Part One -- Mark Turner: Taking on the World
New Volvo Ocean Race CEO Mark Turner talks exclusively to Sail Racing Magazine about the challenge of taking charge of one of sailboat racing’s hallowed brands.
SRM: You come to this role with experience of the race both as competitor - 1989-90 on British Defender, the British Armed Services entry - and in the last race as head of the Chinese entry, Dongfeng Race Team. Has the VOR always been a significant part of your life?
Mark Turner: I did the race when I was 22 years old; my first big adventure in life. I went as far as Auckland and then I had to go back to my warship which was due to be involved in War Games.
Months later I sat on the warship off of Portland Bill in the middle of a pseudo-war, with gas attacks going off and missiles flying over my head as I watched my boat go past with a broken mast. I remember thinking "Why am I sat here with a gas mask on? Why am I not on the boat?"
SRM: Why then such a long gap before you got involved with running the Dongfeng campaign?
Mark Turner: I suppose I watched the race from the outside quite a bit in that time. It was while we were growing OC Sport and doing other stuff in sailing – like Ellen MacArthur’s Vendee Globe campaign and her other circumnavigations.
To be honest, the Volvo Ocean Race budgets were too expensive for me to get involved in back then. Vendee Globe campaigns and things like that were in the range of two to five million. The idea of going and finding 30 or 40 million for sailing just seemed ridiculous to me, so I didn't put any energy into looking.
I think it was probably about two editions ago that I was onto Knut, saying, "Look, if you've got some leads or opportunities, then we would be interested to be involved.”
Then the change to one design took the budgets down, so we got more interested. When Knut started to talk to Dongfeng we were one of the few solutions for him to just pass a whole project over to, to get a deal across the line with him and take it on for the race.
It was great to get back involved and back on the team side. It wasn't the plan, but that campaign ended up being my last real project at OC Sport.
SRM: What are the differences between being part of the team and being part of the race organisation?
Mark Turner: The team side is a lot of fun and very engaging. It’s an emotional ride, the ups and downs of a team. I really enjoyed having the time to work on the communications side of it along with being involved in everything else.
The event side? Well that’s just like being a punch bag in the middle, being punched from all around. I know that very well, I've been doing it for decades. But here I am - back on the punch bag side.
SRM: Talk a bit about the difference between the Volvo organisation and other title sponsors. Perhaps not everyone appreciates that Volvo don’t just sponsor the race, they own it outright.
Mark Turner: Well it's two different companies - Volvo Group and Volvo Cars - which have been separate companies now for quite a few years, that jointly own the race 50/50. I’m not sure that should really matter to people on the outside.
The mistake a lot of people make, even a lot of people inside the teams, is to think that somehow decisions are made and things happen simply because that's what Volvo wants. What I've learnt already is that, that's not really the case at all.
It’s the Volvo Ocean Race people here in Alicante that decide and propose what we do. There's some input from Volvo but I don't think there's any decision that the Volvo Cars and Volvo Group have ever pushed back on at all in Knut's reign.
They leave it in our hands. They need to validate things sometimes, but they're car companies and truck and construction companies, they're not running sports events.
Knut had to make some bold moves around the one design boats which probably saved the race. He got massive support from Volvo Group and Volvo Cars to effectively cash flow fund the building of the boats last time.
That's a big benefit you would probably never get from a title sponsor on its own. That's just one of the positives and I don't think there many negatives.
SRM: Having backers that are so heavily committed to the race in the long term must be reassuring when you are planning for the future?
Mark Turner: Obviously, the Volvo companies could at some point decide they want to sell the race. But that’s a much longer process. It's not quite as fickle or fragile perhaps, as title sponsorships on their own are, where a new CEO might come in say he wants to do something completely different.
What's important for us day to day is that we forget that Volvo are the owners and treat them as the title sponsor and continue to deliver them the best return they can possibly have.
SRM: This must be one of the longest running commercial relationships, certainly in sailing, and possibly in sport. What do you think it is about this race that Volvo find so compelling?
