By Mark Chisnell
Land Rover BAR’s Chairman, Sir Charles Dunstone takes a little time out to reflect on the journey, as three and a half years of unrelenting effort inexorably close in on judgement day – the 26th May 2017, and the opening race of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Qualifiers in Bermuda.
“In my experience of all these things, the closer it comes, the more erratic your judgement is, because the more emotional it becomes. So, I swing from over optimism, to a terrible sense of doom. I just don’t know. I’m too close, I’m too involved to be able to make a rational judgement about it.
“It’s like a whole series of steps, and if you think, the bit that I brought to the team was to try to coalesce people and raise the money. So, once I’ve done the bit I can do, I can’t tell Ben [Ainslie] how to make the boat go faster. I can’t tell Martin [Whitmarsh] and the designers how to make the boat go faster. I’ve just got to support them. I’m there if there’s anything they need, but... I’m a bit powerless at this stage. I’ve helped them set it up and now I’ve got to see what they can do.”
I suspect that powerlessness is an unfamiliar feeling for Dunstone, so it’s unsurprising that he has a deep and long affiliation with the sport that’s brought him to this territory. It started with childhood holidays at Burnham Overy Staithe; this is Nelson country, a beautiful part of the county of Norfolk on England’s east coast, sheltered from the North Sea by tidal creeks, salt marshes and dunes. It’s the kind of place where everyone has some connection to the water. “When the tide was out you went to the beach, and when the tide was in you went sailing,” as he put it.
The family owned a rowing dinghy even when he was very young. He grew up messing around in boats on those Norfolk holidays, and by the time he was ten Charles Dunstone had his own Optimist (international junior sail trainer). He then graduated to an Enterprise – a wooden, Bermudan-rigged dinghy for two people, originally designed in 1956. Dunstone’s was an early boat and rather ancient by the time he got to it. He can rattle off the sail number – 3241 – without missing a beat, probably because he still has the boat.
He sailed on holiday and at school and once established with the businesses that would eventually make his fortune, he began to buy bigger yachts to race on the Solent – the world famous piece of sailing water that hosted the first race for the America’s Cup.
There have been many different boats since then, and if you’d asked me 15 years ago who was the most likely person to back a successful British challenge for the America’s Cup, I’d have said Charles Dunstone without missing a beat. It’s just taken a bit longer than anyone thought before he really got committed to it, and he’s done it not with a solo effort, but by leading a broad coalition of investors in a corporate structure that has Ainslie at its heart. So why now, and why like this?
“I think it’s the only international sporting trophy that Britain’s never won, and it was started in Britain. So, if you’re passionate about sailing, and you know about sailing, there’s this kind of gaping omission in our sporting history. And we’re such a maritime nation and latterly so successful in the Olympics and other major events. It’s weird and strange that we’ve never managed to achieve it. And so for anyone who’s in sailing and knows about it, it preys on your mind that we’ve never done this.
“Combine all that with having someone like Ben who’s probably the greatest sailor of his generation and he’s got a passion for it, and you just go; ‘We need to do something about this.’ Many people have tried and spent a lot of money and a lot of effort before, but as keen sailors, it’s our turn now, to try our best and pull it off.
“In San Francisco [the 34th America’s Cup in 2013] the format seemed to have settled down, TV coverage was much improved. We began to get an audience from outside sailing. I think that what they did with the graphical overlay on top of the pictures is absolutely fantastic, because normally people never know which boat is in front. Unless you know about sailing, it’s very hard to judge, and even then it’s not easy.
“Secondly, I think we live in a world of apps and augmented reality and people are expecting to have this kind of interactive information about the boat speed and so on, which they did do brilliantly well. And the races are short, compared to traditional Cup races. Again, it requires a shorter attention span from people who watch it, and the speeds are much higher and it’s much more interesting. So, in the cycle of the Cup, it feels like it’s in an up phase now, rather than a down phase. So it’s a better time to come in.”
It’s always felt like timing was everything for Land Rover BAR. There was a powerful sense that Ainslie’s fourth gold medal in 2012, followed by the remarkable comeback to win the 34th America’s Cup with Oracle Team USA had created a unique opportunity.
The comeback had been covered by every news outlet, whether sports or mainstream. When combined with all those Olympic medals, it had made Ainslie’s visibility so great that no door in the land was closed to him. It was a perfect storm of opportunity, the man with the dream and the talent to bring the Cup home, had won the A-list celebrity status needed to find the financial support and resource that a competitive America’s Cup challenge required.
