AND NOW TO BUSINESS
One Saturday afternoon off Kiel in June 1976 I drew a line under my formative years as carefree drifter and daydreamer and embarked on a new journey that, quickly taking on a life of its own, would increasingly come to dominate my thoughts, my efforts and my hours. While I had enjoyed facing each new day with little more than a youthful curiosity as to the pleasures and surprises it might bring, now I felt I wanted more – and looking back I can safely say I would not have had it any other way.
I was out sailing the metal yawl LILOFEE, my yacht of the moment (if you recall), with a guest who was interested in taking her off my hands. Restless of spirit, twitchy, eager to move on and yearning for the new adventures that seemed to be lurking just out of reach, I had (not for the first time) decided to begin by selling my boat. And as luck would have it, I had found the right buyer too. John Adam was my guest that day and to say we were of a like mind would be an understatement. The breeze treated us kindly, the sea sparkled and foamed under the bow and I, for once, took no notice at all. My thoughts lay elsewhere, specifically on the crazy deal we had just cooked up: you have my yawl, Lilofee, and I’ll have your company, Windpilot. Did I take a night to sleep on it? No. Did I check with my wife? Er, no (and I faced the music for it later too, believe me). I knew it was a rash decision, I knew it would not sit well in certain quarters – and yet despite that (or was it precisely because of that?) I went ahead with the trade.
And now a short extract from the litany of reproachful questions I copped on the home front: No, I didn’t have a written contract. No, I didn’t have any misgivings about exchanging an elegant yawl for a pile of old metal and an idea. No, I didn’t know the first thing about metalworking, welding, turning, milling or laminating either. And no, I didn’t think I was completely out of my mind!
It was the idea that had me captivated, that led me, entranced, coolly to launch myself into the unknown. It was almost as though an invisible hand (my internal Windpilot?) was guiding me.
Grinning back at me from the mirror that evening I saw an excited young man of 29, his cheeks – at least what could be seen of them behind a full beard – still glowing from the buzz of the day’s action. He was fairly crackling with energy and enthusiasm too: this one would clearly not be sitting still for while yet. Life in the light of this new challenge became turbo-charged: I just had to hang on. No time for TV, already the focal point of many homes – I had my own dramas. Although, wait a minute, a TV, a decent one I mean, might be worth enough to trade for something useful like an echosounder, now that would be an idea (did I really do that or did I just think that?). Fortunately I had a history of getting things done: take my wedding, for example – OK I was slightly late, but I did make it in the end.
In the eyes of my then-wife I became all at once a complete alien. Quiet – indeed silent – times followed as the realisation dawned that the man would not be swayed, not by cunning nor by feminine wiles. Have courage was the message for my wife. It was probably a moment of truth – and definitely a moment with long-term implications for the marriage business (I had a rather different perspective at the time: after all I had done no more than swap one key for another).
John’s intentions at that time centred on sailing to Australia, where his wife had lived as a child. Heidi’s newly discovered propensity to feed the fish whenever the sea state picked up forced them to reconsider, however, and the boat was replaced with a much larger craft built by John with his own hands in Taiwan. The result in anything approaching rough weather remained the same though and the planned voyage mutated into a tour of the Med and sailing eventually gave way to a life on terra firma. John eventually settled in an old farmhouse in Northern Germany, where he operates a unique carpentry business (when, that is, he isn’t in Morocco on his bike or exploring far-flung corners of the world with nothing but the smallest of backpacks for company).
Anyway, my yawl set off up the coast for Laboe that evening while I made tracks for the workshop, directions on a scrap of paper helping me to find a building in the woods that even a satnav (had there been such a thing in those days) might have struggled with.
What did it concern me that another interested party and some broker fellow already had plans to get John’s signature on the dotted line? The early bird catches the worm – and I, by the width of a feather, was apparently the earliest bird to the field. Then as now, a handshake is all the contract I need.
What certainly did concern me was that the other interested party subsequently decided to exploit his knowledge of the stainless steel internals of the business he had just failed to buy for his own ends (masculine pride can be a terrible thing – and an expensive one too). The Windmaster company, well funded and operated with a great deal of entrepreneurial verve, appeared by the fish market in Kiel as the diversification of a wealthy man and official local Mercedes dealer. Its employees strode about in branded company clothing (with the Mercedes logo on prominent display), its marketing materials and boat show stands were positively opulent and its self-confidence appeared boundless.
