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Setting a new direction

The 70's and 80's was a time of vast changes for Elvstrøm Sails. It was also the time where Claus Olsen joined the company.

Claus Olsen was the CEO of Elvstrøm Sails from 1980 to 2013. He stepped in as the manager of Elvstrøm Sails in 1980 at the age of 24, taking over the helm from his father, Henning, who suddenly died the year after he had acquired Elvstrøm Sails in Aabenraa and united the name with Fogh Sails, which Henning already owned.

Managing any company through 33 years will inevitably take any manager and any sort of company through highs and lows – or through calm spells and strong gales. Case in point – Claus Olsen.

In connection with 2024 being the 70th anniversary of Elvstrøm Sails, we had the chance to have a great chat with the former CEO about his years at the helm. Years that became equally crucial and defining for Elvstrøm Sails.

The sudden passing of Henning Olsen meant that Claus Olsen stood with a big challenge on his hands at the very young age of 24. Claus entered Elvstrøm Sails with a new idea and had a clear vision which soon had to prove its point.

- Everything moved very quickly when we merged Elvstrøm Sails and Fogh Sails in Aabenraa. I was the oldest child of three, and both me and my brother were involved in the company when our dad bought it. We merged the two companies as we entered the 80’s, and I entered having the idea that hard work would be the solution.

Claus Olsen raced with Dehler, and the very popular DB1 and DB2 models became the gateway for a great cooperation between Dehler and Elvstrøm Sails.

Fixing a problem

Sailmaking – and for that matter most of the industry – had one big drawback:

- The entire industry had a big flaw: Seasonal work. Springtime was always busy, and we could sell endless amounts of sails – but as summer turned into autumn and winter, we would never have enough orders to make the business run. And laying off staff and then re-employing them in the spring was never a good idea, Claus remarks.

Something had to change.

- Seasonal work represented a big problem which we had to solve. An important part of the answer was to work with boatyards. It opened a new market for us. Willy Dehler had a great vision for his Dehler Yachtbau and aimed to make sailing and cruising available to more people. Their more linear approach to production was a great advantage for us, and it helped us to bridge the gap between the seasons. The cooperation with Dehler turned out to be a much bigger succes than anyone had expected, Claus says.

Working with Dehler was followed up by a relationship with Hallberg-Rassy, which still stands today. The Swedish yard had a completely different approach to the sails, but it quickly proved fruitful to have two strong yards onboard for Olsen and his staff.

Claus Olsen led Elvstrøm Sails for 33 years - from 1980 through to 2013.

A focus on cruising

With more manufacturers working for a more accessible world of sailing also meant more boatyards.

Bavaria grew quickly and joined the ranks at Elvstrøm as one of the new boatyards, which just added demand for Elvstrøm Sails. This was the time where the Aabenraa-based Elvstrøm Sails really took shape.

- It took off. This was the period when we invested in our own lorry and driver in order to deliver to the yards. I also remember making a special deal with Dimension-Polyant in order to get enough sailcloth, as our sails were in high demand and we had to do everything we could to keep the production up to speed.

- It was insanely busy at that time. I remember we had one Friday where everybody stayed late, and we ended up signing off and sending 102 sails on that day. It was crazy by any standard.

Elvstrøm Sails introduced the lasercutter early on - a big leap in precision and effectivity.

A new world

Yet, in a world of ever-developing technology, Claus Olsen had to think of the next step in order to maintain a competitive edge for Elvstrøm Sails. Regular mass production in Denmark was about to face very stiff competition from new and existing competitors, so Olsen set to work on finding the next big thing, while his first action of creating strong relations to many of the leading yards all over Europe still grew.

It remained important. Elvstrøm Sails is still supplying a large number of yards - a key area of our business.

Finding the next generation of sails

The next big thing was EPEX which premiered in 2008 – a result of years worth of careful planning and hard work behind the scenes.  

The concept represented a radical new way of making sails – an idea which was the brainchild of Peter Conrad from Sobstad.

Conrad and Sobstad held the patent for the concept and was producing in the US, the UK and Italy at the time, while competitors tried to get to the market with somewhat similar concepts. Conrad was the pioneer behind the seamless, laminated sails with a patented load-bearing system. 

- I had to decide. Should we try and do our own thing, or should we try and get working with Conrad? I opted for the latter, and as Sobstad had partnered up with Dennis Conner and won the America’s Cup, the name of the brand really grew in recognition. Multiple competitors were working on similar concepts – and they were all in the fight for the patent, Claus Olsen says. 

Sealing the deal

Getting Sobstad and Peter Conrad’s new Genesis technology on board made a big difference in Claus Olsen’s hunt for the next product. It did however take a bit of negotiation.

- I remember Peter Conrad having a fair share of paranoia as everyone in the business tried to get their hands on his concept. We were in discussions over a potential partnership for almost one and a half years before we met terms. We were discussing time and time again on neutral ground at a local diner, but eventually, we made a deal. 

As Elvstrøm became Elvstrøm Sobstad, both parties had gained a better insight and started working on what later became EPEX, Claus says: 

- We had some hectic years where we constantly learned and refined the concept. Peter Conrad’s way of producing Sobstad Genesis was the start of our work towards launching EPEX in 2008. And since everyone had a different approach to the construction, lamination and section widths, it was a very exciting time of testing, trial and error to find the optimum solution in all areas. And it also turned out that I was right about the need for a new product. EPEX played a vital role in Elvstrøm Sails through my final years as CEO.

Claus Olsen continued as CEO until 2013 where he resigned after 33 years as the manager of Elvstrøm Sails.