SAIL OF THE CENTURY
One of Australia’s greatest sporting achievements still has plenty to teach us about success and innovation three decades later
THIRTY YEARS AGO, ALAN BOND’S
America’s Cup challenger, Australia II, had come back from the grave. After six races, the score in Newport, Rhode Island, was three-all. On September 25, the eve of the deciding race for a trophy America had held for 132 years, US president Ronald Reagan told defending skipper Dennis Conner that “Nancy and I are rooting for you”. Conner, and the US, lost by 41 seconds.
Perhaps Conner was unable to get the picture of Nancy and Ron out of his mind. Or maybe Australia II skipper John Bertrand and his crew had worked out Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s equation for victory: “Success = talent + luck; great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck.” In sport it’s very clear who wins. There
are first, second, third and then who cares? Champion teams such as Manchester United and Ferrari can go on winning, but few companies do. Of our top-50 companies in 1983, 42 have fallen off the list, 34 were taken over and eight of them simply underperformed.
There are several reasons Bond will be remembered more for his contribution to sport than to business. He was persistent — it took him four attempts to win the Auld Mug. He picked the best people for the job, even if he didn’t like them. One person he did like wasWarren Jones, who ran the campaign, the people and the battle against the New York Yacht Club, which tried to ban Australia II’s Ben Lexcen-designed winged
keel. As with many successful businesses, the chief executive role was a partnership, with Bond doing the social side and Jones the technical.
And Bond was prepared to innovate — not only technically but in the way he used his people. In business, it’s not so simple. For a start, you have thousands of people and you race every day. Most executives will never pick someone who threatens them. They also have a shorter life span than an America’s Cup campaign, so the next leader can take delivery of a poisoned chalice. And for most companies strategy is an adjective.
So how do you judge winners? Short-term market capitalisation is not much of a guide. In one of our many mining booms, shares in nickel miner Poseidon went from 80c to $280 and back in
less than five months. Being admired doesn’t help much either. Thirty years ago Fortune magazine’s list of the most admired companies included Kodak andWang. In 2001, Enron was near the top; a few months later it was bankrupt. And who
believes in profit results any more?
For public companies, that leaves long-term growth in market capitalisation compared with other listed companies. And that entails a focus on productivity, growth and adapting to change.
Newport has plenty to say about those three drivers — and it has great food. I spent a lot of 1982 and 1983 reporting on the America’s Cup and having a generally dissolute time. I returned earlier this year. The Gilded Age mansions still overshadow anything conceived by Baz Luhrmann. While the Black Pearl and the White Horse Tavern kick on, Restaurant Bouchard is the place to eat. But the best and most ironic place to stay is the New York Yacht Club’s “Renaissance Norman-style mansion” on three waterside hectares in Halidon Avenue. Despite 1983, the club welcomes Australians, the rooms are sensational and you can understand why its members thought they would never lose. CelebrateAustraliaII’shistoricwinatalunch tobeattendedbyJohnBertrandandAlanBond onSeptember26atSydney’sHiltonHotel.To attendthelunch,hostedbyYachtingAustralia, TheWarrenJonesFoundationandTheSport HallofFame,call(02)93562900orbookings@ hurricaneevents.com.