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Our Story

26/8/2016

The real fuel behind a company's success is its people.

Peter and Olaf Harken recognized this basic business principle almost 50 years ago when starting Harken/Vanguard in the snow and corn country of southeastern Wisconsin. Since those early days, Harken has grown from a backyard dream of two brothers to a global reality with offices and distributors around the world. Harken gear dominates events like the America's Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, and the Olympics with blocks, travelers, winches, and hydraulics aboard everything from the smallest dinghies to the largest megayachts. 

The Harken story has been full of twists, turns, successes, and reinventions, but through it all the goal of challenging the status quo and commitment to excellence has always remained the same.

Where it all started

History - Peter boatbuilding

Peter and Olaf Harken were born of Dutch and Swedish parents in Indonesia at the beginning of World War II. 

In 1941 the Japanese attacked Indonesia. During the fighting and nightly bombings, Peter, Olaf, and their Swedish mother managed to escape to Borneo. Their Dutch father, Joe, who represented the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Asia, joined the very small Dutch army and helped fight the Japanese until his capture. Joe was imprisoned for five years and was not liberated until the end of the war. In the meantime, Peter, Olaf, and mother Ulla lived first in Borneo, were then troop-shipped to New Zealand for a year, to Australia for another year, and finally shipped to San Francisco in 1944. Here they were miraculously reunited with their father in 1946 after the war was over.

The family traveled to Peoria, Illinois, home of Caterpillar, and subsequently lived a few years in Larchmont, New York. Joe then had an offer to move to the Philippines where he would develop and supply heavy-duty, earth moving equipment to be used in the reconstruction of the badly damaged, war-torn nation.

Peter and Olaf lived in the Philippines all through their school years, attending the American International School in Manila until they left for college in the United States.

"We both received swimming scholarships due to the many years we swam competitively in the Philippines," said Olaf, who majored in industrial engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. Peter enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin where he first majored in engineering but finally graduated in International Economics. "It was a faster way to get out of school and get on with real life," he said.

Peter joined the UW Hoofer Sailing, Skiing, Whitewater Canoeing, and Mountain Climbing clubs. Sailing on both water and ice quickly distracted him from more studious pursuits. After squandering his father's college money on sailing, skiing, girls, and other non-academic adventures, his father pulled the plug saying, "You're on your own; I'm not going to pay for your playing." So Peter, with $50 to his name, packed up his 1951 Chevy jalopy with his skis, his dog, about 30 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ski-bummed in Colorado for a semester instead.

To pay for his education after his return to Wisconsin, Peter worked part-time at Gilson Medical Electronics, staying after hours to design and build his own sailing hardware for his E-Scow and iceboats. One night some of the plastic ball bearings rolled off his bench and onto the floor. "I was amazed at how high they bounced," he recalled. "The less mass, the faster things accelerate. That's what pulleys do on a boat-stop and start all the time." Peter replaced the stainless steel needle bearings in his pulleys with 1/4" nylon ball bearings. His boats became the test platform for his designs, and as competitors saw Peter's sails releasing faster and his equipment working more smoothly than theirs, word about the "black blocks with white plastic balls" began to spread. 

During his freshman year at Georgia Tech, Olaf also squandered his father's money by driving to Wisconsin on breaks to help Peter and make sure he was having fun. After graduating, Olaf did a stint in the Navy for 3 1/2 years as an officer on a destroyer in the North Pacific. His ship was one of the first combat ships in the Vietnam conflict. Upon his return in 1967, the brothers and a couple of friends started a short-lived boat building/sailmaking/ball bearing block business called Scanda. However the sailing world did not beat a path to their door and Scanda was left with only one principle - Peter.

Peter Soldiered On; Olaf Jumped Aboard

Olaf had taken an engineering job in New York City, but in 1967 he returned to Wisconsin to help Peter build boats for the college market. "Why I made that decision then I'll never know," said Olaf. Home for the newly-formed Vanguard Boats (and later Harken Yacht Equipment) was a run-down garage in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The building had a small office in front with a 60-foot long garage behind, and an overhead door in the back. Inside the office were a couple of doors on saw horses used as desktops, an old typewriter, a telephone, and a file cabinet. A plastic polyethylene sheet separated the offices from the fiberglass and assembly area. A fan jammed in a window blew out the fumes. Needless to say OSHA was dumbfounded, but amazingly didn't shut them down. Marketing consisted of all-night drives with Peter at the wheel and Olaf typing brochures in the back seat of an old Chevy wagon. That first year they made $3,800-together.

