Super-lofty ambitions: it was a series of unlikely events, rather than grand design, that led to the creation of the first super-loft for North Sails--a model so successful it spawned two more and changed the entire sailmaking paradigm.
"Taking over the company in 1984, Terry Kohler was a manufacturing buff. He sought a location that was easily accessible from his home base of Wisconsin and chose Minden, Nevada. It turned out to be ideal for sail making, with its dry climate and plentiful local workforce. They weren't sailors, but they were eager to learn. As we grew, more efficiencies came to light. As we were taxed in terms of our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning)--such as parts, stock, shipping--we moved to advanced computerisation and we were basically pushed to create the so-called 'super loft'."
According to Read, the benefits of centralising production include reductions in costs, ability to ensure quality, reduce lead times and importantly, costs for consumers.
In 1993, when North Sails launched the 3D products, 3DL and eventually 3Di, business literally "exploded."
"We went from a mid-size operation to two 100,000-square-foot buildings at the Minden HQ," says Read. "Twenty four years ago, 3DL took the sport to a whole new level. It's safe to say, it represented a revolution in sails. Prior to this, durability and speed were the exact opposites. Now, in 3Di sails, for the first time in history, you had the highest performance sails in one set of the lightest sails. This saves weight in terms of stowage, ease of handling and overtime, money."
3Di is a patented process that involves spreading pre-impregnated tapes of carbon filament and UHMPE fibres on full-sized articulating molds, thermomolded using a machine invented by North Sails.
The site of North Sails' second super-loft also evolved organically and serendipitously. A German licensee founded North Sails Windsurfing in Sri Lanka. With a willing workforce and welcoming government, by the mid-qos, North Sails' presence in Sri Lanka expanded to comprise eight buildings and 1,000 employees within an international industrial park that boasted tenants of the calibre of Victoria's Secret and the Australian Mint.
Now firmly established as a high-tech 3D plant, Sri Lanka specialises in "old school" skills, with the largest lamination machine in operation turning out Dacron sails around the clock.
Manufacturing in Sri Lanka led to a new era in productivity and consistency. The bigger the facility, the more formalised the training, with mentoring part of the program and all procedures and processes governed by the company's hallowed 'Blue Book.'
As Read explains: "In Sir Lanka, we have general labour that is very eager to learn under good direction. For 1,400 people to produce 42,000 custom sails per year you have to have good direction. The North Sails Blue Book defines every square inch of sail production, from how to do a corner onwards. The Blue Book is constantly updated and referred to by apprentices up to skilled sailmakers who've been in the job 25 years, and everybody in between. It enables general labour to acquire skills in a short period of time."
In addition to Nevada and Sri Lanka, North Sails has operations in Galicia, Spain, which produces 98 percent of downwind sails, Milford, Connecticut, and its newest superloft in Gosport, England, which opened just two months ago. With a 100-metre finishing floor, this facility specialises in superyacht sails and the One Design sails for the Olympic program.
Auckland too, while not a massive manufacturing centre of the stature of Minden or Gosport, is expanding its facilities, relocating to more modern, larger premises to keep pace with demand in the region. "It's a good sized loft in Auckland and key to our business. We have large licensed facilities all round the world, including Australia, that are basically service facilities for our clients."
Locally, one of the country's preeminent helmsmen and tacticians, Michael Goxon, heads up North Sails. Coxon started his career in the 70s, joining North Sails in 1978 as manager of the One Design department. In 1984 Coxon and Grant Simmer purchased North Sails Australia from the US parent company with the aim of developing the company into Australia's leading sail loft.
Coxon began his foray into sailmaking as an apprentice with Bruce Hewish at Freshwater Sails, before spreading his wings and establishing Coxon Wadham Sails at Neutral Bay in Sydney specialising in dingy and skiff sails.
As he recounts: "When I left school I designed, built and rigged my own 12-foot Skiff and went on to win the next two years of NSW, Australian and Interdominion Championships. As I had no money and enjoyed building every other aspect of the project, it interested me to learn how to design and make my own sails. Bruce Hewish offered to assist and in turn once we finished that project he offered me an apprenticeship."
In his 40 years in the business, every facet of the industry has changed: technology, professionalism, strategy and approach to client service.
"When I started with Bruce, he kept no records and we crawled around on the timber floor cutting and shaping sails by hand. A great step forward for us was when I bought an exercise book and pen to start documenting our sail designs! Bruce and I had a loft by the Parramatta River and we used to joke about the sails coming out flat sail on a windy day and a full sail on the light days!
"Today our sails are computer designed on North software in our design office with the back-up of the North Group at your fingertips. The sails are either laser cut on our North flatbed XY plotter or moulded full size in their flying shape from 3DL or 3Di. No more sore knees!"
