William Ward - CEO, Clipper Ventures Share PDF Print E-mail
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William Ward became CEO of Clipper Ventures in 1995. Despite being a novice to sailing his entrepreneurial skills and previous business experience in a range of markets, including import of products to the UK from China, combined with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s knowledge of marine events to create a highly successful management team.

As a ‘hands-on’ leader from the outset he grew revenue and controlled costs to establish a firm foundation for future growth.

By Tariq Saleh

Tell us about how you got involved in the Clipper Race with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and came to that decision in 1995?

How I got involved was a little bit of an accident, like a lot of business ventures somebody wanted to borrow some money and I had not met Robin at the time, I didn’t know Robin and a friend of mine was going to invest in something and asked me if I would join him. We’d done lots of business deals together and at first I wasn’t going to, it wasn’t really my scene sailing, I’m from the Midlands, we don’t have a lot of water in Northampton so didn’t really know much about ocean racing and thought I’d pass up on this.

Eventually my friend nagged me and I looked at the books for him, that he was going to invest and I thought it would take a couple of million and he decided that I was right and he pulled out and I’d started reading application forms that the company had just formed and people were writing in begging to go on a yacht race and I thought there’s a business here.

I had no idea how to market it, I didn’t know about sponsorship or marketing, I’d made my money by importing cane furniture and then in the property sector and I went to my friend and told him I was in and he told me he was out and £1.96 million later, I was still in it.

So I was pretty close on how much it would need, unfortunately, and it was a tough time, very pioneering the first time round. We had eight yachts, 60 foot yachts, no staff, Robin, myself and two others basically and eight skippers. People paid to go on the race, much the same as they do now, but with no sponsorship and we set off on a bit of an adventure and it was absolutely fantastic fun. It nearly killed us in monetary terms and energy terms but it was a real adventure.

I hadn’t really decided if we’d do another race at that stage and nor had Robin and at the crew party when we’d finished we’d decided that we’d make something of it and then it got really hard because then you’ve re-fit the boats etc., so we needed more money and all those good things, so that’s pretty much how I got into it and its gone on from there.

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How challenging has it been to develop a very unique race in such a crowded sector in the sport adventure market?

Very challenging, it wouldn’t be something that I’d recommend people to go and do, it’s a high barrier of entry, buying yachts and fitting yachts out and re-fitting yachts and putting on and staging a race.

Now we have nearly 80 staff, so it’s a completely different event to what it was, moving all those people around the world, the maintenance of 22 yachts, 12 in this next race and that’s a lot of expense, but with that comes bigger money, bigger sponsorship and in fact if anything it gets easier the bigger it gets but initially it was very difficult.

It was touch and go whether we made it, we didn’t make any money really for the first few years, we propped it up and then it turned a corner with a new fleet of yachts, which was a big gamble on our behalf because we had to raise more funds to do that, but that seemed to be the way.

The boats were sexier, bigger and we had a lucky break with The Times newspaper sponsoring us in the millennium and that put us on the map a bit. From there we were always looking back and trying to improve but it’s a completely different business from then.

What about the challenges going ahead, are they any different?

They are different, like all business it doesn’t matter if you’re in sailing, football, engineering, you’ve got to get staff, funding, etc., all those basics right and then you’ve got your anomalies within your own field, sailing being very different to a lot of sports. We find ourselves now competing with a lot of sporting events for the sponsorship dollars.

We’re unique in that we have the around the world yacht race that the public can go on, so we train people up so a big source of our income comes from people on the race but to make the TV films, to put on the events at the level that is expected, you need the sponsors, so it’s not something that I ever expected, competing with a rugby team, but you are, because if somebody’s got a million pounds to spend, they can either spend it on us or spend it on a premiership football team or a rugby team or something like that and so we’re competing with that.

We’re fortunate that it is a unique event so there’s many angles of return to a sponsor from media in its own right in which we do two programmes of five hours each, 10 half hour programmes, there’s two of those, one strictly on sailing and one on human interest, that goes out to 190 countries, so we get our media values there.

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There’s a lot of snippets on news around the world and in the local press and national press of different countries we go to, so that side ticking the box. But that’s not why you would sponsor a boat in the Clipper Race, there’s a human interest side, there’s the CSR angle and sponsors are looking for angles like that.

Sponsorship is very different to how it used to be, you’ve still got the traditional, we can take people sailing on their yacht in ports around the world where they can entertain high level bankers etc., and their clients once sponsors get it for their staff, so they’ve got 3000 staff that have gone around the world and we’ve run regatta’s for them in different ports so there’s lots of different angles.

We find that it’s not a straightforward race between us and a football team because we’ve got something different to offer, but because it’s different, a lot of marketing directors are frightened of it but we give a massive return on value.

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