Harken/Vanguard Launched

History - LeRoy StippichPeter and Olaf hadn't forgotten about their homemade ball bearing blocks. In a fortuitous decision, they put blocks into an old cigar box and showed them to Gary Comer, an old friend and founder of Lands' End, a marine mail-order business (now a North American clothing retailer). Gary said, "If I put them in my catalog, you'll have to make them." Gary also suggested they market the blocks under Harken rather than Vanguard because boat manufacturers might not want hardware labeled with the name of a competing boat builder.

LeRoy and Al Stippich, owners of a tool and die business (Accurate Products), had rented their first shop to Peter and Olaf, and learned that they did not have the funds to get the expensive injection molds and stamping dies built for the full-scale production of their ball bearing blocks. The Stippich's felt a kinship to Peter and Olaf. They saw two young brothers starting out like they did-with very little money. They offered to build the tooling at their expense and fabricate the blocks for them. The four made an agreement with a handshake that stood until Harken bought Accurate Products in 2010. 

Gary sold some of these early blocks to Lowell North and Buddy Friedrichs who were both Gold medalists (Star and Dragon) at the 1968 Olympics. Bruce Kirby, editor of One Design & Offshore Yachtsman (now Sailing World) let Peter and Olaf run an ad about their victory and wrote a tongue-in-cheek editorial that said Harken blocks were dangerous because they let the boom out so fast. "These diabolical devices are called Harken ball bearing blocks, and in my opinion it will take years for yacht designers to come up with boats fast enough to stay under the sails that are sheeted with them." Some readers thought he was serious. The ensuing controversy got invaluable publicity and the block business took off.

History - First employeeThe business was growing and Harken/Vanguard needed a secretary/bookkeeper/receptionist/office manager. One applicant answered the ad. Rose Sorensen was cute, had never missed one day of school, and knew how to spell. She's probably still asking herself why she accepted the job. Rose became an invaluable employee and held the title of U.S. HR Manager and Corporate Secretary until she retired in 2010.

As the boat business got busier, Peter and Olaf put an ad in the local paper for a fiberglass laminator-salary $3 an hour. Bob Gramins and Don Michaelson applied for the job and told Peter and Olaf they came as a team and wanted $5 and hour-each. They proved they were worth this big investment by building a beautiful Flying Junior from scratch in half the time it took Peter and Olaf. The "Plastic Fantastics" earned a reputation among colleges for their high-quality Flying Juniors and Badger Tech dinghies. Don stayed with Vanguard until Peter and Olaf sold the boat business.

Growth and borrowing were synonymous for the new business with small loans granted by an understanding local bank, but when Vanguard needed $10,000, Olaf (company treasurer) was told his request needed approval from the bank's board of directors. After reading Olaf's financial report, a hand-scribbled mix of fantasy and bad addition on a yellow legal pad, the bemused loan officer shook his head and said, "OK, I'm just going to wing it."

Growing the Business

With the success of the collegiate dinghy range and the international popularity of the growing block line, Harken/Vanguard soon moved into a bigger building in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, in 1971. To pay for it they needed to build more boats and decided to try for the U.S. rights to build the International 470. They suspected the double-handed, high-performance trapeze dinghy would become an Olympic Class in 1976 (it did and still is). During the haggling, designer André Cornu announced that since the U.S. was much bigger than France, he wanted a guarantee of 5,000 boats a year. Peter explained the U.S. market wasn't that big and Cornu lowered the number to 2,000 boats a year. Peter said he couldn't promise even one boat but would work hard and do his best. Vanguard built 350 boats, in the first year, a fantastic number for the U.S. market.

