Harken Yacht Equipment


Brothers Olaf and Peter Harken began making small sail boats for universities in 1967 with their company, Vanguard Sailboats.

While Peter was still attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he invented a plastic recirculating ball bearing pulley that changed the sport of sailboat racing.

“The pulleys were a breakthrough,” Olaf Harken said. “They didn’t require lubricants, could be easily washed and required no maintenance.”

In the 1968 Summer Olympics, the pulleys were used on two gold medal-winning sail boats, and the hardware was soon demanded worldwide.

The brothers began working in two industries, building boats with Vanguard and supplying hardware under the Harken name.

“It was getting lopsided,” Olaf said. “We were spending 75 percent of our time building boats and 25 percent on hardware, but 75 percent of our income was coming from hardware.”

In the early 1980s, the brothers sold Vanguard and focused their efforts entirely on supplying hardware.

Harken is now the largest supplier of sailboat hardware in the world, with offices in eight countries, including four in the United States.

A key reason for the company’s commercial success is that it stayed on top of the trends in the boat racing world, Olaf said.

“We ventured into the America’s Cup, which was dangerous, because if something fails, the world would know about it,” Olaf said. “We now totally dominate the America’s Cup. We had our equipment on 11 of the 12 syndicates in the last one (in Valencia, Spain).”

Supplying boat hardware and a strong international presence help the company’s sales stay balanced throughout all economic trends, Olaf said.

“When people aren’t buying new boats, then they’re fixing their old ones,” he said. “Although sailboat building is down in America right now, in Europe, it’s up 10 percent. As long as they’re growing, it’ll help us grow.”

Southeastern Wisconsin has provided the company with the resources to continue to grow, Olaf said.

“We’ve analyzed whether we should build more in China, where most of our competitors are headed,” Olaf said. “People ask, ‘Why are you in the Midwest with a marine company?’ Well, it’s because we can get stuff made here.”

Strong machining centers in the area and very strong hydraulics centers in Milwaukee played a key role in the company’s decision to invest in the Midwest, Olaf said.

“Wisconsin has been a very good place for us,” he said. “We have the resources around us and can keep a good eye on quality.”

Harken Yacht Equipment

Address: 1251 E. Wisconsin Avenue, Pewaukee
Website: ww.harken.com
Industry: Sailboat hardware and equipment
Revenues: 21-percent growth in 2007
Employees: 140

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