'True passion'

Text by Jonno Turner
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'True passion' Text by Jonno Turner
 
When the tall frame of Knut Frostad strode eagerly through the doors of Volvo Ocean Race HQ in Hampshire, UK on a dull day in March 2008, the situation may have come as something of a surprise even to the man himself.

After all, it wasn’t just the opportunity to head up sailing’s premier event that had come out of the blue. So did Knut – literally - stepping from a cruising regatta in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to answer Volvo’s call.

Nevertheless, “it didn’t take me long to realise that this was a job I really wanted,” he reflects.

He arrived on the south coast with a rare combination of an unwavering and infectious passion, a smart business brain and deep-seated self confidence.

Oh, and he knew a bit about this Race too. In fact, after featuring at two Olympic Games, he sailed it four times between 1993 and 2006, skippering twice.

As he stood in front of his new team, he might have been warm and dry - in contrast to his offshore days - but even so, it was straight into the deep end for the Norwegian.

"We had some pretty hairy fixes to get the start in shape," he reflects. "Teams which were apparently funded, which later turned out not to be - and some stopovers which weren't yet confirmed."

He brought with him a boatload of charisma, a clear vision and impressive business world experience – but, as he explains, a strong CV is only half of the battle.

“The only way to convince people isn’t through paper, presentations, documents and figures - it’s about whether they trust and like you,” he says.

“I’m not saying I’m the most likeable, but I think I’m an honest person, and I transfer true passion from my heart.”

The arrival of the then 40-year-old marked a momentous point in the Race's history - and it also coincided with a brave departure from tradition. A true voyage into the unknown.

Indeed, in the 2008-09 race, the organisers switched their sights to the world's emerging markets – and the race course was expanded to take in stops across India, Singapore and China.

“It was all completely new ground,” he reflects. “We were breaking rules in the sailing world.”

In fact, despite having raced the event for over a decade, it was during that stopover in Kochi, India, that it hit Knut just how global this event is.

“I’ve never seen anything so crazy in my life,” he smiles. “As I stepped out of the car, I realised that they were building the Race Village with elephants pulling containers.

“We had almost one million visitors through the gates at that stopover – wonderful people, full of amazing colours, just an unforgettable experience. Looking back, it was pretty ground-breaking.”

What followed the edition was further evolution, and further new ground to be explored. The Race HQ moved from the UK to Alicante, Spain - the first time that the near-four decade old event had been based anywhere but its native United Kingdom.

"One of our goals, as we've looked ahead to the next race, has been to establish long-term relationships with our stopover ports, and, for economic reasons, to base our headquarters in one of the stopover ports. But this only makes sense when both parties can make a long-term commitment," said Knut, at the time.

It was a decision made, at least in part, to drive the business forward - long-term. “The big challenge for me when I started in 2008 was that the Race had a sense of short-term planning,” remembers Knut.

“Everything was done race by race, and the next edition only announced at the end of the previous one. To make such a good event on such a short lead time is very tough. I had long-term, strategic ideas of how to lift the bar in terms of professionalism, how we worked with stakeholders, and drive it to become a business.”

The new state-of-the-art HQ, walls adorned with inspirational quotes and enduring images of the Race’s heritage, and chronicaling the full spectrum of human emotion, from heart-breaking sacrifice to unforgettable joy, was the perfect spot to do just that.

Indeed, the ocean-side location soon became the centre of the Volvo Ocean Race operation – the four-decade old event’s rich history rooted deep within its foundations.

“For me, the Volvo Ocean Race isn’t about building a product like a phone or a car - we build memories and experiences. We sell dreams, and then we deliver them," Knut adds.

In Alicante, Knut had found the ideal location to manufacture those dreams. And as the 2011-12 edition grew nearer, his long-term vision began to come to life.

With a greater focus on commercial and hospitality opportunities, business was good, and the Race fleet left Alicante in 2011 stronger than ever. And then, problems - major problems - started piling up.

Boats broke. A lot. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing was forced to retire from Leg 1 on the first night after dismasting, and Team Sanya followed soon after. It was a trend that was to continue around the world.

“This race is full of ups and downs, that’s why you do it,” Knut adds. “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.

“But when we got to Brazil in April 2012, it was hard,” he admits. “We had huge amounts of boats breaking – and then the global financial crisis accelerated."

With economies around the planet sinking into double-dip recession, funding a round the world yacht race campaign was simply not an option for many sponsors.

“Everything just pointed down. We had a model that was way too costly and sponsors were already telling me that they simply couldn’t afford to race, despite wanting to do it. At times it felt like we were heading for the perfect storm.”

It was, quite literally, make or break. Even Knut, the eternal optimist, admits that at times, he wondered whether he could beat this challenge.

“The biggest decision I made was probably to continue," he admits. "I was convinced I’d fight through it, but no-one really knew where the bottom was. There were headlines about the Euro disappearing altogether.

“Was I confident? Not really. I was confident in my own energy to push things, but I didn’t know for sure that we were going to succeed. That was the hardest for me. You always need that bit of luck.”

What came next, at the end of the edition, were many sleepless nights – “more than I ever had while racing,” recalls Knut.

And then, a breakthrough. A year after the 2011-12 edition, Knut received good news. "I convinced Volvo to buy into a bold new strategy," he remembers.

It was the introduction of a one-design fleet – seven new, cheaper and safer Volvo Ocean 65s – and it will go down as a landmark moment in the history of this event.

“It was a big strategy,” Knut says. “Many say it was a bold decision, but to me, it would have been much bolder to not do anything at all. It was the right decision – but, in reality, we still had to break hundreds of years of sailing tradition to do it.”

The boats were snapped up by sponsors – and as seven teams stood proud on the Alicante start line in October 2014, Knut looked on, knowing that his vision had been vindicated. It was a gamble, but it had paid off.

“That was probably my most satisfying moment,” he says. Of course, in true Knut style, he didn't sit back and wallow in his own success - rather, he was out on a RIB, getting soaked as he commentated on the In-Port Race.

So, the million dollar question: how can a man so passionate and engaged with the Race make the decision to step down, especially after its best ever edition? Well, according to Knut, he's simply following his heart once again. 

"For me, it's very difficult to reduce the energy I invest," he says. "I have a family and the kids are growing. I know I'm leaving a ship full of passionate people who have the trust of the countries and the businesses we work with."

"I also feel like it's time for someone else to come in, and give a fresh perspective. People really love this race, we’ve come a long way. We sell dreams, and then we deliver them.

"I hope that Volvo Ocean Race continues to lead the way in the sport of sailing."

And what's next? "I'm going sailing with my family - a journey into the unknown. An unidentified finish line. I'm looking forward to feeling completely free."

From one journey to another, then. And as Knut exits the doors of Race HQ for the last time as CEO, he leaves knowing that he's made an indelible mark on this event - a legacy beyond what he could ever have imagined.