Sir Ben Ainslie on business and his bid to win Britain’s first America’s Cup

Sir Ben Ainslie

Sir Ben Ainslie won sailing medals at five consecutive Olympic Games. Now, as team principal of Land Rover BAR, he’s bidding to win Britain’s first America’s Cup – boosting UK engineering and the south-coast economy in the process. Here he talks about building a winning team culture and tackling unchartered waters in the boardroom

Standing proudly on the harbourside of Portsmouth’s old town, an eye-catching new six-storey building looks out over the glistening waters of the Solent. The first three storeys of the state-of-the-art construction are bedecked in a colossal grey Union Jack, a patriotic decoration for giant doors which retract to reveal a cavernous space behind. Inside, the scene is like a vast Formula 1 pit lane garage – engineers in smart navy uniforms study the futuristic-looking flanks of a 70ft tall sailing vessel, deep in discussion. Emblazoned on their chests, and down the sides of the boat’s carbon-fibre hulls, is the name Land Rover BAR.

Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing (Land Rover BAR) is the team that the eponymous British sailing legend hopes will bring the America’s Cup trophy to Britain for the first time in the competition’s 165-year history. First contested on the waters around the Isle of Wight in 1851, under the gaze of the watching Queen Victoria, the ‘Auld Mug’ was won by the schooner America on behalf of the New York Yacht Club. Subsequently fought for between the trophy holder and a single challenger, no British team has been able to get their hands on the prize since.

Today the cup is contested approximately every three years and is tantamount to an engineering arms race – attracting the world’s best designers and sailors, backed by wealthy entrepreneurs and big name sponsors. As much a test of boardroom brilliance and fundraising prowess as it is sailing skill, the America’s Cup is not an endeavour for the faint of heart or shallow of pocket – challengers have been known to capsize financially before their vessels made it to the starting line.

But Sir Ben Ainslie is not a man to shy away from a challenge. A silver medallist in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he went on to take solo sailing gold in the next four Olympic Games, carrying both the Olympic torch on its relay across Britain and the closing ceremony flag on behalf of Team GB at London 2012. Between 1993 and 2012 he was a sailing world champion on 11 occasions, and in the America’s Cup too he has tasted glory – being drafted in as tactician by Oracle Team USA in 2013 and playing a pivotal role as the team overcame an 8-1 deficit against Team New Zealand to win 9-8 in what has been called “the greatest sporting comeback of all time”.

In his smart first-floor office, high above the bustle of the engineering hub below, Ainslie smiles as he recalls joining an American team in the midst of such adversity: “In a perverse way I enjoy those situations,” he tells Director. “I love it when you’re in a position of adversity and the pressure’s really on. Unfortunately, I’ve been through that quite a few times in my Olympic campaigns and it was the same with Oracle. But there’s something special about your back being up against the wall and being able to turn it around.

“It’s about identifying the issues and also lifting team spirit, because people are down at those moments and you need to keep positivity going while working out your options.”

Sir Ben Ainslie and his team competing in Chicago

Land Rover BAR competing in Chicago this year

Winning culture

Little wonder, then, that positivity is tangible at every step through the headquarters of Ainslie’s own team – a building which opened in June last year with help from £6.5m in government funding. On a wall of the open-plan workspace, a quote from George Bernard Shaw reads: ‘Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.’ While inside a meeting room, the wall is adorned with words, linked by diagrams of waves and mathematical formulas – ‘Integrity’; ‘Perseverance’; Resilience’; ‘Aspiration’; ‘Belief’. “This team is very much as a new business should be – it’s only ever going to be as good as the people working here,” says Ainslie. “So from day one I took a lot of time to try and identify the right talent in terms of our initial core management team.