Sir Charles Dunstone and Sir Keith Mills could see it as clearly as anyone. “When Ben jumped on the Oracle boat [in 2013], I was texting him and as they did better and better, you could sense in Ben that he wished he was doing it for Britain rather than for America. So, Keith and I were encouraging him, ‘Come on, we should do this, if we never try, we’ll never know.’
“We sat down and started to think, ‘Well, what do you need?’ It was Ben and Jo [Grindley CMO/CCO] to start with, and I think to recruit other people into the team, or to go and speak to sponsors, you had to show that there was some momentum and some backing behind the team. So, Keith and I had committed some money, to be the seed funding for it.
“I’m just of an optimistic disposition, and I have this view that if you never try, you’ll never know. So, I’m probably a bit gung-ho about it. So we just said, ‘Let’s do it and see where we get.’ Because if we never, ever get any momentum at all, then this is never going to happen. Someone’s got to do that to create that movement and momentum, so that’s what we did. And – even though I didn’t know how we were going to raise the money – if you share the responsibility, it’s a responsibility halved and he [Ainslie] probably felt I had more chance of finding the money than I thought I did. You know, I probably thought he had more chance of sailing to victory than he does,” this last was accompanied by the laughter of a man who knows he’s done his bit.
Nevertheless, Dunstone thinks that it might still all have happened even if OTUSA hadn’t won in 2013. “Once you saw the momentum of Oracle’s achievement against the incredibly dominant Kiwis, even if they’d lost 9-6 or something, I think there was still a demonstration of the difference that he [Ainslie] could make. It’s how he felt though, because this is about us backing Ben to do this. It’s not about us doing it. So, it was, ‘Ben if you really want to do this, then we’ll try and help you find a way to make it happen.’”
Once Ben Ainslie got back to England after the triumph in San Francisco Bay, the team gathered momentum quickly, and Charles Dunstone’s central role became clear as he took on the job as Chairman of Ben Ainslie Racing Ltd.
“I was basically responsible for recruiting the other shareholders. You go to people and say, ‘Look we’re going to do this you could be part of it’ and people were intrigued, they love Ben, they really want to support Ben. And I think win or lose, everyone that’s been involved has enjoyed being part of it enormously and they’ve enjoyed the friendships that they’ve made with the other investors. I think, knowing Ben and his humility and his determination is an enriching experience for everyone. Being involved is just a good experience for people.
“They’re an eclectic mix from very different businesses, I think very few of them knew each other before we started, but they’re really close now. I think they’ve really enjoyed it, it’s so rewarding to support Ben, because he’s so good and humble and respectful and grateful.”
The initial group of investors that gathered around Dunstone and Mills included British entrepreneur Peter Dubens, hedge fund manager Jon Wood, and resource group Vitol’s Executive Director Chris Bake and Chairman Ian Taylor. They were eventually joined by Low Carbon CEO Roy Bedlow, founder of the Travelex Group Lloyd Dorfman, Lord Laidlaw, and Idan Ofer, Principal of the Quantum Pacific Group.
Ainslie had also attracted some high quality advisers in Robert Elliot and Michael Grade. Elliot is Chairman and Senior Partner at global law firm Linklaters. While Lord Grade is a former Chairman of the BBC, Chief Executive of Channel 4 and Executive Chairman of ITV. Both were keen sailors, and both became Independent Board Members.
“It became a bit inevitable [being Chairman],” continued Dunstone, “I get on very well with Ben, I think he trusts me and I was counsel to him on the business side, and [being Chairman] formalised that a little bit as well.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said to Ben, ‘Right, you should do this’ and he’s done it, and it’s been the right thing. I wouldn’t say that, but I think he’s been able to say ‘I’m thinking about doing this, what do you think?’ or ‘How do you think I should do this?’ and just talk to him about running a large organisation. And if you feel that the organisation’s let you down, be angry. People need to expect that, and you can throw your toys out the pram every so often, and it’s helpful because it defines you as the leader.”
And it’s Ben Ainslie’s role as leader, the belief in his unique gifts in a sailboat that is central to almost everyone’s involvement in the Land Rover BAR story. So what is it about Ainslie that Dunstone thinks is so special?
“Ben wants it so much. Watching all the World Series events, the number of times that Ben will come from fifth to second or third to first or whatever, in the last 500 metres of a race, is absolutely staggering. He just never gives up and he just wants it more than anybody else does. There are people that can want it and not be able to get it, but he wants it and he finds that extra bit somehow. I really love this quote, when Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile, he said afterwards, ‘It’s the ability to take more out of yourself than you’ve got to give.’”