Mark Turner: Last year Volvo Cars made a very clear decision to drop away most other sponsorships. They've pulled out largely of golf and focused on the Volvo Ocean Race.
On the Volvo Group side, it's a B2B business proposition, not a consumer business and they have a few different brands under there. The Volvo Ocean Race is a global platform - which in sport is quite unusual to find - and it suits them very well, in that respect.
The values of the race align very well with the values of any big, decent global company. There are parallels with how teams work and the need to balance competition and safety. I'm not saying that because they're the right PR words, that is genuinely true.
To win a Volvo Ocean Race, you've got to finish and look after your people but you've also got to push hard to win. I think that balance is something that resonates very well within the Volvo businesses.
I think the origins of Volvo getting involved with the race were probably a little bit about trying to put some edge - a bit of risk, if you like - into what was at the time considered quite a ‘safe’ brand. That's the historical argument for it and I think that probably still applies in some way, though the Volvo Cars brand has evolved enormously since then.
We are a subsidiary of the Volvo companies, but we're a bit of an outlier because we're operating in a less corporate environment. We can push some of the boundaries and potentially we can find different ways of doing things that can be fed back and applied to their business scenarios. The opportunity for that sort of feedback is viewed very positively, I think.
One other thing that not many people understand is that the Volvo Ocean Race is a not-for-profit company. Any money that is saved somewhere gets ploughed back in to make another area better. We have to balance the books on a three-year race cycle. We mustn't make any money and we definitely can't lose any.
SRM: What have your priorities been since you took over the corner office in Alicante?
Mark Turner: It was useful that I didn't come in here with no knowledge of the organisation. I ran a team in the last race and worked closely enough with Knut to be very much on the same page as him on pretty well everything. That meant I also knew a lot of the people here too.
The events side is well advanced and in pretty good shape and the venues are basically done. There's still work to do of course, lots of work to do, but there's a lot of good things in place.
My priorities have been – and will continue to be – to make sure we're all pointing at the same short-term thematic goal, which is getting teams on board for the next race. We are in good shape in that area but there's plenty still to do.
We have one great brand-new team already announced in Akzo Nobel. That’s a global brand and it doesn't get much better than that as a first team. Then you've got two teams from the last race that we hope will soon be signed and potentially announced. I think maybe by October we'll be four done. We've got a few more to do after that. That has to be the focus. That has to be the absolute priority.
SRM: Was there a bit of a log jam because people were waiting for the new CEO to start?
Mark Turner: Some people have said that. It's not that anything stopped, but it may have lost us a bit of time. It would probably be a convenient excuse, but I don't think it’s the case. There are some really good people here who kept on punching away to get it all done.
A more general problem that the whole of the sport of sailing needs to look at is the stop-start nature of the big events, where everything comes to an end at the finish of one event cycle and then years later everyone starts building it again for the next one.
We have to try hard to correct that aspect for many reasons and we're already working on that here. I would say that before worrying about what kind of boat we might use in the future; we need to first of all look at that aspect.
SRM: What are the differences in management style between you and your predecessor Knut Frostad?
Mark Turner: Knut ran things in a very hands-on way. That’s exactly the same way I would have done it 10 years ago, but I know I can't run it in that way now.
My aim is to strengthen the leadership team and enhance their ability to get things done. It was being run in a very departmental way with Knut overseeing all of it – although I actually think that approach is something that predates Knut as well.
I can't do it that way. I need everyone to work a lot better together between themselves. It’s no different to lots of other organisations in that it's going to take us some time to evolve that culture. It’s about the right people, it's about breaking some taboos on how people join together and work in project teams.
I made a lot of mistakes on that in my old company in the last few years. So I'm trying to learn from that and trying to help the leadership team that I've got all develop as leaders and managers in their own right.
There's some very good people in that team. They might not want to but pretty well all of them are capable of running the whole show. Any one of the leadership team could be CEO in not too long from now. That's my aim really, that one of those people will take over from me.