Fair winds, Knut!

Text by Jon Bramley
Flying the flag
'True passion'
Fair winds, Knut! Text by Jon Bramley
Knut Frostad is bowing out after eight years running the Volvo Ocean Race as CEO. Monday (February 8) was his last day and in one final interview, he talks through what gave him most sleepless nights at the helm of offshore sailing’s leading race, his biggest decision, and his thoughts about the future of the sport.

Knut - after eight years at the helm, there seems to be a sense of inevitability about your rise from four-time Volvo Ocean Race sailor to CEO, but tell us a little about how you got the job in the first place? I understand it came out of the blue?

KF: From my side it did. I had started a company in Scandinavia and I was doing one of my last sailing stunts, which was more of a cruising regatta. In the middle of the Atlantic I got a call from Volvo and they asked if I were interested in the job.

I had all my old Volvo Ocean Race crew with me, with Roger Nilson navigating, and I was in the Volvo mood again. I hadn’t honestly thought about the role before then, but the more I did the more I realised it was the perfect job.

I had to have some conversations with my wife-to-be to see if she was willing to come to England (where the Volvo Ocean Race was then based) with me.

What were your first big challenges and your initial vision for the Race in 2008?

KF: When I started there was a sense at the Race of short-term planning. Everything was done race by race. The 2008-09 Race, which was my first to manage, was only announced at the finish of the previous race and that was how things were done. Things had very short lead times which made it pretty challenging.

When I started in March that year we didn’t even have all the stopovers in place – we didn’t have one in Sweden nor in America. Plus there were some teams that we thought were funded which weren’t financed so we had some pretty hairy big fixes to make before that start.

My vision was to lift the quality and the overall professionalism of the event. I also had a focus on organising the race in a long-term, strategic way. It had always been organised race by race and that’s nothing out of the ordinary in the sport – it was always done race by race or cup by cup. And that made things very difficult to build for the long term. You have to have a long-term vision. 

Over the years you’ve taken on a host of tough challenges as you’ve guided the race to its current position. What has been the biggest?

KF:  This race is full of ups and downs, that’s why you do it. There are some challenges that you sort of strive for, you roll up the sleeves, everyone looks at each other and you just go for it. There are some when you just scratch your head and wonder how you’re going to do it. Team Vestas Wind crashing into a reef in the last race's second leg was one of those. After a few hours, I started to realise that this could be so difficult. I felt personally engaged as I had sold that campaign to the management of Vestas. As they said, that slide wasn’t in my presentation!

[Postscript: With the help of Knut and the Race HQ, Team Vestas Wind returned to the startline in Lisbon in the 2014-15 Race.] 

And the decision you’re most proud of?

KF: During the 2011-12 race, I convinced Volvo to go for a pretty big strategy with the one-design boat, the Volvo Ocean 65, with a potential downside that only I really knew. It was a lot of sleepless nights, more than I ever had in the race.

That was probably my most satisfying moment, seeing a great fleet on the startline in Alicante in 2014. It’s easy to think that the one-design was a big decision, but for me, the biggest decision I could have made was not to do anything.

It was the right decision. But we had to break hundreds of years of sailing tradition to do it.

Having said that, I don’t think it was the boldest. I think there have been a lot of bold decisions made, but actually my toughest decision after the 2011-12 race was simply to continue in my role.

Not because I didn’t want to, but I thought what I’m heading into now was just the perfect storm in the global economy in 2012. I was convinced I’d fight through it, but you never know what is going to happen, from USA, to China, to Europe. There were headlines about the Euro disappearing altogether. No-one knew where the bottom was.

Was I confident? Not really. I was confident in my own energy to push things, but I didn’t know that we were going to succeed. That was the hardest for me. 

You’ve just received a Lifetime Achievement award which makes it sound like you’re in your 80s rather than 40s but how would you like your time as Volvo Ocean Race CEO to be remembered? What do you think is your legacy?

KF:  The Volvo Ocean Race for me is not about building a product like a phone or a car, you build memories. Experiences. They’re contained in an event which goes into the history books. It doesn’t mean that my legacy will mean everything in the future.

My successor will have a different view. There’ll be a different profile, different sailors, different countries, but at least I set the bar somewhere. I set it pretty high, I think, not just professionally, but in terms of passion. I truly followed my heart. And the people I have hired over the years are those kind of people too. I call it the X factor. We sell dreams, and then we deliver them.

So tell us about why you came to make this decision to leave the job at this time?

KF: It was quite similar to the day I decided to stop offshore racing. It was two things – I have a family, and the kids are growing, and that’s following your heart again. For me it’s very difficult to reduce the time and energy I invest in anything, for me to say that I should step back from my role and start going home at 5pm rather than 8pm, that’s not an alternative. I can’t deliver something that I am  proud or satisfied with if I do that.

I got to a place where the ends didn’t meet. I’ve pushed with my heart for so long and eight years has been non-stop. I also felt that it was time for someone else but me. Not because I have run out of ideas, I have a few for the next race, but because it needs a fresh perspective in some areas.

What’s next on the agenda for Knut Frostad?

KF: Spending time with my kids and wife! We’re going sailing together, we’re going to journey into the unknown, with an unidentified finish line. I’ve had a lot of deadlines for eight years, and to be completely free is something I really want to feel. I can’t separate private life from work, family should be part of work, work should be part of family. I’m continuing the same life, I’m just not making any money from it.

Where do you see the future for offshore sailing? Is it bright, do you think?

KF: The younger sailors are coming through and I’m seeing what they like, and  that shift is going to make the sport different. It’s much more physical today, more sport than the old days. I think that offshore sailing has a place. I’m cautious that the Volvo Ocean Race doesn’t become unachievable, that young sailors don’t believe they can ever compete in it. In the Whitbread days you could join with almost no experience.

The speed we do today and the technology means that many people feel they can’t do it. We mustn’t scare the general public, people like to engage with things that they can relate to. It shouldn’t become like flying to the moon. 

What I like is engaging other countries and cultures. What we’ve achieved there, from India to China, where people really love this race. We’ve come a long way. I hope that the Volvo Ocean Race continues to lead the way in the sport of sailing.