Whidden Follows His Dreams from Stem to Stern
A day on the water is a good day for Tom Whidden, and he’s had a lot of good days throughout his life. Tom is one America’s most renowned sailors, most notably for his time as a tactician with Dennis Conner when they qualified to compete for the America’s Cup trophy five times, winning it in 1980, 1987, and 1988. Tom earned induction into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 2004 and, just recently, the Essex resident was enshrined in the National Sailing Hall of Fame.
Tom also got involved in making sails when he and a partner bought a company named Sobstad Sails in 1972, starting a long career in the marine business. Now, Tom is part owner and the chief executive officer of North Technology Group, a company that owns numerous subsidiaries who work in sail making, mast making, carbon fiber technologies, and power boats. It’s through his work as both a top-notch sailor and businessman that Tom landed his spot in the National Sailing Hall of Fame.
Tom competed in one of the most famous America’s Cup regattas as a tactician on The Stars and Stripes with skipper Dennis Conner. After successfully defending the cup in 1980 and then being on the first American team to lose it in 1983, Tom was part of the 1987 America’s Cup race in Australia that was aired live by ESPN in the middle of the night and watched by millions.
“It’s great. I got both sides of it being on the first team to lose it in ‘83...The one we won in Australia, it was the first time that ESPN showed sailing. They partly credit it for putting them on the map. They had three million viewers watching. That’s good viewership for 2 a.m.,” Tom says. “It put us all on the map. We came back and went to the White House and met [President Ronald Reagan]. We got a key to New York City by then-mayor [Ed Koch]. We were all well-known.”
When Tom started sailing as a 10 year-old in Westport, winning the America’s Cup was hardly on his radar as he loved playing baseball, soccer, and tennis at the time. It wasn’t until he attended Colby College in Maine that Tom established goals of trying to sail in the Olympics—which he did in 1972—along with competing for the America’s Cup, and making sails for a living to finance those two dreams. It took a lot of hard work, and Tom considers himself fortunate to make a living like he does.
“I’ve been lucky. The luckiest thing is I was able to make a business out of it,” says Tom. “I didn’t have to just be a professional athlete. I put a bunch of guys around me who are way smarter than I am, and they’re fantastic.”
The criteria for being inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame goes beyond outstanding performances at the pinnacle of the sport. Tom and his fellow inductees have given back a lot to the sailing world, and that also played a heavy hand in them being selected. During Tom’s time with North Sails, the company has come to dominate the sport at the highest level. Every America’s Cup boat—both defenders and challengers—have raced using the company’s sails since 1988.
Tom has learned that it takes a lot of the same qualities to lead a business as it does to be part of a successful sailing crew. In both endeavors, he’s realized that a cohesive effort from everyone is needed to succeed.
“It’s shockingly similar. The discipline it takes to win at that level is same in a company,” he says. “You have to spend your money wisely. You have to use your time efficiently. You have to motivate your team...The irony is you work just as hard to have a poor result as to have a good result. It’s about how well you work. It’s what your attitude and culture is around it.”
Tom has built a strong culture at North Technology Group. Chief Operating Officer Richard Lott says that Tom lives sailing and constantly influences the people around him.
“He takes a day off, then goes sailing. He’s still keen on the water. He’s just turned 70, and you’d pick him at 50,” says Lott. “He’s one of the most energetic people at the company. He travels 150 days a year. He works 6 a.m. to 10 at night with a smile on his face. The reality is that he’s genuinely been involved in the business since it was really small.”
Tom also enjoys introducing sailing to younger people in an effort to give back to the sport that’s given him so much.
“I try to grow sailing and be supportive of the sport. I try to get more young people involved at the community level for people who wouldn’t have the money or the access,” Tom says. “I feel like I owe it a lot. I am trying to grow it and give back, absolutely.”
In the end, Tom feels that he’s just someone who followed his dream at an age when he had the opportunity to do so. The advice that Tom has for everyone, especially youngsters, is to find your dream and go after it.
“Young people should follow their dreams, at least for a while. When you get older, it’s harder to do that, because the pressures become bigger. It’s the time to take a chance,” says Tom, who thanks his wife Betsy, as well as his family and friends. “I got to spend a life doing something I love doing. My son is an investment banker. He introduces me to his friends saying that, ‘This is my dad, and he’s done pretty well for a guy who has a full-time summer job.’”