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North Technology Group CEO, Tom Whidden, celebrates 30 years with North Sails

February 1, 2017, saw Tom Whidden celebrate 30 years with North Sails. On this occasion, we asked the celebrated sailor to recall his years spent with North and reflect, in his own words, on the changes the company has experienced since 1987.

Founder of North Sails, Lowell North, believed good sailors would make great businessmen. Tom’s career began as a sailor and, true to Lowell’s hypothesis, he quickly found himself in leadership roles, first as president of Sobstad Sails International and later as president of North Sails Group. Today, Tom sits as CEO of North Technology Group, the parent company of North Sails, Southern Spars, Future Fibres, Edgewater Boats, North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT), and North Sails Collection. It all started with days on the water, as written in his recently published book, The Art and Science of Sails (Revised Edition), “My business is sailmaking and my passion is sailing.”

When Tom joined the company, North Sails was made up of many sail lofts around the world that he says, “were performing well, but maybe not at their highest level.”

A lot has changed from the days of manufacturing paneled sails in a vast network of sail lofts – Tom mentions ten in the US alone. Today North Sails operates with only seven wholly-owned manufacturing facilities in six different countries supported by over 150 sales and service sites worldwide.

“The market today is quite a bit bigger than it was in 1987. We have shifted to a centrally managed, streamlined manufacturing system that is technologically driven. So the need for many sailmaking lofts has decreased, while the need to have many people servicing and selling those sails has increased.”

North Night at Key West Audi Race Week (when Audi sponsored the event in the 90s). Tom, far left, handed out daily trophies from North Sails.

The values of the company remain rooted in people and a scientific approach. The immediate needs and requirements for North Sails shift over time with a drive to increase growth.

“Twenty years ago we spent our time improving the talent in our team and improving our design systems. Today we continue to invest in our people, and we put our minds toward identifying the next best way to make a sail. So the priorities have only changed a little bit.”

The biggest shift in approach was the decision to address the whole aerodynamic package of a boat rather than the sails alone, which led to investing in spar making and rigging. This integrated package of sails, spars and rigging is now known as the Engine Above Deck.

“We think about sailmaking in a much broader sense today than we ever did. We don’t have to come up with a new process, but continue to think of innovations for clients in different sailing markets.”

Sailmaking is an ancient trade that draws back over 5,000 years, making Tom’s 30 years in the business seem like a fraction. Still, there is a lot to unpack since 1987; developing laminated sailcloth followed by 3D sailmaking and string sail technology, the expansion of North Design Software to include VPP, the launch of 3Di, and the transition of North Sails from a multifaceted family of locally run companies to a wholly-owned global brand.

On the water, Tom found success racing inshore and offshore, winning the Newport-Bermuda Race five times and Miami SORC five times (twice overall). Tom sailed with Dennis Conner in a total of eight America’s Cup campaigns, beginning in 1979 as practice-skipper. As tactician Tom raced in five America’s Cup series and won the Cup three times (1980, 1987 and 1988.) Fun fact: he and Dennis were given a key to New York City from Mayor Ed Koch in 1987, after reclaiming the Cup from Australia. Tom was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 2004.

1987 America’s Cup in Fremantle, Australia. Tom Whidden, tactician, in the back to the left of helmsman, Dennis Conner. Tom will celebrate the 30th anniversary if this event, when America reclaimed the Cup from Australia, with friends in Newport, RI on February 5th.

When we ask Tom to recount the highlights of his career so far, he keeps it simple:

“To see the company grow so much, with thousands of employees so passionate about what they do. To me, the highlight is to watch and participate in that process, and see our clients happy with their experience on the water by virtue of something we’ve made for them.”

Congratulations Tom, on three decades of leadership and innovation within the sport! Here’s to many more milestones on the water.