Far from smooth sailing: How Alex Thomson Racing is plotting a new course

Building a boat
Alex Thomson Racing_CleoBarnham
Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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The first thing you might notice about one of Alex Thomson’s stunt videos is just how well dressed he is for the occasion. He’s wearing a suave, almost James Bond-like suit.
 
Your focus on his attire quickly diminishes, however, when Thomson, like he does in one of the stunt videos, begins scuttling up the 30-metre mast of his heeling sailboat. Reaching the top, he swan dives off the top, still kitted out in his suit.
 
Thomson’s tolerance for risk is understandable when you contextualise what it is he does for a living. Thomson, one of the UK’s most successful sailors, competes in the Vendée Globe, a round-the-world single-handed yacht race. The race is sailed non-stop, without assistance.
 
As Alex Thomson Racing’s CEO Stewart Hosford puts it: “These adventurers go out on the sea alone with only 1.75mm of carbon fibre between them and Davy Jones’ locker. And they survive.”

You imagine you know a lot about sailing if you’re a sailor. But it’s like saying you know about the tennis industry if you play tennis. You don’t know jack. 

Hosford runs the business side of Alex Thomson Racing. Under his remit is a 15 man team (including Thomson himself) which can swell up to 40 if they’re busy with a big project like building a new boat. Hosford has held the position for the past six years, making a big transition from a corporate existence in London to competitive sailing. 
 
“You imagine you know a lot about sailing if you’re a sailor,” says Hosford, who has sailed since his youth. “But it’s like saying you know about the tennis industry if you play tennis. The reality is you don’t know jack.”
 
But even more difficult was the move to a small team after years in corporations. “I know people who want to leave a large multinational and join a small entrepreneurial team. The change is incredibly tough. 
 
“The thing I found hardest was I got lazy in a big corporate. You stop actually doing real work. When you become a senior exec in large corporate you take a lot of stress on your shoulders, sure, but you rarely open a spreadsheet and click ‘file new’. At a large corporate, you direct operations but you don’t actually do them yourself.
 
“And then moving quite suddenly to ‘oh, I’m the only person who can write this contract or do this presentation’. Turns out I missed doing stuff myself as opposed to just telling people to do it.”

The thing I found hardest was I got lazy in a big corporate. You stop actually doing real work. 

Hosford is tasked with dealing with the elite sponsors that flock towards sailing. The attraction to sailing is understandable: What Thomson does is simply an incredible story that they want to be a part of. Over and above that, there’s the premium perception of the sport.
 
In one way, this array of blue chip corporate sponsorships is an enviable situation. But it speaks to one of Hosford’s most delicate tasks as CEO. In the UK, sailing has an aura of elitism. But the UK is an outlier on the European continent. As Hosford says, sailing is seen as an everyday skill in France. Something akin to swimming.
 
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston - incidentally the first person to circumnavigate the Earth unassisted in 1969 - rebuked the media (in particular, the BBC) for perpetuating sailing’s elitist image. He told Yachting World, the UK has forgotten that it’s a maritime nation and claimed sailing was, in fact, open to all “whether a bricklayer or Duke”.
 
Thomson’s stunts, for instance, form part of the team’s attempt to broaden sailing’s appeal. “That perception is a huge double-edged sword. On one side, you attract great sponsors. There’s a premium perception of the sport. The people that do watch and enjoy sailing are a target market many brands want to speak to,” says Hosford.
 
“Then on the other side, you get this perception that it’s elitist and snobby. We’ve worked really hard to fight that. When people come on our boat, we don’t use terminology like bow, stern or starboard and port, we say front, back, left and right. We want to introduce people to an amazing sport.”
 
The balance for Alex Thomson Racing is to maintain its sailing audience and then move it beyond that audience simultaneously.”We’ve tried really hard to make sure people know about our story. The story of someone sailing on their own for 3 months. It’s one of the hardest challenges left. And when people speak to us, they don’t ask about sailing and tech, they ask about him. It’s a human story.”
 

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