There appeared to be a serious amount of money involved, in other words, which could have been a sobering proposition for someone of my meagre resources. Fortunately it suited me to build up my business steadily and without fanfare. First of all, of course, I had to pick up welding, turning and polishing. Actually these skills proved surprisingly rewarding to learn – and they didn’t seem to be all that difficult either: perhaps all that playing around with old cars and two-stroke engines would turn out to be useful after all.
Newly upskilled or otherwise, I still had no cash: my food budget left no scope for anything but the essentials, and as for transport, I was driving an old van that I had reconstructed, with a rubber mallet and a large quantity of filler, after an unfortunate bit of off-road gymnastics left it just about unrecognisable bar the VW badge. What hours of panel beating and patching couldn’t hide, a good paint job very nearly did.
Strategy, they say, is everything in launching a start-up. My strategy was the only strategy open to me in the absence of financial backers or a fat inheritance: take things as they come. I did, and they came thick, fast and in no discernable order.
We closed the deal in summer and after a couple of months of training inland in Mölln (the recollection of that first night of welding still makes me laugh), I loaded my rivets, nails, GRP kit and hardware – including machine tools old enough to have seen war service – into an army surplus truck and, in a series of very cautious journeys, relocated corporate headquarters to Hamburg. My new base had a colourful history, having previously played host to local deadbeats whose great hunger for a few moments of female company was matched only by the great shortage of finance available to pay for it. The budget, I could immediately tell, had never run to a cleaner…
Young people, as I learned when I still was one, can be hard work when they make big decisions on the spur of the moment. When I agreed to lease a precariously roofed former marketplace for participants in the lower reaches of the night-time economy for what seemed an at least somewhat realistic rent, for example, I completely failed to notice that only 20% of the space could be heated. So having once learned to work in stainless steel and GRP, I now had to learn it all again in fingerless gloves…
Nevertheless I soon came to regard my new workshop, barred windows and all, as my castle. And my neighbours, who might perhaps have been hoping for better things, soon came to regard me as yet another nuisance. The smell of epoxy curing under the balcony remains with me to this day. The neighbours, who seemed not to share my interest in GRP rudders, also noticed a strong note of styrene on the air – and they didn’t like it. Their displeasure, though it started small, persisted until the very day I left. I suppose the growing success of my sideline in Cornish Crabbers, which led to as many as twelve at a time being craned into the yard at regular intervals, probably didn’t help.
Back then I really could not understand all the fuss. OK, my work had a significant impact on the eyes and the nose but I had learned the same people had been just as perturbed by my predecessors’ carnal pursuits, which were presumably carried on where they would cause neither visual nor olfactory offence. I suppose in many cases it is the thought as much as the reality that sets the blood boiling, but for me, tender flower that I was, the realisation that the neighbours and I would never become friends came as something of a shock (neighbours in those days being no more inclined to tolerate each other than they are today). Why, I couldn’t help wondering, did people who had chosen to live in the city – indeed who lived right next to a busy road – expect to enjoy the peace and quiet of a park?
Or did the root of problem lie elsewhere? Might my red Porsche have been the culprit? Did it impinge on the neighbours’ sense of their own affluence? I was confused. Should I have stuck a big note on the windscreen saying “NOTICE: this car was bought on the cheap because its previous occupant was a corpse?” How else would people come to realise that driving this car induced a very particular kind of nausea? I quickly sold it on, for this very reason, to a professional who probably made the same mistake as me in thinking that eventually the stench could be overcome.
I bought the Porsche because it was just too cheap not to buy. I was wrong and I learned from my mistake – everybody does it! Some people though, I was starting to discover, had begun to feel that pretty much everything I did was a mistake. Some of them I saw rather a lot of too. A young man still, I honestly believed in those days that in the end I would somehow find a way to stop disappointing my fellow humans. This, it transpired, was an error of a similarly vast magnitude to my notion that, armed with nothing more than myself, some ancient tools and an idea, I might be able to persuade my life partner to become an active and willing co-pilot on the adventure just beginning. My predecessors on the site had traded money for sex, both of which commodities, it seems, are much easier to come by than companionship.
