Olaf Harken, co-founder of sailing equipment maker, dies at 80

Olaf Harken
Olaf Harken

Last updated on March 17th, 2020 at 01:38 pm

Olaf Harken, the co-founder with his brother Peter of Pewaukee-based sailing equipment manufacturer Harken Inc., died Monday at the age of 80, the company announced.

The brothers started the company in 1967 and made $3,800 together in their first year. They grew the company to a giant of the sailing industry, making marine hardware, hydraulics and winch systems for racing and cruising sailboats. The company’s gear is regularly used in events like the America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race and the Olympics.

“When trying new stuff our rule is to ask, ‘if it all goes bad, can we survive?’ Then we go to the bar and forget what we just said and do it anyway!” Olaf said at the brothers’ 2014 induction into the National Sailing Hall of Fame, according to a company announcement.

Olaf was born to Dutch and Swedish parents in Indonesia at the start of World War II. The brothers and their mom, Ulla, escaped following the Japanese attack on the country in 1941 and made it to San Francisco in 1944. However, they were not reunited with their father until 1946.

Olaf went to school at Georgia Tech and took an engineering job in New York City before deciding to return to Wisconsin to work with Peter building boats.

The duo ended up switching their specialties. Even though Peter was an economist, he designed blocks and led production while Olaf led the business side.

“My brother did all the hard work so I could have all the fun,” Peter told employees at the company following Olaf’s death. “During the days when the company was just getting going, Olaf was in charge of the money. He kept us in business. If I had been in charge of that we would have been in big trouble.”

Bill Goggins, chief executive officer of Harken, said Olaf’s final days included a lifetime achievement award from the Pewaukee Yacht Club on Saturday and watching the Packer game on Sunday with family, including a 30-minute walk with Peter.

“The company mourns his loss; however the company celebrates his life by doing what we do…every day…into a bright future,” Goggins told employees.

Peter said Olaf’s legacy is the company’s culture.

“So, let’s just keep doing what we do. Just keep getting better. You are a great family. Thanks a lot. He’ll be watching you, so no sloughing off!” Peter said.

Preliminary plans include a visitation and service Saturday morning, Oct. 26, at Galilee Lutheran Church in Pewaukee followed by a celebration at Harken’s headquarters.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.