“Then, as we’ve brought more people in we’ve really taken time over our recruitment. Because of the stop-start nature of the cup, in the past people have decided they will put together an America’s Cup team by going out and hiring 80 of the best people they could find, throwing them all together, and expecting it to work. It’s a great social experiment but it’s highly unlikely those 80 people are all going to click perfectly. So with this team we’ve taken our time to identify the people we wanted, and then asked ‘OK, they might be the most talented, but are they going to fit the group of people we’ve got and create a cohesive team?’ If the answer is no, then we’re going to find someone else. So that’s why we have such a good group of people here and the atmosphere in the team is hugely positive. The quotes on the wall are about inspiring people and capturing that ‘can-do’ attitude to take on the challenge.”

Ainslie founded his team in late 2011, with the goal of racing in the 2012 America’s Cup World Series – a qualification event for the right to take on the holder of the America’s Cup in the big race itself in 2013 – and then working towards becoming a fully fledged America’s Cup team from 2013 onwards. While, as expected, the rookie team didn’t qualify for the main event, the experience was enough to convince him that there was scope to take a British-backed outfit to the highest level. So, after his save-the-day cameo for Oracle Team USA in the big race itself, Ainslie focused on getting the funding required to take his own venture to the next stage.

“As a new team we very quickly needed to get a certain amount of underwriting – the target budget was £82m,” he says. “So we set a target of £25m by the end of 2013. Bear in mind that by this stage it was already October, so we had a three-month period to get the underwriting secured and then go out in the market while there was still talent out there, including designers and sailors, to build those key people into the team. It was a critical time.” It was at this point that Ainslie’s first two major backers came forward in the shape of Air Miles founder Sir Keith Mills – former deputy chairman of the organising committee for London 2012 – and Sir Charles Dunstone, chairman of both Dixons Carphone and TalkTalk Group.

Today Ainslie’s board and shareholders list reads like a who’s who of UK business big-hitters, including former BBC chairman Lord Grade, Travelex Group founder Lloyd Dorfman, Linklaters chairman Robert Elliott, Vitol Group executive directors Chris Bake and Ian Taylor, and Oakley Capital Group founder Peter Dubens. So what has Ainslie – more accustomed to high-pressure seafaring than boardroom negotiation – learnt about making a successful business pitch? “It’s about believing in the vision and not underselling it,” he says. “You could say £82m is a huge budget, but in the America’s Cup it’s a realistic budget and that’s what we needed to win. There was no point in saying to people ‘Oh, we can do this for £30m’ because we clearly weren’t going to get the job done for that. Both Charles and Keith have a background in sailing, so they understand the business of the America’s Cup, they’re passionate about it and incredibly supportive.”

Leadership formula

Martin Whitmarsh wearing a Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing sweatshirt

Martin Whitmarsh, CEO of Land Rover BAR

But while Ainslie has gone through a rapid grounding as a business leader, he ultimately intends to skipper the boat that bids for America’s Cup glory and was acutely aware of the perils of taking on too much: “Having watched other people try to fill both roles in America’s Cup campaigns, I knew there was no way that I could act as a full-time CEO and be skipper of the boat, and do a good job at both,” he says. “So I was on the lookout for someone to come in and take over the CEO role about halfway through the campaign – I met many different people and had never quite found the right person.” It was then that Ainslie was introduced to Martin Whitmarsh, who spent 25 years at British Formula 1 success story McLaren, including almost a decade as CEO.

“Within five minutes of sitting down with Martin it was clear that he was the right guy to come in and take on that role for us,” says Ainslie. “Today I’m very much involved with the overall big picture decisions and vision for the future. But in terms of the day-to-day running of the business, Martin now takes that on, which allows me to focus on the sailing and performance side more.”

Whitmarsh joined the team as CEO in March 2015 shortly before another landmark announcement – the renaming of the team to Land Rover BAR, marking the start of a partnership between the booming Midlands automotive manufacturer and Ainslie’s venture, which he hopes will provide the competitive edge to push the team beyond their America’s Cup rivals.