I digress? Of course, but I was young and naive and while life is obviously a natural cure for youth, naivety can persist if not directly addressed. I have never been afraid to chance my arm – or even dip into my wallet – in search of knowledge and experience. In this case what I learned was that it was time to relocate: the neighbours wanted me gone (really they wanted the main road gone, but I was the more realistic target) and the city planners wanted to see our mixture of homes and small businesses converted into a desirable residential quarter (although they apparently had no plans to remove the traffic).
And so I found myself on the move. The authorities offered me a delightfully awful plot by a railway embankment, my architect friend Olli spotted an opportunity for a profitable building project among friends and I felt the fear rising as images of imminent bankruptcy flashed before my eyes. I would have had to sign contracts for loans amounting to more than half a million Marks to cover the estimated plot and construction costs – and this in 1978, when I was living from hand to mouth, driving an old car of colourful character but little asset value and doing most of my sailing on floating building sites. Terrified by the very thought of it, I let the opportunity pass (and as it happens the plot is still vacant, having failed for 35 years and counting to attract a buyer).
The precariousness of my position was only compounded by the fact that in those days, the windvane business was very much a seasonal affair. As soon as the boats started coming out of the water in Europe it was game over for another year: time to fire up the answering machine, lock the door and make tracks for countries and waters where life had not been reduced to winter standby mode. Work in the summer, overwinter in sunnier climes: not such a bad life after all and one I intended to continue, but that would mean aiming for something rather less ambitious in my search for a new home for Windpilot.
I dreamed of a walled backstreet industrial unit, spent weeks and weeks investigating promising nooks and crannies and eventually found just the spot: Bandwirkerstr 39 – 41. Not number 39 and not number 41 but both together, an address with a hyphen of its very own.
Exotic address notwithstanding, it was a sorry-looking spot: a run-down Peugeot workshop with a four-family terraced house from 1883 extending perpendicular to the street, its floors rotten, condemned by the authorities as not fit for habitation and occupied by swarms of left-leaning folk who called it home for a peppercorn rent and deposited their dying vehicles in the backyard alongside a further seven that had already begun to rust in peace waiting for a sufficiently large rise in the price of scrap metal.
I had stumbled across a backstreet, backyard establishment par excellence, in other words, and it fitted my vision perfectly!
The former farm buildings at Nützen Kaltenkirchen
I bought the workshop and yard with the assistance of an agricultural bank that I had come to know when I tried to buy some old farm buildings out in the country North of Hamburg with the idea of converting the cowshed into a metalworking shop. The deal fell through, which, decades later, earned me a hearty thank you from the original owner’s heirs, who had gone on to turn the site into a substantial residential development. My mortgage advisor at the well-known farmers’ bank went on to enjoy a stellar career, eventually becoming CEO. I still haven’t worked out the details, but I have a suspicion I just cannot shake off that this bank might have been leading me by the nose for the last 34 years… Still, they offered the money and I took it and anything else is mere speculation.
So here I was in 1978, proprietor of a piece of low-grade real estate that belonged to my bank (a fact I did my best to ignore) and had a rather leaky workshop roof. The floor, at least, stayed dry – because I figured out exactly where to place all 30 buckets to catch every drop of rain before it reached the ground. The workshop’s previous owner, who had had quite enough of the car business, went on to work with rope and, eventually, standing rigging and masts. I had owned a Peugeot 404, so I knew him in his previous life, but today most sailors know Rudi Theiling best as the face behind Nordic Mast.
I was boss of a Peugeot workshop with no Peugeots. I had working hydraulic ramps though and a pit, enabling me to inspect and work on cars comfortably from any angle lying or standing – how very useful for a manufacturer of windvane self-steering systems. Truthfully though for a hands-on type like me, who had spent what seemed like half his student years fixing cars, including my own 2CV as well as whatever my fellow students happened to be driving, my new base was the land of milk and honey itself. Suddenly I found myself with plenty of friends too, a dream come true: every sailor knows the value of an acquaintance with the knowledge and equipment for stainless steel fabrication. Every day another yachtsman or two would wander in and out would come the same familiar spiel: “Hey Peter, how are things? Great, great. Er, anyway, how about we quickly knock up a new pulpit?”
