A world-class corporate culture

Harken employees passionate about sailing, people

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I was honored and fortunate to participate in Harken Inc.’s 50th anniversary celebration – first in Pewaukee, and then on to Italy.

Harken enthusiasts traveled from virtually every continent, at their own expense, to help the company mark this golden anniversary with events both fascinating and fantastic.

Founders Olaf and Peter Harken are true rock stars in the sailing world, witnessed by their products on every America’s Cup yacht no matter what international flag flies. While I didn’t ask people to roll up their sleeves, I can guarantee you some devoted fans had Harken-tattooed arms and legs.

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Harken’s story is remarkable, but surprisingly, not well-known in Wisconsin outside of the sailing world. It’s a Harley-Davidson or Hewlett-Packard type of story playing out right in our own Cheesehead backyard.

How it all started

Olaf’s autobiography, “Fun Times in Boats, Blocks & Business,” is an entertaining read, documenting the brothers’ personal history and Harken’s ascendance in the sailing world. (Today, Harken’s reach extends well beyond sailing to other manufacturing applications – but that’s for another column.) The book, available on Amazon, should definitely be on your reading list.

How does a small company, started by two brothers from Dutch Indonesia, grow to become the brand in sailing? At Harken, it started with the brothers’ invention, creativity and personal drive, but it continued with culture and living out core values.

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Harken has a document called “The Weather Mark” which describes, in Olaf and Peter’s own words, their beliefs on how to run their business.

  1. “Keep the wellbeing of your people first!”
  2. “Make the best products at a fair price.”
  3. “Service your customers beyond their expectations.”
  4. “Never lose your sense of right from wrong, the basic judgment taught by your mother and father.”

What stands out is how Harken lives these corporate values. As a result, it has created a people-centric corporate culture. Customers and Harken team members always come first. As a result, employees are incredibly engaged and truly care about the customer, each other and the wellbeing of the Harken family.

Why this is important

In his book, “The Coming Jobs War,” Gallup CEO Jim Clifton says, “Your customer will never be more engaged than your least engaged employee.” Harken’s loyal customer base is a testament to the engagement of its team members.

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But is this all sustainable?

Of course, it’s fair to ask: “Is a great culture sustainable once the founder retires?” I believe it will be at Harken. It starts with selecting people who naturally fit the company’s core values (back to “The Weather Mark” for guidance here). Harken has done an incredible job creating a team of people who are not only passionate about sailing, but exceptionally passionate about people.

Culture replicates and survives only by having processes, systems, rewards – and sometimes punishments – aligned with core values. And it doesn’t happen accidentally.

Discussions around culture and living up to “The Weather Mark” happen at Harken at every weekly meeting on-site and at meetings off-site. Maintaining the corporate culture across all offices and in culturally-diverse countries isn’t easy. It’s hard work. And it’s worth it.

It’s how a company like Harken becomes old enough, wise enough and strong enough to celebrate a 50th anniversary around the world.

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