Harken/Vanguard 470s focused on providing complete deck layouts for Olympic hopefuls. Young sailors like 2003 Rolex Sailor of the Year winner, Augie Diaz, arrived in droves to work on their boats and gave Peter and Olaf many ideas on improvements. The fun that typified those early days didn't stop. Peter writes, "In the hay day of the 470, our affection and respect was numbered by the amount of insults and pranks we heaped on each other during the many regattas we attended. Augie was one of the top 470 sailors and very well liked, so one dark night we rigged his boat for him. It was ready to go, sails and all. The following morning we heard a flurry of four-letter Spanish words. There was Augie's boat, floating serenely but ready, in the Davis Island Yacht Club swimming pool.

Weathering the Storms

Plummeting boat sales during the gasoline crisis forced employees to take turns being laid off. To keep the fiberglass shop busy, Peter and Olaf planned to build rudders, centerboards, kayaks, and model boats to help the bottom line. At this low ebb, Art Mitchel, Peter's college roommate and VP of the Trust Department at a large bank, saw the fun his buddies were having slopping fiberglass and joined them. Mitch brought organization to the business. Now Corporate Navigator, he is semi-retired, but is still figuring out how to fully retire because no one will let him.

Vanguard Finn to the Rescue

History - Olympic FinnAs boat production continued to sputter, Finn Gold Cup winner Joerg Bruder designed a Finn for sailmaker Peter Conrad and asked Vanguard to build two. They were named Blue Dog and Yellow Dog and were both exceptionally slow. Joerg was the only guy who could sail them fast. Peter scratched his head and started over. His new design combined the narrow bow of the Newport Finn (phenomenal upwind and dicey downwind) and the flat rear end of the Teal Finn (fast downwind, but slow upwind). In between, Peter kept the lines as straight as possible. He figured that when the water molecules hit the bow, they wanted to get to the stern as fast as possible. When Finn measurer John Christianson arrived to bless the new Finn, he discovered the bow was way too narrow and didn't measure in. "This is a really neat boat, a gorgeous boat," said John. "Too bad it's not a Finn." After Peter and Olaf fixed their small error, John Bertrand and Bill Allen took the boats to Southern Yacht Club for the North Americans. They were seriously razzed by competitors for their sissy hiking pads. After finishing first and second in the regatta, the orders for the Vanguard Finn poured in.

Going Big

Peter and Olaf wanted to develop a line of big boat blocks to complement the successful small boat line, but they ran into a major snag. The Delrin® bearings they used couldn't handle the higher loads. "We figured somewhere in the world some crazy scientist would have the goop we needed," said Peter. "Amoco had just released Torlon® plastic for commercial use. It was the toughest plastic in the world. The material was perfect for our prototype mainsheet block."

"We were small boat builders and didn't know many big boat sailors in the U.S. We met the Swedish America's Cup team at the 1976 SORC in Florida, and asked if they would test our prototype block on the 12-meter Sverige, their entry in the 1977 America's Cup. After the series, the team told us our mainsheet block was the only one they didn't have to replace."

Contract with the Russian Sailing Federation

Harken and Vanguard were selected to provide the molds, parts, boats, and equipment for the 1980 Olympic Games in Russia. The Estonian boat building group and their Russian chaperones arrived on Halloween from the Tallinn Shipyard to learn the secrets of laminating strong, lightweight Finns and 470s. They were completely bewildered when all the employees greeted them in costume. During the visit the Russians played American football in the back forty, became Harken rock band groupies, visited Chicago, and learned all about Jack Daniels. After they left, U.S. State Department reps wearing trench coats and pulled-down hats arrived and told Peter and Olaf to make sure the group stayed in Pewaukee. Oops!

History - Russian visitors on Halloween

France Welcomed to Harken Family in 1986

Early on only four people staffed Patrick Rieupeyrout's small office (called Barlow Marine-Europe) in La Rochelle. Specializing in Harken hardware and Barient and Barlow winches, everyone did everything-from packaging to technical service and regatta support. Today this active Harken division supplies gear and superb technical support to everything from one-designs, offshore racers, and giant multihulls, to OEM yards.

Good-Bye Vanguard 

The hardware business was growing the boat business rapidly, and running both became too much. About that time Steve Clark and Chip Johns of Quarter Moon, Inc., made an offer to buy the Vanguard part of the company, and Peter and Olaf reluctantly sold the tooling and Vanguard name to them. Vanguard employees spent a jam-packed week sharing boat building information and methodology with the new owners, but to the people it was so much more than boat building. It was the comradery, the "we can do it" attitude, and the pride in building the best dinghies in the world. Boats were often shipped with a crazy note from the boys in the shop. Finns were packed up and labeled 'To Russia with Love' complete with a bottle of champagne and a message assuring a customer that HIS boat was undoubtedly the BEST boat Vanguard had ever built.

