A day in the life of Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking Cruises
TORSTEIN HAGEN, CHAIRMAN OF VIKING CRUISES, IS
impatient because he’s sitting on the Rhine aboard the 190-passenger Viking Hild (one of two state-of-the-art Longships his company launched this year) and he’d rather be doing anything than answering questions from a pesky writer.
Sitting to his right is Richard Marnell, the company’s senior vice president of marketing and the genius behind its sponsorship of PBS’ Masterpiece (promos that ran with the show Downton Abbey are credited with putting Viking River Cruises on the map).
This interview is about Hagen, but Marnell is there to make sure his iconoclastic 74-year-old boss stays on point — that a frank man doesn’t get too frank. Told that the writer is doing a story about him, Hagen gives an incredulous stare. When it comes to subjects, he is probably his least favorite. But he has quite a story to tell.
THE V IKING’ S WAY _ Raised in Norway, with a degree in physics from the Norwegian Institute of Technology and an MBA from Harvard University, Hagen got into shipping, then cruises, was the CEO of now-defunct Royal Viking Line in the early 1980s, and then, in his words, “lost practically everything.”
Twenty years ago he emptied out what was left in his bank account, purchased four river ships, and started taking tourists through Russia. Today, Hagen’s privately owned empire consists of 62 river ships, with nearly half of all North Americans who take a river cruise in Europe doing so with Viking. Then there’s the new and growing fleet of 930-passenger ocean ships; the three launched so far are some of the most acclaimed ships the cruise industry has ever seen.
A very private man, Hagen lives in Lucerne, Switzerland, away from his business facilities; the company’s global marketing head-
quarters is in Los Angeles with the operations center in Basel, Switzerland. He spends about 120 days a year in L.A., always staying at the same beachfront hotel where he says he’s gotten to know the staff. “It’s my family,” Hagen says. So what’s his typical daily routine?
“When do I wake up? First time, second time, or third time?” he laughs. “I travel so much I am more or less permanently jetlagged.” He notes that his L. A. days begin around 6 a.m. with a workout on the beach with his personal trainer. “We do as brisk a walk as I feel comfortable with, and then I go back to the hotel and do a little bit of weights and stretches. That’s an hour, five days a week,” Hagen says.
On his drive to the office, he’s on the phone with Basel and specifically Tony Hofmann, senior vice president of operations for the river operation.
“It’s just to chat,” Hagen says. “As H. R. McMaster said, things are either fine or we have a problem. And normally we don’t have a problem.” Plus, he adds, “What else can I do? I have a 35-minute ride.” Which begs the question: Why doesn’t he buy a place closer to the office? “I don’t like things. I like to keep things simple,” Hagen huffs.
And although many executives might glance at email before they even get to the office, not Hagen. “I check my emails when I am ready to deal with them,” he admits. “I don’t let them run my life. It may be late in the day, but why let them bother you?” OFF ICE S PACES AND PE R S ONAL P L ACES _ At the headquarters, the boss’ office is done up in contemporary, lightwood furnishings and a blue carpet, simple and understated. “It’s very Viking-style,” says Marnell. “I have a picture of Manfredi and me,” adds Hagen, a reference to Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, chairman of Silversea Cruises and one of Hagen’s best friends — so much so that there is a namesake Manfredi’s restaurant on each of the Viking ocean ships and a Tor’s Observation Library on Silversea’s newest ship, Silver Muse. The two executives talk once a week. In the L.A. office, Hagen attends monthly executive meetings and occasional addition- al meetings. “I don’t have a daily routine,” he says. “I’m chairman.”
Marnell interjects to call Hagen’s leadership style “very collaborative, consensus-based decision making.” Hagen responds, “I don’t decide anything.”
At home, he may watch TV for news and, in his spare time, he devours business books. “I used to read a couple of books a week. Now I’ve been busy,” he says wistfully. But he still finds time for his other passion, classical music, especially Mozart, and especially Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, Köchel 622.
“It comes with age,” he says, adding that when he was a kid, he tried to play clarinet, but admits he didn’t show talent. Today, his company sponsors the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
When it comes to travel, Hagen says he doesn’t do pleasure travel and that he’d rather be home in Switzerland pursuing his keen interest in science. In fact, he becomes animated as he tells how he ended up in business, rather than as a scientist.
“The story is almost true,” he says. It goes like this: Two guys from Norway are vying for one graduate spot at Caltech. “My best friend and I tossed a coin,” Hagen says. Hagen lost, so he instead headed to Harvard to get his MBA. His friend ended up an expert on quarks (subatomic particles). Hagen ended up turning the river cruise world on its head.
Nevertheless, Hagen says that his science background has been helpful. “I think as a company we are very fact based and numerical,” he says. “At the same time I am a little bit strange and have quite a few obsessions.”
You can see manifestations of these obsessions on Viking ships. For example, trashcans in the cabins are square because Hagen finds it easier to throw paper into a square. “When I see these perfectly round oblong, oval trashcans, I just wonder why would anybody do a thing like that?”
Chairs in the dining rooms are squarebacked so a man can hang his blazer, and Hagen always wears a blazer. “It’s my man purse,” he says. “Everything is in the pockets.” Speaking of which, Hagen pretty much always wears the same outfit: a collared shirt, jacket, pants with hidden elastic waist, and the same shoes. “I have 12 pairs of these,” he says, lifting his leg. “They are the perfect shoes.”
Indeed, Hagen likes all things consistent and perfect, including his ships. “When you have something that’s perfect, how can you make it more than perfect,” he asks. “Don’t
perfect.”• even try. These ships are pretty darn
Hagen’s privately owned empire consists of 62 river ships, with nearly half of all North Americans who take a river cruise in Europe doing so with Viking.
Opposite page: Torstein Hagen observes the construction of a Viking Longship. Below: Aboard Viking Star, the company’s first ocean ship