President of the North Sails Group and one of the world’s most decorated sailors, Ken Read has risen to the top of both business and sport, writes Mark Chisnell
There are many successful sailors and many more successful businessmen, but it’s rare to find someone who has achieved great things in both spheres. Ken Read is one of them. Twice Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, a College Sailor of the Year, nine-time world champion, America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race skipper, he has also risen to the top of his profession as President of the North Sails Group.
It’s been a long and storied career both on and off the water, driven by Read’s self-confessed intensity. “I remember the fundamental change in my life going from loving to win to hating to lose. And it’s been a long time since I’ve technically loved to win, but man, oh man, do I hate to lose. And that’s in anything. That’s in selling a jib to a guy down the street in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, or sailing in the Volvo [Ocean] Race. Everything in between.”
It’s no surprise then that Read grew up in a family that took sport very seriously. His father, owner of a home delivery milk business, sailed and played ice hockey, while his mother was inducted into the Connecticut College Athletic Hall of Fame. “My mother was the competitive one. My mother was the athlete. She was the one during hockey games screaming in the audience to hustle,” he told me.
The sailing started when the family bought a 30ft Pearson Wanderer and a Sunfish, and while Read didn’t like sailing initially, his father kept him at it and he was soon deeply involved in the Barrington Yacht Club junior sailing programme close to his Rhode Island home. “I read about all these 470 youth champions, and all these hotshot kids travelling the world. We just stayed in Narragansett Bay sailing against each other and did a series of youth regattas.”
It all changed when Read arrived at Boston University. “The real thing for sailors of my generation was college sailing… that’s where you proved yourself, whether you had it or not. And, for me for sure, without college sailing, I wouldn’t have a sailing career. That’s where it all happened.”
Read was a history major, and his original plan had been to go on and take a law degree but being selected three times All-American and awarded College Sailor of the Year changed all that.
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“I got drafted by Shore Sails and Bill Shore… Bill Shore taught me how to leave 420s, how to leave little boats and how to get into big boats, and what running backstays do, and the little nuances in tuning. Bill and I sailed together. He crewed for me in J/24s, and I crewed for him in Lightnings.
“So I think there were a few years that we never lost a regatta together… preparation, teamwork, putting a team together, being proactive, how to spread out duties. Bill was hugely influential when it came to that.”
Read’s competitive intensity extended to the business side as well and Shore Sails quickly proved to be too small for Read and his business partner Dan Neri (now CEO of North Sails Group).
Read and Neri licensed the Sobstad name in a period in the mid- to late-nineties when there was a long-running patent dispute between Sobstad and North Sails over their new 3DL sail manufacturing technology. It was finally settled in the autumn of 2001, but by then Read had already switched sides.
“When our license [with Sobstad] was coming up [for renewal], that’s when Tom Whidden showed up.” Whidden is now CEO of North Technology Group but had been president of Sobstad Sails International before moving across to North. Whidden offered to buy their loft and employ Read and Neri.
“Because of the advent of 3DL you didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that the industry was changing. We struck a deal really, really quickly with Tom. I believe that was 1996… been there in one form or fashion ever since.”
It was just prior to this transition from Sobstad to North that Read got his invite to the America’s Cup. It had been an unavoidable part of his life, growing up in Rhode Island. “We were around 12Ms in the America’s Cup our whole lives. So whether it was an ambition or not, it’s really unclear, but it was constantly a part of your life, so it would be hard to imagine it wasn’t at least some sort of subconscious ambition anyway.”
Dennis Conner wanted Read to steer his boat for the 2000 America’s Cup in Auckland. They were both racing Etchells at the time, and Conner wanted some of Read’s Sobstad sails. “He called me back and said, ‘Now I really know I want you as my helmsman, because if you can win with these sails, which are the worst sails I’ve ever seen in my life, then you can beat anybody.’ So that was like, welcome to Dennis Conner really stroking your ego. Like, wow, that’s harsh. Okay.”
Ken Read went on to do two America’s Cups with Conner, the first of which was in 2000 and exceeded expectations, while the better funded and prepared second attempt in 2003 failed to live up to them. It caused Read to have a rethink.
“I was tired after the 2003 Cup. I was tired of doing windward/leewards. I was tired of these big programmes that I really didn’t feel in charge of. I wanted to look myself in the mirror and be able to be self-critical of every good move, every bad move at the end of the day. And that’s where those Volvo programmes came from.”
And so Ken Read set out to run his own projects. He found the perfect partner in global sportswear brand Puma, and the perfect event in the Volvo Ocean Race. Puma became one of sailing’s biggest and most innovative sponsors and together with Read they delivered two very successful Volvo Ocean Race campaigns in 2008/9 (second overall) and 2011/12 (third).
“Puma was very influential [to me] on how they marketed, how they dealt with the public, how they tried to manage a new sport. I got to know the principals very, very well. So I would just sit there and pick their brains all the time, just watching. It was a great time. Any big campaign like that is something you’ll never forget as long as you live. And as hard as it was at times, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was spectacular sailing, spectacular camaraderie, adventure.”
