Voyage of a Lifetime
After 16 years, it all came down to 15 days, 5 hours, 20 minutes, and 27 seconds. That was Kip Stone's winning time (which beat the previous record by 13 hours) for the Open 50 monohull class of the Transat, the solo transatlantic race the entrepreneur dreamed of sailing when he started his T-shirt company, Artforms, in 1988.
More recently, "I've spent almost every moment of the past nine months preparing for this race," says Stone, who spent six weeks last fall in Australia and New Zealand working on the 50-foot boat (named after his company), then two months sailing her from New Zealand to Plymouth, England, before the race started May 31.
Before this 3,200-mile journey, Stone set about on another one. He founded his company with the hope that it would be successful enough one day to allow him to build a racing sailboat. The company also would have to be able to survive long stretches of time without its captain. While Artforms did indeed grow, the financial goal always proved a step ahead. Then three years ago, Stone took advantage of the Australian dollar's plunge against the U.S. dollar to have his boat built Down Under. As the dream took shape in the form of hull and deck, Stone began rethinking his management strategy. "Instead of hiring hard workers I could manage," he says, "I hired managers with expertise in areas from production and inventory to accounting and sales who didn't need constant direction, then worked side by side with the general manager who would take charge when I was gone."
Between the signing of the boatbuilder's contract and Stone's victory, Artforms, a $5.6 million company based in Westbrook, Maine, has tripled sales -- despite his absences. "What was good for the boat project and me was even better for the company," he says. "People want to be trusted with responsibility and decision-making power." He remained in touch with his 48 employees largely via e-mail, and even though he had a satellite phone at sea, he says, "they never called!" With the company thriving without him, where does he fit in now? He posed the same question to his managers, "who have a clearer sense of that," instead of assuming he could just drop back in to reclaim control.
During the race, Stone slept no more than 90 minutes at a time, but the company was not far from his thoughts. About 1,000 miles from shore, Stone and his closest competitor "were within sight of each other. I decided to go north toward the Grand Banks, and he went south. I agonized for almost eight hours over that -- forever in a sailboat -- which reminded me of tough decisions I've had to make for my company, like opening a retail store everyone is against. But then, as in business, I could see what would happen if I went down that route, and I trusted that." It was colder, foggier, and wetter that way, he says, but entrepreneurship, too, is never about following a path just because it's more comfortable. He doesn't plan to race for another year, so for now it's celebrating (he's suggested declaring his finish date of June 15 a company holiday from now on) and rediscovering the place that made it all possible. "I started Artforms as a means to an end," he says. "But the boat was the dream. The company is the reality."