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In the Press: Keith Musto Interview in Raw Business

There’s a great interview with Keith Musto on www.rawbusiness.com about his Olympic sailing experiences, the beginnings of Musto and how the brand expanded into shooting, equestrian, outdoor and casual lifestyle clothing.  Make yourself a cup of tea and sit down for a good, long read!:

Keith Musto in 1964

From being an Olympic medallist to building a brand which is now synonymous with sailing around the world, Keith Musto has developed Musto Clothing from an idea to one of the UK’s most well known companies with 2 Royal Warrants under his belt, the pictures of Ellen MacArthur returning from her round the world trip sporting Musto and the fact that his clothing is chosen by the RNLI.  I had the pleasure of meeting Keith at his home overlooking the Quay at Burnham-on-Crouch, the town that helped start Keith on his journey…

‘What was your childhood like?  How did you get into sailing?

Well, I was evacuated from Benfleet in Essex during the war when I was about 5 and I was taught to swim using a lifebelt attached to a crane and I enjoyed the water.  After the war when we came home, I joined the sea scouts and I learnt to sail.  The first boat I owned was a little flat bottom, homemade, 10ft dinghy with blackout material for sails.  My father, seeing how obsessed I was, helped me get a 13 foot dinghy which I raced in handicap races.  I moved onto one of the National Classes and it went on from there.

My father got very exasperated one day, which was rare for him, and said “You’ve got to stop messing about in boats and pay attention to your education.  You’ll never make a living out of boats.”  Luckily I proved him wrong.

 

How did you go from that to the Olympics?

Erm, because we did quite well in the National Class.  One of the local guys at Thames Estuary Yacht Club very kindly leant us a new Single Handed Olympic Class in 1958.  Thinking about it, going farther back, what made me think of the Olympics was the Yachting World Cadets.  The founder of that program, Group Captain Haylock, stood up and addressed us little lads and said “You’re the future of British sailing; you could win Olympic medals.”  You hear a comment from someone every now and again and it sticks, doesn’t it. 

My headmaster, in a fit of anger, once said “If you’re going to do something, do it properly or don’t do it at all” and that is a philosophy that I’ve tried to follow.  Captain Haylock sowed the seeds about the Olympics.

That gave you a feel for the challenge which I liked.  Money has never interested me but challenges have.  I tried to convince other sailors that they should try the Olympics because we obviously had the talent but no one was thinking about it. 

I convinced someone I knew, Tony Morgan, to buy a second hand Flying Dutchman, a two handed class who then said “Well, you got me into this, you’d better come and help me out.”  We had sailed together quite successfully on two or three occasions so we got involved in that class and went on from there.

 

When you say quite well, you got a Silver medal in Tokyo in 1964…

Yes.  Erm, you don’t think about Silver.  Your goal was the gold.  I was two and a half stone too light which gave us a handicap so we went to the local gym and told the instructor our goals. 

We got slammed for taking it so seriously on the physical side because it was considered unsporting in a way but he gave us what would now be seen as a circuit training program and said that if we did that every day before the Olympics, we’d win.  He wasn’t quite right but that was our fault, not his!

 

In 1965 you started up with Eddie Hyde and formed Musto & Hyde Sails.  Was that a natural progression or something that happened?

Mechanical Engineering is my background and I have always been interested in sail shape because that’s your motor.  I’d spend hours looking at sail shapes, both ashore and afloat, trying to understand the sail in different conditions.  I couldn’t see a great deal of future with the company I was in and I wanted to do my own thing.  Eddie had come down from Uni and enjoyed making the sails. 

We had worked together in ’63-’64 trying to develop sails so it was natural really.  We didn’t have any money but for £100 you could buy an old machine and some material and start something.  We were very very lucky. 

I had a neighbour who was a bank manager.  I had always kept my boat in his garden and when the Olympics happened, he bought half of the boat we had to buy to use.  I went to him and told him our business needed £1,000.  He said no, you need £1,500.  It was the days of the old bank manager where they trusted the person and he arranged a £1,500 unsecured overdraft which was a lot of money in 1965.  He actually died the other week aged 93.  I kept in touch with him regularly.  I learnt a lot from him personally and am very grateful for the trust he put in us.  He could never quite work out how we became half successful!

We weren’t silly but not really bright.  I said to my father one day that I wasn’t academic and that I was struggling at school and he said that being academic wasn’t everything and that I was practical.  I think that’s important; common sense and a little bit of thought takes you a long way.

 

You said that when one objective comes to an end, you start to look for something new.  Was that why you started to branch out on your own away from Eddie?