To imagine that I, fool that I was, actually believed these people might amount to real friends. No sooner did the finished pulpit emerge than my visitors were gone, usually with no more than a whispered “thanks” to mark their passing. They’d ‘helped’ with the work of course, in the sense that they hadn’t actually sloped off to the bar while I did the job, so why should they feel any need to contribute further? I’d made the mess, I could clean it up! Once again I lived and learned, something I have continued to do full-time over the years. It’s too bad that, as life has taught me, often the strongest lessons come from the least agreeable moments of life…
My new status as property owner brought with it a new role too: that of evil landlord. Not that I was evil per se, it was just that in the eyes of my colourful and carefree tenants, a landlord was an evil thing however he conducted himself and whatever he did for a living. I have never really accustomed myself to the role such that even now, landlord duties leave me feeling uncomfortable.
There is a stigma attached to letting homes that never goes away, especially in a city like Hamburg, where it is probably easier to divorce your wife than divest yourself of unwanted tenants no matter how many or grave their offences not just against general decency, but also against the letter and spirit of the law. Yes, I speak from bitter personal experience: an odd couple and their cat spent 36 months under my roof but paid only for the first, religiously collecting the other 35 rental payments from the local housing agency and carefully pocketing them instead of passing them on to me, their landlord. The pair claimed unemployment benefit too even though both were working, she on her back and he operating an illicit fuel tank emptying business from the basement, which soon began to reek of (other people’s) heating oil.
They were a three-car family, but thankfully I never saw the cat behind the wheel. Being shut in all day waiting for somebody to notice it drove the cat nuts and it responded by sinking its claws into everything from floors and doors to the very window frames. Eventually its people noticed and installed a cat flap, or rather they carved and battered an approximately cat-shaped escape hatch in the door. Now free to roam, the house tiger extended the range of its havoc-wreaking to the yard and its cars, which it scratched and shredded with apparently inexhaustible energy and creativity. I suppose what else is a lunatic cat to do on a shiny, slippery car bonnet?
My eventual despairing cry for help to the city social welfare office had an immediate impact. Unfortunately it was my own misconceptions that were impacted and not my tenants. Apparently it was quite out of the question to go and check up on claimants in their home, as this would infringe their privacy and that was something that could not be tolerated. That tenants always passed on rental payments to their landlord was something the authorities took on trust and sorry but here too there was no prospect of interfering in people’s private life. So that set me straight then.
Ultimately the problem solved itself: the man caught his girlfriend ‘at work’ in his bed, threw her out and then removed himself from the scene as well, leaving nothing more than a trashed apartment, a generous collection of deceased furniture and minced floor coverings, a front door ready modified for the next cat and something like 4,500 litres of old oil in hoses and rubber containers in my basement rooms.
I could easily follow this up with another improbable but entirely genuine tale from the edge of reality, but we should probably return to the Windpilot story…
Things started well: I had no trouble relating to my customers, who were sailors just like me, and I was also thoroughly used to working with my hands (most sailors are – it’s hard to keep a boat going if you aren’t). Mutual understanding was the name of the game, that and the fact that, unlike my predecessor John Adam, I failed to appreciate the value of rarity. He had appeared to bestow his highly sought-after systems on carefully selected customers, only ever in small numbers, as an act of munificence. Customers familiar with this policy could not hide their astonishment when, in response to a tentative enquiry about a possible delivery date, I offered installation within a matter of days. Later, of course, I came to understand the genius of John’s approach.
It would, however, be wrong of me to give the impression that everything always went swimmingly. One day I received a call asking me to go down to pontoon whatever in one of the local marinas here in Hamburg and fit one of my sparkling stainless beasts to a red Optima 92 by the name of Shanty. This was the sort of job I particularly enjoyed: the owner wouldn’t be there, so I could go ahead and drill my holes in his boat without having to worry about the anxiety on his face. Drilling a few of holes in a hull is nothing to the initiated and I soon had the bottom set in place. And then the hatch slid back, a head appeared and a voice enquired sharply just what exactly I thought I was doing to his boat. I skipped the simple answer and we soon established that the red Optima 92 called Shanty that was supposed to be having holes drilled in it was a different red Optima 92 called Shanty a few berths along. A popular design and a popular colour at the time clearly, but I admit it never crossed my mind there might be two with the same name as well. We settled the matter civilly over a coffee in the saloon and before long there were two red Optima 92s in the marina sporting a shiny new Windpilot.