Nothing ever got out the door without the approval of Peter and Olaf. Their quality control checks were famous. Inevitably they would find something that was "not quite right" as the container was being loaded-usually late at night. The offending object was always repaired or replaced to the despair of an overworked and tired crew but never was a finger pointed.

One Door Closes, Another Opens

History - Bonassi and Barbarossa winchesIn another providential decision, Harken acquired the Italian winch company, Barbarossa, from brothers Luca and Tony Bassani. It wasn't long before Harken aluminum winches became the winch of choice. 

To celebrate the new alliance, Harken employees took Italian lessons and Italian-Pewaukanese became a new language. 

The chief engineer at Harken Italy was Luciano Bonassi. He gained a reputation for hand-drawing winch designs with incredible speed, and generating more than 36,000 signed drawings during his Harken career. He was a brilliant engineer with friends on both sides of the Atlantic.

"We knew if we got into the America's Cup winch game, we'd really have to commit ourselves," said Peter. "It would be dangerous, because if we failed, the whole world would know. It's like entering the bullring. Don't go looking for praise, cheering, and backslapping because you're going to get bloodied. We told our guys here, 'Guys, the pressure is going to be horrendous. At times we'll be working 24/7. No whining.' "

A longstanding friendship between Aukland-based Harken distributor John Street and New Zealand syndicate head Sir Peter Blake opened the door for Harken. When talking with him he asked us, "Can you guarantee your winches will be successful?" We said, "We can't guarantee anything other than that we'll work our butts off around-the-clock to keep you sailing." Our winches had carbon-fiber drums (an industry first), and were much lighter than the competition's. Blake also liked the idea of our direct, honest approach and commitment to service and he took a chance. New Zealand won the Cup. It was the first time in modern Cup history that one company had provided complete deck hardware and winch packages to both America's Cup finalists. 

History - TNZ 1995

Amoco Procyon - A Yacht with a Futuristic Design

A severe downturn in the boating market prompted Olaf and a group of other sailing industry leaders to develop a concept yacht with the hopes of revitalizing the industry. The 65 foot Amoco Procyon (named after the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor) promoted an innovative ease-of-sail philosophy through its push-button method of operation. Many of Procyon's custom systems were designed by Harken engineers: the keel canting, dual station steering, rudder bearings, mainsail furling, and the track/car portion of the bipod mast's raising/lowering system. Although common today, these ideas were unheard of at the time. That year Procyon won the Popular Science Award for recreation.

Welcoming new Divisions

With at least half its business overseas, Olaf Harken and Assistant Marketing Manager, Bill Goggins (now Managing Director USA) realized the importance of continuing to establish Harken subsidiaries to better support its customer base in Europe and Asia. 

Harken Sweden
In 1998 Erich Hagen joined Harken as an exclusive distributor for Sweden and Norway. After a successful 12 year association, Erich retired. Today Fredrik Bergström leads the Harken Sweden team as they work toward making Harken products an even stronger presence in these marine markets. 

Harken Australia
An independent distributor for many years, Harken Australia shifted status and became a Harken owned operation in 2006. "This provides us with the opportunity to control our own destiny in this important market," said Peter Harken. Industry veteran Carl Watson was appointed head of the new sales and service division. After Carl retired, Grant Pellew became managing director. 

Harken New Zealand
Fosters, a Harken distributor since 1978, was also acquired and renamed Harken New Zealand in 2006. Garry Lock, a 15-year employee of Cookson Boats and an experienced keelboat and dinghy racer, became managing director of the new division. Under Lock's management, Fosters' skilled staff continues to expand the company's presence in the Pacific region.