“Land Rover is the perfect partner for us because we weren’t looking for branding, it’s about partners whose technical innovation and engineering capability can have a significant impact on the team,” he says. “For example, the power of intelligent machines is a vital area where Land Rover’s research and development division is adding considerable strength to our challenge. The last America’s Cup showed just how important it is to maintain stable flight on the foils through manoeuvres. Land Rover are helping us understand what it is that makes the difference between staying airborne and crashing back into the waves. We know races can be won or lost by a matter of seconds and this is where Land Rover’s AI could prove the difference, so the more we can tap into the experience of our partners, the more we can also focus on other areas of the campaign. It makes
a huge difference.”

With 120 people already employed directly by Land Rover BAR and what Ainslie estimates to be a further 1,000 jobs supported by the team’s supply chain, the project clearly has more to offer the UK than a long-overdue restoration of sporting pride: “The technical goal of winning the America’s Cup has to be our core target,” he says. “But around that we’re trying to create a sustainable business… from the IP we develop through this team, there will be opportunities for that to have value. If we can create a business through our sporting operations and in the future transfer that to the marine industry and create jobs, that’s our goal.”

Citing the transformative impact New Zealand’s success in the America’s Cup has had on Auckland, he adds: “I hope we can have the same effect here on the south coast – giving a boost to Portsmouth, which is a fantastic city, a city on the rise. If we can bring the America’s Cup back to British waters that will have a massive impact on the local economy, creating jobs and inspiring youngsters for the future.” It’s a view shared by government, with David Cameron saying: “Sir Ben Ainslie’s project is truly fantastic news for Portsmouth and the Solent. It will not only build on Portsmouth’s global reputation as a centre of marine and maritime excellence but will also deliver a sporting and economic boost to the UK… creating jobs as well as opportunities for young people to develop skills through apprenticeships.”

Despite the EU referendum result, which disappointed the team, Ainslie is determined to stick to the plan: “We were clear at Land Rover BAR about backing the Remain campaign to stay in the EU, but we have to accept the result and now come together to work out our future and put an end to this period of uncertainty.”

Sir Ben Ainslie and the Duchess of Cambridge

Sir Ben Ainslie and the Duchess of Cambridge

Engineering talent

To nurture future talent Land Rover BAR has built a ‘tech deck’ at its HQ – a visitor area for school pupils at key stage 3 of the national curriculum. Opened by the Duchess of Cambridge in May, it forms a practical zone aimed at inspiring interest in Stem subjects – allowing children to get up close to the team’s testing boat, learn the physics of a hydrofoil vessel witha rigid sail, and enjoy interactive experiences that explain all the aspects involved in bringing together a successful sailing team. Meanwhile, the Land Rover BAR Academy will look to develop talented UK sailors between the ages of 19 and 24, with the initial aim of selecting a squad for the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in 2017 and the ultimate goal of creating a pipeline of talent for the America’s Cup.

“The tech deck is about trying to inspire the next generation of engineers, yacht designers and boat builders,” says Ainslie. “When they come through and see how these boats are designed and developed we’ll hopefully inspire some of those youngsters to become our future design experts. And the Land Rover BAR Academy will bring people into the sport, identify young talent coming through and hopefully in five to 10 years’ time they’ll be racing with us in the senior team. So our goal is to win the America’s Cup, but clearly around that we’re very much working towards building a sustainable business.” To support the initiatives, Land Rover BAR has also established the 1851 Trust – an affiliated charity tasked with engaging youngsters in sailing and Stem subjects – and the 35th Club, searching for 25 individuals to support the team, including attendance at the major events and opportunities to sail with the crew.

The set-up and vision is indeed impressive, but how does Ainslie feel the new team will fare against its more established rivals? Oracle Team USA, after all, is backed by the likes of BMW and Airbus. “It’s clear to me that in their own businesses the automotive industry guys from Land Rover and the guys out of Formula 1 like Martin operate at a higher level than the marine industry and the America’s Cup has done to date,” he says. “So if we can learn from that and be the first to make the jump up to operating at that level, then I believe that will put us in a very strong position for the future. Take Martin’s experience of building McLaren up from a relatively small team of afew hundred people, to a team of thousands – that’s what we want to do. Ironically enough, before I ever met Martin the vision for this team was to become the McLaren of the sailing world.”

