Tom Whidden ’70 talks of success
Tom Whidden ’70 arrived on the Hill with a passion for one thing: sailing. As a psychology major at the College, he was unaware that he was on his way to becoming president and co-owner of North Sails, a company that grosses $320 million every year. However, as President William “Bro” Adams said in his introduction of Whidden’s talk, “It doesn’t matter what you major in. It matters how well you do.”
While at Colby, Whidden was a self-described “B student,” though he learned some of his most important values while on the Hill. When discussing what he got out of his time at on the Hill, Whidden said, “[The College] taught me to think outside the box” and that “three characteristics of good work are really illustrated well at Colby: excellence, engagement and ethics.”
After learning these values at the College, Whidden attempted to turn his passion for sailing into a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Though he was not financially secure and did not have an idea of what he wanted to do afterwards, Whidden continued to pursue sailing as a career. “For me it wasn’t about the money. I decided if I did something I was passionate about, it wouldn’t matter,” he said.
Whidden nearly realized his dream of making the Olympics after he defeated one of the eventual U.S. Olympic sailors in a preliminary competition, but his Finn dinghy, a sailboat, was disqualified from a later competition because it did not meet a measurement requirement. Unable to use the boat with which he had trained, Whidden lost a spot on the 1972 Olympic sailing team.
Given the choice between waiting another four years and moving on to other endeavors, Whidden compromised. “My second goal was that I wanted to be a sail maker,” he said. With the help of another sailor, Whidden bought a sail-making company. “The company had been run for 25 years by this guy Lowell North,” he said.
While making sails, he continued to pursue his love of sailing. Whidden was a part of the first U.S. team to lose the America’s Cup race in 132 years in a 1983 race with New Zealand. However, Whidden said that he learned some valuable lessons from the loss. “They beat us at our own game: technology,” he said. While the U.S. trained hard to secure the next America’s Cup, Whidden and his business worked to improve their technology with molded, composite sails to beat the New Zealanders.
In the following year’s rematch with New Zealand, he said, “We built this catamaran and we killed ‘em….We’ve been fortunate enough to build a good enough product that every America’s Cup team has used them in the last 20 years.”
Whidden and his company continue to develop new technologies and build their company, which now includes clothing, spar-making and sail-making branches. He said that North Sails has followed the mantra, “If it isn’t broken, fix it anyway.”
Providing advice to aspiring entrepreneurs at the College, Whidden warned, “Very rarely do things go exactly as planned.” He emphasized that he could not have gotten to where he is without taking risks. “You gotta take a chance along the way.…It’s all about risk-reward,” he said.
Despite these warnings to Colby students, Whidden ended his talk by praising the power of the College in getting students to where they want to be. “[The College] inspired me to sort of go off and follow my passion,” he said. To those who might be worried about having what it takes to succeed, he said, “Don’t ever think that you just have to use intellect to get what you want to get.” He left students with the idea that passion, good fortune and the willingness to take risks are the essential factors for success in life.