Down to business
The two Cup campaigns and the two Volvo Ocean Race campaigns had been sabbaticals from North Sails, and when Read returned to the fold at the end of the 2011/12 race, change was in the air. “Terry Kohler [former owner of North Group] was moving on in years, and he and Tom [Whidden] were talking about selling.
“They came very close around 2008, at the beginning of both Puma campaigns. Of course, 2008 was no time to do anything. And then by the time I came back, Terry was in the process of getting serious again and soon thereafter along came Peter Dubens.”
Peter Dubens’s Oakley Capital invested into the North Group in 2014. “By the time that second Volvo was done, I was ready to take the business side more seriously and Tom was ready, and Peter Dubens was ready… it just kind of all fell together at the right time.”
Ken Read now sits atop the world’s largest sailmaker as president. “We make 30,000 sails a year and have 2,000 people on the payroll now.” He brought one rule across from his sailing to running the business. “Surround yourself with the best people possible, and it’s a silly expression, but make sure I’m the dumbest person in the room.
“Understand what your strengths and weaknesses are when you’re doing anything. When you’re on a sailboat, when you’re managing a team, surround yourself with people who do other things far, far better than you do, and make sure that you listen and let them do their thing.”
The move into the top job hasn’t stopped his sailing, although these days his rides are usually a little bigger than before – notably Jim Clark’s J Class, Hanuman, and of course Clark’s legendary Comanche, the 100ft maxi racing yacht.
“We met Jim in between the Volvo campaigns, and he had just put Hanuman in the water, and they were struggling to make J boat racing fun.” Read and his Puma team were enlisted to help, and after a try-out weekend at the Candy Store Cup in Newport, they became an integral part of the team.
Superyachts and sportsboats
“Before you know it, Jim wanted more of a sailing team and he decided to do this 100-footer. He wanted to break records. He wanted to do the Sydney Hobart… I actively tried to talk them out of it at the time because it’s a crazy project. But in typical Clark fashion; do it, do it right, and the Comanche was the product – such a phenomenal boat.”
Unsurprisingly, Ken Read still has plenty of sailing to do. When I spoke to him, he was aboard a Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300, preparing to race the 160 miles from Fort Lauderdale to Key West with ex-America’s Cup bow person Suzy Leech. The boat meets the criteria for the newly announced Mixed Two Person Offshore Keelboat class at the Olympics.
“Part of my job is to go where the next trend is that you can help develop. I wouldn’t say I’m launching an Olympic effort for 2024. I’m just thinking that, as leaders in the industry, it’s up to us to look for trends and to help make them happen. This double-handed trend – especially in France and England – is going gangbusters right now for all the right reasons.
“In the few days I’ve done on this little Jeanneau 3300, we’ve had about as much fun as you can have sailboat racing. So it’s time to help bolster it, especially if we can do it here in the United States.”
Ken Read won’t be absent from the superyacht circuit either. “I’m going to sail with Tom Siebel’s Svea for the foreseeable future so that’ll be my J boat fix. The J Class is really starting to get cranked up again, which is great leading up to the world championship in New Zealand as a part of the America’s Cup.
“I think from a North Sails and a Southern Spars perspective, we are actively pushing for the more amateur-ish superyacht sailing to be fun and entertaining… allow different styles of boats to win, and just get people out there enjoying their boats, and not make it fully hyped up, pro programmes, because it’ll go away if we do it that way. It will go away.”
When the top man at the world’s biggest sailmaker says we should dial back the intensity in our superyacht racing we should probably listen.
Ken Read biography
Born: June 24, 1961
Nationality: United States
- Nine-time World Champion,
- Two-time United States Rolex Yachtsman of the Year (1985/1994)
- Three-time Collegiate All American (1981, 1982 and 1983)
- Winner of the Everett B Morris Trophy as College Sailor of the Year (1982)
- Inducted into the Boston University Athletic Hall of Fame
Career highlights and lowlights
“The 1985 J/24 World Championship in Japan. We had been the best in the J/24 class for a while, but we were young, and didn’t know how to win. And we finally learned how to win.
“And I think finishing the first Volvo [Ocean Race] second after being a single boat, last-minute program against some big spenders and some big programs. What we accomplished there, bringing in the new sponsor into the sport, and having Puma turn around that same day and say we’re going to do this [race] again.”
“Probably under power from the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean heading towards Tristan da Cunha, trying to get diesel fuel off of a Russian ship in order to make it there because our mast had just fallen over the side in the first leg of a Volvo race, which we were probably one of the favourites in – that falls under the all-time low category, I would guess.
“And another big low was certainly the 2003 America’s Cup campaign, with lots of expectations – and after lots of success in 2000 – it just didn’t pan out. Sometimes you get in a programme and what can go wrong will go wrong, and we just could never turn the corner and get our act together in that 2003 campaign. I think about that a lot, and how we could’ve done things different.”
First published in the April 2020 edition of Supersail World.