Sir Ben Ainslie standing in front of a Union Jack flagLeadership lessons

Being close to Whitmarsh on a day-to-day basis has, says Ainslie, provided a masterclass in business leadership: “It’s been great to watch him operate and learn from his style of management. He has a very calm style, but he pinpoints key areas and won’t take no for an answer. If we have an issue and we need to sort something out, he’ll keep pushing and pushing to get it done – but in a supportive way, it’s not the hairdryer treatment. Whatever department it might be, he’ll support that department head, and go away and figure out ways to solve the problem or change the structure to get something done. That and his other skills have impressed me a lot, for someone like myself you can fast-track your development by seeing how these guys operate.”

How does Ainslie find the transition between the more combative form of leadership needed on the deck of his boat and the, perhaps more nuanced, skills required in the boardroom? “There are slightly different approaches to it for sure, I’m wearing two hats and I have to change my approach when I’m here in the office as opposed to being out on the water. Certainly I wouldn’t be as aggressive as I am on the water here on land – that wouldn’t be the right management style or approach, so it’s an interesting cycle to have to go through. But for that reason it’s been a fascinating period and an amazing opportunity to work with incredible people across the business.”

The team’s results so far have shown great promise that they might indeed be on course to end what Ainslie calls “165 years of hurt”. In the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series standings, Land Rover BAR currently stands in second place behind Emirates Team New Zealand after the latest round in Chicago. The crucial next event in this qualification series is scheduled to take place on the team’s home waters in Portsmouth from 22–24 July, with the final event taking place at the start of 2017 – plenty to distract Ainslie from the fact that this summer’s Olympics in Rio will be the first he hasn’t featured in for over 20 years. “There was no way I was going to try and marry an Olympic campaign with an America’s Cup campaign when running the team and being so heavily involved – I don’t even have to think twice about whether I’d rather be racing in Rio or not,” he says.

Having now moved down from office to quayside for Director’s photoshoot, Ainslie looks out on the Solent as he answers our final question – where does he hope the business will be in 10 years’ time? “Hopefully by then we’ll be defending the America’s Cup for the third time here in Portsmouth and the whole sport has continued to grow, as it is doing now, into a successful sporting business – with us as a team leading the way in that. The marine industry in the UK is already very strong but we hope that, through the interest and new technologies we’ve been able to develop, it will have been given a huge push globally and many more jobs will have been created. It’s a very ambitious goal, but it’s a realistic one and we can achieve it.” 

For video clips of the Land Rover BAR team in action visit

For information on tickets for the America’s Cup World Series event in Portsmouth (22 to 24 July) visit




Sir Ben Ainslie CV

Who Sir Ben Ainslie

1977 Born in Macclesfield, Cheshire

1985 Begins sailing with his family in Cornwall

1987 First competitive race, aged 10

1993 Crowned world champion in the Laser Radial class, aged 16 – the first of 11 world titles he would win between then and 2012

1996 Wins a silver medal in Laser class at the Olympic Games in Atlanta

2000 Wins Laser gold at Sydney Olympics (above)

2004 Moves to the larger Finn class, winning Olympic gold in Athens – a feat he would repeat in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012

2011 Sets up own team Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) to take part in qualification for the America’s Cup

2012 After winning gold at the London Olympics, Ainslie carries the closing ceremony flag for Team GB

2013 Knighted for services to sailing, adding to an OBE in 2005 and CBE in 2009. Ainslie is drafted into Oracle Team USA as tactician and plays key role in overturning 8-1 deficit to beat Emirates New Zealand 9-8. Begins fundraising to take his own team to the next level from October.

2015 Martin Whitmarsh joins Ainslie’s team as CEO in March; the opening of a new HQ in Portsmouth coincides with announcement of a technical partnership with Land Rover and renaming to Land Rover BAR

July 2016 With two rounds to go, Land Rover BAR stands in second place in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series, in the fight for the right to take on Oracle Team USA in Bermuda in the main event next year

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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