Eddie was very interested in sail shape but the problem with getting involved in the marine trade is that you lose your sport because you’re looking after your customer.  I realise that the clothes we were wearing were old cast off sweaters and bits like that, and in the winter you had to put so much on, your ability to move around the boat was virtually gone.  I was conscious of the problem in ’63 and spoke to a couple of manufacturers about it but no one seemed interested. 

It was at a time when, in my view, Britain was very arrogant; everything was going well and would continue like that.  I didn’t know how to make clothing but I could see what was needed and the competitors could make clothing but couldn’t see what their customers wanted.  I knew I could learn how to make clothing quicker than they could learn what their customers wanted so we started very quietly, starting off with making what I wanted.  Once I realized the picture, I took a sheet of paper and thought right, what is this sport: I split it up into dinghy, inshore, coastal, offshore and ocean and then designed for each category.  It was a common sense engineering type approach. 

As well as that I looked very closely at how to be the last into the changing room and the first out, where you’ve got less to wash on a Sunday night and less to buy, how it would handle a range of temperatures and a range of water states.  I came up with the Three Layer System.  Polypropylene was a new fabric at the time which I used for the underwear, it was just a case of getting the thickness right, the insulate layer was a fibre and then the outer shell which was waterproof.  We struggled to get the message across to people.  They were looking to keep the water out and we were trying to tell them that the Three Layer System was the complete solution.  We preached that for years and it is now the standard.  It was common sense and it was logical and made sense that everyone else picked it up.

 

You had competitors when you started out.  Why do you think that they weren’t looking for the new materials and new ways of doing things?

I’ve no idea!  We were very lucky.  I went to other manufacturers before I started making it but they weren’t interested, so I made it myself.  In those days, everything was very basic so if you scratched your head, you could think of a solution.  Problems are the most interesting part of a job.  Firstly identifying a problem is not a handicap, it’s an asset because once you found a problem, you can reform it.

 

Do you think you had a brand through your Olympic achievements that helped you at all?

Erm, I don’t know.  The advertising director at Yachts and Yachting Magazine said when we had just come back from the Olympics “Well, your name is hot today but everybody will have forgotten it in two months time” and I think that’s absolutely right.  If you stopped and asked people in the street the name of the girl who won Gold in the Skeleton Bobsleigh in this year’s Winter Olympics or gave them the name and asked what she did, I don’t think there are many people who could tell you. 

When we lived in Benfleet, we had a long white wall and just after the Olympics I got the medal, took the ribbon off, put it on the wall, called my wife and said “That’s somewhere we can put the medal” she said don’t be ridiculous.

Actually, in my mind, that medal represents one moment in my life and not to live too long in that otherwise you are living a history that no one is interested in.  It probably did help but if you haven’t got the right product, no one is going to be interested no matter who you are and in fact, you can probably do more damage.

 

So now that you’ve made quite a few breakthrough products over the years, do you feel as if you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?  Royal Warrants, the RNLI using Musto…?

No because at the start, I didn’t think about what I wanted to accomplish.  I wanted to make good products and the proudest moment to me was opening the Sunday Times one morning and on the front page was a picture of the Queen watching the Duke of Edinburgh Carriage Racing one day and there she was wearing our Cortex Highland Jacket, and the label was showing!  It wasn’t the fact that the label was showing but rather that the Queen had chosen to wear something that I had made. 

That was a tremendous pleasure and what I still class as my proudest moment.  We have been lucky to have a great association with the Royal Family.  We have done a lot quietly with Princess Anne and her daughter Zara Philips is now supported by the company.

Where did I see the company going?  I didn’t know where it was going.  I just saw an opportunity and tomorrow there will be another one and it gradually goes on.  Rather like going back to the medal on the wall, I don’t think about the success I’ve achieved, I think about the next challenge.  I’ve dropped out of it now but the vision of where it could go is there which is why we changed things around a bit.  The challenge is, can the team do it?

 

Why did you make the decision to take a step back and retire?

I think it’s important that you understand your limits.  If you don’t and you carry on, you become less and less effective and it drags everyone down.  It’s not fair on the team; you’ve got to let other people step up and take it forward.  I reached a point where I couldn’t see how to take it forward and it was time to shake it up and try to regenerate that potential.

 

Looking back, have there been any moments when you’ve reached an obstacle and thought, this has gone further than I though and maybe it’s gone too far?

No because the sky is the limit.  The interesting challenge for me was when I was obliged to simply take on the role of MD.  The concentration then was on building the engine room of the business and making sure that ticked properly.