The main advance in technology in the past few years is "Unquestionably 3Di", states Coxon. "It is the industry standard, yet due to the complexities, expertise and investment in the R&D development, plant and product, it stands alone. Similar to when we introduced 3DL some 24 years ago, it effectively made Kevlar panel sail technology obsolete overnight. 3Di makes the lightest most durable sails in the world and as such, they are perfect for both racing and cruising and suit yachts from Maxi size to small yachts in racing and superyachts to small yachts in cruising."
The career pathway of sailmaker to professional sailor has all but died out, reflects Coxon. "As with many trades, sailmaking has become less fashionable, especially being outside mainstream. Today, rising talent in sailing bypasses sailmaking and goes straight to pro-sailing.
"Some years ago
I successfully lobbied our local ombudsman and we got a government grant and worked with Ultimo TAPE to set up a specialist Sailmaking Traineeship with dedicated staff and machinery. This has served our industry well until recently, when we were informed by TAFE that new minimum trainee numbers apply to offer the course and although we support the TAPE with five trainees, they can no longer offer the hands on course in their facility. So we have reverted to in-house training.
"As we have great depth in our staff, headed by Andrew Gavenlock our production manager, this is not a concern to me or my staff, however I fear may make the trade less attractive to some potential trainees and their parents and one day, our industry shall pay the price. "
In terms of demands for sails. Coxon has observed a trend away from Grand Prix racing to more club racer/cruiser, twilight racer and straight cruiser. "A number of factors influence this from cost, crew availability, being time poor, and the quality and convenience of production yachts that tick more boxes. One Design racing such as Etchells remains strong as it involves relatively inexpensive outlay and smaller crews."
The North business model of super-lofts in strategic locations has proven a boon for local lofts. "It supports our sales and service experts who generally come from a sailmaking background, allowing them to focus on helping our clients. When you get bogged down with manufacturing you cannot provide professional service. Our large production facilities are focused 100 percent on quality production working to our 'Blue Book' standards makes a consistent, higher quality finished product than say 'Johnny or Billy' locally, trying to put their personal stamp on a sail, all while the phone is ringing and customers are dropping in!
"The big gain is that your business size is no longer restricted to what your staff can manufacture and the limited technology available, which no small loft can afford to keep pace with. North invests heavily in R&D, technology and people."
The efficiencies at this end, Coxon observes, include access to unique construction systems including 3DL and 3Di, skilled production and management staff, centralised and shared sales tools, design and manufacturing. "Although 3Di is only relatively new in the market, our R&D team has already been instructed to look for the next breakthrough in sailmaking. 3DL has been the market leader for over 20 years and now 3Di is established, however it took seven years to develop into a commercial product, so it stands to reason we would already be looking for the next innovation, which is the instruction from the top."
"The top" has recently changed at North Sails. Adding financial and motivational impetus to the company was its recent purchase in 3014 by Oakley Capital Private Equity, a UK private equity firm founded by Peter Dubens. Though shy of the limelight, Dubens is hailed as one of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs of the past two decades. (For children of the 80s, Dubens' first business was importing and marketing those thermal-colour changing T-shirts that were all the rage at raves. For that alone, we should be grateful!)
"New ownership has been good for us," says Ken Read. "They expect substantial ROI and that's given us a little shove to improve processes and find better ways of doing things."
In a Q&A piece following the acquisition, Dubens emphasised his passion for sailing and respect for the craft of sailmaking.
"First and foremost. I'm a North Sails customer," he said at the time. "All the yachts I've raced over the years have used North Sails so I'm familiar with the products and their pedigree. I have been investing in entrepreneurial businesses for over 25 years and see enormous potential in North Technology Group. Oakley's investment will further enhance the synergies between North Sails, Southern Spars, Edgewater, North Cutting Systems and North Thin Ply Technology."
Dubens' envisages a bright future of innovation that will further revolutionise the sport.
"Having raced yachts for a number of years, I fully understand how important investment in R&D is to ensuring the company remains well ahead of the competition and remains the leader in marine technology."
Head of North Sails R&D, New Zealander, Burns Fallow, leads a 72-strong design and engineering team globally.
"Our method is to take ideas from wherever they may come and commercialise them," says Read, adding that 3DL and 3Di were both "somebody else's ideas."
"We oversee a worldwide idea pool and we take the best of these and consider them. Burns says he is just the receptacle of great ideas, which we spread out over the entire company and then decide which ones have legs."
Whether manufactured in Nevada, Sri Lanka or the UK, sails from North Sails are products customers worldwide can expect will adhere to Blue Book standards. "In reality, it's all about shipping," according to Read. "Sails could be made on the moon, as long as you have a good supply chain."