‘We lost a legend’

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Olaf Harken

Olaf Harken

Olaf Harken, who in 1967 founded Harken Inc. with his brother Peter, died Oct. 21. He was 80 years old.

“We lost a legend,” Bill Goggins, Harken CEO, told Trade Only Today, shortly after the news became public.

Born in Sumatra, Indonesia, the Harkens spent most of their adult lives in Pewaukee, Wis. They turned a small boatbuilding business into a global empire of designing hardware and high-tech components for America’s Cup yachts, Olympic Classes and thousands of other racing, custom and production sailboats. Harken also manufactures hardware for commercial marine, architectural, rope access and rescue industries. It has offices in 48 countries, and the headquarters in Pewaukee employs about 250 people.

Olaf, known for a serious work ethic, curious mind and quick wit, wrote in his memoir, Fun Times in Boats, Blocks and Business, that he and Peter realized that “success is linked directly to trust and treating people with dignity, and maybe a little sprinkling of humor.”

When Olaf and Peter were inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame, Olaf explained the company’s business philosophy: “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!”

The Harken brothers were born in Indonesia at the start of World War II. Olaf, Peter and his mother, Ulla, escaped to Borneo when Japan invaded Indonesia, and his father, Joe, stayed behind with a small Dutch army to fight. Joe was imprisoned for five years until the end of the war. Olaf, Peter and Ulla lived in New Zealand for a year, then arrived in San Francisco in 1944, where they reunited with Joe after the war. The family eventually made their way to Wisconsin.

Olaf studied engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. Joe studied economics, then started to build small sailboats. After college, Olaf returned to Wisconsin to help Peter build boats for the college market. “Why I made that decision then I'll never know,” Olaf said.

The first office had two doors on sawhorses for desks, an old typewriter, a telephone and a file cabinet. A plastic sheet separated the offices from the fiberglass and assembly area. Marketing consisted of all-night drives with Peter at the wheel and Olaf typing brochures in the back seat of an old Chevy wagon, Olaf wrote in his memoir. They made $3,800 during the first year in business.

Olaf, the engineer, ended up running the business side of Harken; Peter, the economist, handled design and production. “Peter designed the blocks and knew more about manufacturing than me,” Olaf said.

“Olaf was more patient, better at the business than me,” Peter said. “Each of us was better at the other guys’ education. We kept it quiet, figuring people wouldn’t want blocks designed by an economist.”

In his book, Olaf recounts lying to a client about the delivery time for a series of sailboats they were building.

“Peter overheard me and was furious,” Olaf wrote. “He made me call them back and tell them I was wrong, that we were further behind and would not be able to deliver for a few more weeks. This was very embarrassing, but it taught me a good lesson. For one thing, I didn’t have to keep on lying each week. Taking the beating once is a lot easier than building one lie on top of another. It’s not easy to do, and the customer is going to be angry or disappointed, but that’s the end of it.”

The Harken brothers were recognized for many innovations over the years, including being named company of the decade by the DAME awards panel at Metstrade in 2000, as well as such products as the RigTunePro, CLR Mooring Winch, Air Winch and its recent 2019 DAME award nominee, the PowerMeter Sprocket.

Peter Harken noted that the business over the last five decades had been full of “twists, turns, successes and reinventions,” adding that the goal has always been to challenge the status quo by being at the leading edge of technology.

“Olaf did all the hard work so I could have all the fun,” Peter told an assembly of Harken workers this week. “During the days when the company was just getting going, Olaf was in charge of the money. He kept us in business. His legacy is in this culture. So let’s just keep doing what we do. Just keep getting better. You are a great family. He’ll be watching you, so no sloughing off!”

“You couldn’t have scripted a nicer weekend for Olaf than the one just past,” Goggins said.

Pewaukee Yacht Club had honored Olaf last Saturday night with a Lifetime Achievement Award, Goggins said, adding that he received two standing ovations. “He rose, walked to the front and accepted the award with his usual grace and dignity,” Goggins said. “The evening was highlighted by Olaf and Ruth on the dance floor. Sunday was a simple [Green Bay] Packers game with his family and then a remarkable chance 30-minute walk with his brother in the sunshine.”

Harken died in his sleep, with loved ones nearby.

Harken is survived by his wife of 47 years, Ruth; three daughters; four granddaughters; and one grandson. The family is holding a visitation and service Saturday morning at Galilee Lutheran Church in Pewaukee, followed by a celebration at Harken corporate headquarters. Another celebration of Harken’s life will be held during Metstrade in Amsterdam in November.

“The company mourns his loss,” Goggins said. “However, we celebrate his life by doing what we do, every day, into a bright future.”

Read Olaf Harken’s obituary here.

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