Sir Keith Mills is, by his own admission, “obsessed with the America’s Cup”. He remembers when the mania to return the Auld Mug to British shores took hold: somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, on a leg of the Clipper Round the World Race in 1998. He had taken a book with him about tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton’s (unsuccessful) 30-year attempt to win the Cup for Britain.
“That was what started it,” he says as we meet in his top-floor private office a stone’s throw from St James’s Park in London. Mills, 65, avuncular, friendly, but carrying a vibe that suggests when business starts the smiling stops, stands shoulder to shoulder with a group of exceptionally successful and wealthy British men backing Sir Ben Ainslie’s America's Cup bid to undo 166 years of hurt and claim the Cup in 2017. Among them are billionaire Sir Charles Dunstone, entrepreneur Peter Dubens, hedge fund manager Jon Wood and former conference kingpin Lord Irvine Laidlaw. And claim it they will, says Mills: “It’s not, ‘We’ll give it a go’, it’s, ‘We’re going to win it.’ If your passion is sailing, there’s nothing bigger than winning the America’s Cup.”
But all that’s been said before. Britain has never won the Cup, despite seriously wealthy individuals spending outrageous sums to make their mark on sailing history, including Lipton, Sir Thomas Sopwith and Peter Harrison. Mills, though, has a history of winning. He saw Harrison’s British team fail to advance beyond the quarter finals of 2003’s Louis Vuitton Cup in the Hauraki Gulf in New Zealand. “I thought, ‘I could do a lot better than that,’” he says, and considered buying Harrison’s America’s Cup assets on his return to the UK.
If your passion is sailing, there’s nothing bigger than winning the America’s Cup
– Sir Keith Mills on the British bid for the America's Cup
A little thing called the Olympics got in the way, however, and the Cup was forced onto the back-burner by the world’s biggest sporting spectacle. Mills headed up the British bid to host it. “When I started running the Olympic bid, nobody gave us any chance at all, but I thought we could win it. I was driven by the challenge. The reason I did it wasn’t to make money, it was because it’d be great for the country. And for me personally, the challenge of beating eight countries and winning the right to host the 2012 Games was intoxicating.”
Something else drives Mills, though, and it’s seen in the legacy projects set up following London 2012: Sported, an organisation established by Mills personally that supports community sports clubs in the UK; and International Inspiration, which has introduced sports programmes to 20 developing countries. On that night back in Singapore in 2005 when London was revealed as the host city, 35 kids from deprived parts of the city were there with Mills, to reinforce the fact that this was a Games that would give something back.
“When we went to Singapore, we promised to inspire the youth of the world. That was our pitch. We told them that if they gave us the Games, we would put in place programmes to help the next generation by using the Games and sport,” he says.
Now he’s taking all that experience and applying it to Britain’s attempt to win the America’s Cup in 2017. Alongside Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR), of which Mills is a founding shareholder, he is also chairman of the 1851 Trust, named for the year the yacht America, representing the New York Yacht Club, beat challengers from the Royal Yacht Squadron in a race around the Isle of Wight.
The Trust is no tacked-on front providing a sheen of altruism to BAR – the names attached to it make sure of that: Royal Patron, the Duchess of Cambridge; Ainslie himself; Rod Carr CBE, former chairman of the Royal Yachting Association; Sir Richard Ottaway MP; and Wendy Schmidt, founder of 11th Hour Racing and wife of Silicon Valley heavyweight Eric Schmidt. The idea of a charitable element to BAR was born in San Francisco in 2013, minutes after Oracle Team USA overcame a big deficit to beat Emirates Team New Zealand to the podium.
The principals got together and mapped out a path for a viable bid for the Cup, “and then, as part of that process, we asked ourselves what were we going to do about corporate social responsibility programmes”, Mills says.
“And if we’re going to do that, how are we going to make sure it becomes a viable foundation? We had discussions about the Duchess of Cambridge, who had expressed interest in supporting the team. By September last year it was all starting to come together.”
But what is the Trust actually going to do? For one, develop programmes to get kids on the water or into the marine industry and link those programmes to funding partners: reaching children who’d never get a chance to go sailing.
“Going to a sailing club and preaching to the converted is not what this is about,” Mills says. “If your parents are in the tennis club, you’ll end up playing tennis. If your parents are in the local sailing club, you’ll end up sailing. But if your parents aren’t involved in either of these things, you’ll probably never pick up a racket or get in a boat. These are the hard-to-reach kids our programmes are designed to reach.”
It’s personal for Mills, because his parents certainly weren’t members of the tennis or sailing clubs. He grew up modestly on an Essex council estate, holidaying in caravans, but at age 11 got in a boat for the first time. “My dad took me on a Wayfarer in Poole. Neither of us knew how to sail. We went round in circles for about two hours. But I did love it,” he says.
As his business career took off (he founded Air Miles and the Nectar loyalty programme) he started buying yachts, and is now having a Ker-designed 11 metre built to race. He’s expecting podiums, and he’ll get them – Mills is a man who knows how to win, which is why when he says things like this: “When we win the Cup, which we will, it will be truly historic,” I have to believe him. There’s no way he’s going to end up like Sir Thomas Lipton.