Harken UK
In 1999, when distributor Clyde Marine restructured and sold Harken distributor Simpson Lawrence, the company's Harken connection, Andy Ash-Vie (now Managing Director), dug in his heels and said, "Enough is enough. Harken should stand on its own." He and his wife, Cathy (now commercial manager), dragged Olaf and Peter to the UK and convinced them that it was a good idea to set up a dedicated Harken company. Initially they ran the business out of the front room of their home, but with boxes full of parts all over the house, garage, and garden, they moved the operation to a larger premises. Today's home for the growing Harken UK team is a 6,200 square foot building with planning permission to more than double its size. 

Sales and Service Office in Warsaw Poland
In 2009 Managing Director Magdalena Rakowicz hit the ground running as head of Harken's wholly-owned sales and service office in Warsaw, Poland. With the growth of production and custom boatyards as well as an increased interest in sailing, Magdalena was quick to firmly establish Harken in the Polish market. Today Zofia Truchanowicz is building on the solid foundation initiated by Magdalena. "With her sailing and administrative experience she has already led a very full life," said Peter. "She fits into our culture very well. A big welcome, Zofia, from everyone at Harken."

"We're planning ahead and investing in our future with our greatest asset-our people and our team's experience," explained Peter and Olaf. "With these changes we're hoping to get involved in areas where we can best serve our customers and grow our people. To do so we have promoted key leaders from within the Harken organization, and will continue our involvement in our company and the industry we love." 

As the newly-named Chairmen of the Board, Peter and Olaf meant what they said. They have not backed off or slowed down, but continue to keep everyone hopping with new ideas and big plans. 

New Homes for Harken Headquarters & Harken Italy 

The Harken Italy winch manufacturing facility was the first to build a new facility and to embrace lean manufacturing principles. Harken USA followed, purchasing Accurate Products, the company that first believed in Peter and Olaf. The brothers consolidated both the Waukesha and Pewaukee operations into a larger, more efficient, new 175,000 square-foot lean-manufacturing facility. Located on 26 acres in Pewaukee, the building's first floor holds the manufacturing, assembly, shipping, and warehousing operations; the second level is for offices. Outside, a large holding pond surrounded on three sides by plenty of rich grass and marshland is a haven for deer, geese, cranes, egrets, and ducks. "Watch out for wildlife" signs are posted along the drive. 

History - new buildings

A New Course

Harken engineers have charged into a new arena-hydraulics. As always, the company reached high, using the monster America's Cup trimaran Oracle Team USA as a development platform for the systems. Each afternoon, work ground to a halt as Harken employees gathered to watch the nail-biting series. 

To everyone's amazement, Team Oracle beat Emirates Team New Zealand in the wildest and longest America's Cup ever. Harken hydraulics had arrived!

Diversifying

Harken also decided to get serious about an area they had long dabbled in-Industrial. Harken adapted its winches, pulleys, and travelers for use in a range of industries including utility, access and rescue, wind power, architectural, and stage/theater. One of the most popular products is the PowerSeat®; the powered ascender was featured on The CBS Morning News showing workers cleaning the Grand Canyon's glass Skywalk and accessing the canyon's depths to haul out accumulated garbage.

History - PowerSeat

The growing Canvas division supplies customers with boating and industrial canvas products. Harken boat covers are custom measured and fit; the popular soft luggage line is designed and handmade here. Harken Canvas ramped up its industrial production with contract cutting and sewing for commercial businesses: law enforcement, medical, drilling industries, and entrepreneurial start-ups. 

The Harken Hoister is also going strong with a variety of garage storage lifting systems for canoes/kayaks, Jeep® and truck hard tops, bikes, and the popular SUP. 

Robotics and expanded manufacturing capabilities have allowed growth outside the sailing industry with our in-house machine shop supplying companies with valves, shafts, plates, terminals, and a myriad of other outsourced products. In another big move, Harken block, winch, traveler, and furling systems are being adapted for use in the industrial sector. The low weight, strength, and compact sizes make these products the perfect choice when creating rope management systems in a range of industries: commercial marine, utility, rescue, wind power, architectural, and stage and theater to name a few.

As our business continues to expand, Harken has never strayed from our core values of product excellence and customer first approach-from the friendly voice that answers the telephone, to one-on-one support from our expert technical and customer service staff. These guiding principles established by Peter and Olaf Harken all those years ago will never change as Harken looks to the future.

  • United States
  • Australia
  • France
  • Italia
  • New Zealand
  • Polska
  • Sverige
  • UK