. It’s not a shock that North Sails management is in their 60s and time for a little bit of young blood. I’m not saying we are young by any means, but we are younger and [have] a slightly different way of looking at things. [North Sails has] an unbelievable heritage-we have an incredible past but that doesn’t mean you can just sit on it and hope that it works forever, and that’s the stage that we are in right now.
Do you still get to go sailing a lot in your new role as President?
My wife was kidding me the other day that she thinks I slept at home more when I was doing the Volvo than I do now that I’m doing this job! It’s a lot of travel. Obviously, the America’s Cup thing was a big deal for North Sails and the reason I did the America’s Cup broadcasting was to try to make sure just through association that the world realized North Sails had as much to do with this America’s Cup as possibly any other America’s Cup in history.
We didn’t make as many sails, but we made every single sail for every single boat. We made wings for [Luna Rossa Challenge] and for Emirates Team New Zealand.
We had our smartest guys in the company involved with the wings and the wing technology. Our Design Services guys were all into the aero-side of these programs. Our Thin Ply Technology part of North Technology Group, which is a carbon-fiber company, made parts and pieces for the wings. EC6 Rigging did all kinds of carbon standing rigging for the boats.
I hope that the NBC broadcasts were a direct reflection on how important North Sails [thinks] the America’s Cup is to our sport.
More from North Sails at www.northsails.com - there you find links to Thin Ply technology and all aspects of the North Sails group.
Please stay tuned for Parts Two and Three of this interview series.