Speaking ahead of this year’s America’s Cup ,we caught up with Land Rover BAR’s Jo Grindley to discover why the team places such a strong emphasis on competing sustainably.
How did BAR get started?
In 2011, Ben had just qualified for the 2012 Olympics, but he was already thinking further ahead and began setting up a team to challenge for the America’s Cup. We went to Italy on a fundraising trip and he phoned the CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority, Sir Russell Coutts, and said: “I’d like to set up a team.” In the beginning we gave ourselves a deadline of eight weeks to raise £25 million. We already had backers on board, like the entrepreneur Keith Mills and the TalkTalk chairman Charles Dunstone, and we made it in time.
How many people do you have working on the BAR team?
It ranges between 50 and 70 staff out in Bermuda, with the rest of the team based at our headquarters in Portsmouth. So around 120 in total.
How closely are you being watched by your competitors?
The rules say you are not allowed to shroud anything about the boat. So, all the other teams’ spies are there, whenever we go out training on the water. At our Camber Quay base in Portsmouth we are surrounded by residential properties and some teams rent out flats opposite us, so every time the doors open they are clicking away with their cameras.
How important is sustainability to the team?
At our first team meeting we identified sustainability as a key part of our strategy. We realised that you couldn’t be a technical innovation company and not look at sustainability and the impact that you have. The two naturally go together. Then we met with Wendy Schmidt, the co-founder of 11th Hour Racing, our sustainability partner. We already had a plan of what we wanted to achieve and they had a role in making that much, much bigger. Wendy said, early on: “If you are going to do it, do it properly.”
One of the biggest impacts of our work comes through the use of carbon fibre. We build our boats in carbon, but also our moulds. We are working on what the end-of-life programme should be, with Land Rover funding a PhD programme with Southampton University to see how we can extract the fibres more efficiently, because we want to get to the stage where the fibres have more integrity.
What lessons can sport learn from your work on sustainability?
The key to our success in this area is that we have made sustainability the core of everything we do as a team. When you look at the America’s Cup, it’s at the very pinnacle of the sport of sailing and it’s only right that we lead the way and set an example to our fans, but also our commercial partners. Sport is such an engaging way to capture the attention of huge audiences and we are actively looking to work with other sports and sports teams to further this agenda in the wider world.
“We’ve tried to dispel some of the preconceptions about the whole elitism of the America’s Cup”
Is the America’s Cup sustainable?
There was a recent announcement on sustainability that five of the six challenging teams signed up to. We’ve tried to dispel some of the preconceptions about the whole elitism of the America’s Cup, because that is not Ben, and that’s not Ben’s background. So, we have school groups regularly coming through our doors to do the Land Rover engineering challenge, and we have developed something call BT Stem Crew, which is an online resource with real life applications. It helps teach students that what we do is all about forces, including lift, drag and weight, so we put that into real life context and you can see something tangible and understand it.
Do your sponsors buy into your sustainability mission?
It is part of our contract with them that they sign up to our sustainability ethos. So it’s not just lip service.
We are just a small sports team and ultimately our aim is to win the America’s Cup. We’re marrying that aim with becoming the most sustainable sports team, but we are not going to have a massive impact on our own. We need all our partners to work together and one of the projects for the Cup is to utilise the power of partnerships. For example, we have Meatless Mondays at our canteen because that can have a bigger impact than oil or cars do. But how many of our partners can also have Meatless Mondays in their staff canteen? And how many can have zero waste during that month-long period we are racing and how many can give up single-use plastics? Hopefully our partnerships will lead to behavioural change moving forwards and give people an opportunity to do some really simple things.
Where do you think the biggest gains are being made in sustainability in other sports?
Formula E has gone a long way and as with any sport you need to encourage collaboration and learning. Recently I went to the Beyond Sport conference and it was really interesting to see so many sports wanting to find environmental solutions. It is true that sport has been amazing at driving social change, but it can make a positive impact on environmental issues too.
How can we build more sustainability into sport generally?
The government is one of the biggest funders of sport in this country, yet there is no sustainability requirement within any bid. We need to help that process along by providing the case studies and the business plans and learnings that can be applied. That’s a big place of influence for us.
What about the America’s Cup being a sport of billionaires?
That is the history of the America’s Cup, but that’s not our team. We are set up as a business, with Ben as the major shareholder. Team NZ are the ultimate commercial team, the ones we modelled ourselves on more than any other. How do we change perceptions? We built this building and we are bringing it to life, and hopefully just the excitement of it will engage more people in the sport as a whole.
Ben is not a billionaire and as a sportsman he has taken a massive risk at the very height of his career. Most people choose to take the biggest cheque. As a sport, sailing is keen to be seen more widely by a larger demographic and we can work with sporting bodies around the country to show that it is an affordable option.
We set the business up to be sustainable in the long term, not just environmentally sustainable. We have always had an aspiration to look at the McLaren model as they have an applied technology department, and with that they developed their business far beyond just the sport side of it. We wouldn’t have built a 17,000 sq foot building and be working with our partners to sign long-term deals if we didn’t want to give people continuity and confidence. We would also love to grow more home grown talent within design engineering.