Sometimes I’ve regretted the fact that I was so involved with the organisation that I had to forgo what I really enjoyed and that is coming up with ideas.  People forget what you’ve done and think; oh you’re an engine room man.  They forget that you did have vision and you did have ideas that lots of people liked.  People only see you doing a job that day; they don’t look at the big picture and think how you got there.

 

Is your brain still thinking of those new ideas, are you still looking even though you’re not directly involved anymore?

Work wise within Musto, no.  You’re either in or you’re out.  If you try to paddle you just frustrate yourself.  I’ve been  involved with a couple of companies, just trying to help them commercially.  I don’t have any financial interest in them, I just enjoy it.

They have outstanding ideas and I just try to help these young guys.  I’m doing the same again at the moment with another company.  The first one was marine electronics with a wireless program; wires are the biggest problem on boats because of the corrosion, and the other one is again, something totally different, and that’s footwear but very specialised, competition footwear.  They both could go a long long way.

 

Would you class yourself as an entrepreneur?

Not really.  I’m just an ordinary guy in the street.  Money has never interested me, I enjoy boats and the fact is that the parallel between sailing and business is identical; it’s just straight forward common sense in each case.  It’s team building too; if you want success around you, you need the right people around you.  You rely on them to make the whole thing move forward.

It takes years to come from an overdraft and nothing else, to the point where you can gamble on something and can afford to take a risk on an idea.  The rest of the time you’re watching every penny and can’t afford to misspend something.  Entrepreneur is a name that other people use, not one that I use.  I have just been lucky enough to have had an idea and have enjoyed doing it and again, challenge is important to me, whether it’s a competitor on a racecourse or an idea.

 

Did you reach the stage where you could gamble when you branched out in to the equestrian and shooting markets?

No, that was a must actually.  I spent so much time on the sailing, the three layer system and getting the designs right for each category of sailor, it dawned on me that the sailing season is a very short one.  The selling season is roughly March through to May with a bit in September and a bit of a surge at Christmas.  Manufacturing wise, you can’t make enough on your own machines in these months and you haven’t got enough to make in the rest so what could we do to fill in the other months? 

My daughter started going to a pony club and I saw people who were getting wet and so on and thought, hang on, that used to be us; there’s a market here.  Then we looked at the seasons and they were very complimentary to those of sailing and it covered 9 months of the year anyway.  It also got us out into the country.  It was pure luck.

 

Have you got any pearls of wisdom to share with our members if someone has an idea or they have seen a gap?

I think what my headmaster told us in assembly is the most important message that I’ve ever heard and that’s if you’re going to do something, do it properly or not at all.  That has always stuck in my head.  The other thing which I have seen people in the company do is that they have a job and an idea crosses their horizon which is outside of what they are doing but they follow that idea with great enthusiasm and don’t pay attention to what they were doing. Don’t be greedy.  You see a lot of people that chase a lot of ideas but don’t complete any of them.

 

Musto is synonymous with sailing and being on a boat…

It is but there is a story behind that.  Years ago when we started looking at equestrian, shooting and lifestyle, I looked at a company that provided mountaineering clothing and spread out from there.

The people that followed them were no longer interested in the brand and when you looked at the catalogue they showed their whole range.  People had gone away from them because their customers thought that they were not interested in their sport anymore. 

This caused me to make separate catalogues for sailing, equestrian, shooting and lifestyle. A lot of people didn’t know that we had anything to do with equestrian because they never saw the catalogue. That was absolutely the objective.

 

Your son is now MD of Musto, was that always the plan?

No.  When he went to leave school, I vaguely heard that he was going “to work for the old man”!  I sat him down and told him to go and get lost, see the world and get experience and if at a future date there was an opportunity within the company, he can go for interview.  When that came up we were looking to launch the lifestyle range.  He had reasonable experience and he said what you want is an exciting, enthusiastic young man and I said no, what I want is experience. 

I asked the other Directors to do the interview and I kept out of it.  They thought it was a good idea so he joined us when he was 25.  He has been with Musto a long time, knows it and has got his own ideas which leave mine miles behind!

 

If there was another area that you would like to go into next, what would it be?

I wouldn’t.  I’d concentrate on what we have got.  We are in a very strong position within sailing and the equestrian and shooting ranges have great potential and would also open up the country market for us.  When I’d sorted that little lot out, I could look for more!

 

Keith, thank you for your time, your openness and the opportunity to chat over a cup of tea.  I wish you every happiness in your retirement and hope that Musto continues to go from strength to strength.

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