As a craftsman, a sailor and a human being I was in my element, indeed it was only my sideline as victim to be sucked dry by the vampires of the legal system that gave me any real cause for concern. Then as now, my dealings with the law left me thoroughly baffled as well as considerably poorer: so many fine words, so much apparent good sense and then nothing the least bit comprehensible to cling on to at the end of it but a thumpingly large bill. Unfortunately my time at Windpilot has produced a steady succession of legal disputes right from the very beginning. The disillusionment has passed – as a young man I was always waiting for the good in everyone to come out – but the psychological and financial stress remain.
A company called Windmaster, its product the very image of my own, emerged as the bane of my first few years. Windmaster would have sailors believe it was the true legal successor to John Adam’s creation, a story we know to be somewhat wide of the mark. Anyway, before long I had made the acquaintance of my first patent attorney and so the legal odyssey began. We navigated our way through a series of successful cases, at the end of each of which my legal opposite always issued polite congratulations. Did he perhaps realise all too well that the legal costs for every case completed brought me one step closer to financial ruin?
It certainly came as a surprise to me to learn that in this kind of legal dispute, the winner also always to pay his own costs. And what costs! The hourly rates my legal representatives felt justified in charging took my breath away, especially in comparison to my own modest rates. I had been a student once too after all…
We toiled away for a whole 24 months: utility models and patents were extracted, legal orders, injunctions and other wildly expensive bits of paper were wielded and my bank account – and my nerves – moved ever closer to breaking point. The battles had to be won – and win them we did, every one – but the growing financial consequences eventually overwhelmed my enthusiasm for further court action. One day I ended up asking my opponent face to face just how long he intended to carry on with the whole circus, given that I was already a one man band operating on a shoestring and could not really be dragged any lower.
And then, with one final flourish, the whole pointless charade came to an end:
Jochen Clausen, my opponent, called one morning and said straight out, “Would you like to buy my company, lock, stock and barrel?” “That depends on how much you want for it,” I replied, to which he responded, “10,000 Marks, and we will deliver the movables and materials to you for free.” Done! And so I became the proud owner of a great DALEX welding system and fine machinery and materials by the tonne that I, lucky me, could now modify for my products.
That is the abridged version of the story. The full version adds a more humane dimension, for the man concerned turned out to be friendly and sympathetic and openly admitted that, having no desire to see me ruined, he had decided simply to write off the investment and allow me to pick up the assets at a favourable price as a form of reparation. He was a sailor himself too and, as I later learned, had made his real money in logistics.
I went on over the following years to register my trade mark around the world (the Japanese patent office thoughtfully provided a certificate with English subtitles just so that I could be sure I hadn’t accidentally bought a karaoke bar or signed up for a medical experiment instead).
Aboard SV Windrose in Thailand
This was a rather more peaceful time, at least in terms of legal dust-ups with my fellow purveyors of mechanical self-steering systems: in the summer I sailed on all kinds of different boats and in the winter, the obligatory presence at boat shows aside, I was away in far climes where the only thing cold was the beer. Happy days, provided we overlook the fact that my first foray into marriage was rapidly drawing to its conclusion (it came to my attention that my wife had made a new friend while sailing in La Rochelle, a discovery that made a wise decision a whole lot easier to make).
Mother Förthmann and son
The February social season – Germans like to party hard in the build-up to Lent – brought tremendous festivities at the Windpilot and YACHT magazine parties, although the publisher eventually pulled the plug on the latter due to the amount of collateral damage to its premises. The events tended to end up pretty wild and while I myself couldn’t possibly comment, others have been heard to suggest that some of the many sailors drawn to these parties may have ventured beyond the bounds of what might be called good marital behaviour. The ending of the YACHT magazine parties hit us hard: February was so much tougher to look forward to without them!
YACHT magazine party
In 1981 I joined John Adam and Gerd Kaczirek to deliver the motor yacht Libertas, which Austrian singer Freddy Quinn had just sold to a big fish in the construction business, to the Seychelles and wrote a report on the trip for YACHT magazine. But the simple times were not to last. One day at the Hamburg boat show my next challenge came strolling unsuspected around the corner (see here for the details).
Life at that time otherwise consisted essentially of the following:
– Windpilot – to keep the wolf from the door
– Sailing – for fun, adventure and to help oil the wheels of commerce
– Building – I wanted a roof over my head that kept the rain out AND looked good
– Relationships – everyone has need of friendship and the chance of more
– Cars – the most effective way to link my various pursuits together.
The story continues, and so will I just as soon as I’ve had time to catch my breath, promises