Business Leader recently spoke to Guy Rigby, Chair – Entrepreneurial Services, at financial and professional services giant Smith & Williamson, to discuss his planned row across the Atlantic in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – and should he complete the journey, he and his rowing partner will take a world record as the oldest pair to cross the ocean.
Business Leader is a proud supporter of Guy, his rowing partner David Murray, Smith & Williamson, and their journey across the Atlantic. The BL logo will be proudly displayed on Guy’s boat ‘Lily’ on the journey.
Can you tell me about your background and what led you to plan this challenge?
I started my career in London in October 1971, so I’m now in my 50th year of working. A couple of years ago, I decided that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t!) go on forever and that it was time to make a plan for the future. One of those decisions was to go part-time with Smith & Williamson – where I founded the firm’s Entrepreneurial Services Group. The other was to do something ‘real’. I was inspired by friends who had done ‘real things’ in ‘real jobs’ – whereas I have basically been sitting behind a desk for my whole career. The final reason I began planning the challenge was that I wanted to give something back. I have had an amazing career helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses, and will continue to do this, but I also wanted to find a charity that creates beneficial change through entrepreneurship, helping to create jobs and wealth and levelling up less advantaged communities.
I then started thinking about what I could do. Initially, I thought about climbing Everest or running forty marathons back to back, but quickly discounted those! I’ve always enjoyed mucking about in boats so I then came up with the idea of rowing. Having heard of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, I had a look into it. It was about two years ago that I came up with a plan to take part in this 3,000-mile race – starting in the Canary Islands, and ending in Antigua.
I started to socialise my plans and was amazed how all my “dead certs” turned me down. They clearly thought I was bonkers! It wasn’t until I had a chance conversation with the son (David Murray) of an old friend of mine, who had died of pancreatic cancer, and I asked him if he wanted to do it with me – and he said yes. It was December 2019, and we went to the Canaries to see the start of the race that year, to find out more and decide if we really wanted to do it. At that time, I was still looking for another two people to join the crew, but then someone mentioned that if we did it as a pair, we would be the oldest pair to ever row across any ocean. That sealed our fate – let’s do it!
Regarding your decision to take this on – was it something you had always wanted, or the culmination of your career in business?
I have always suffered from a ‘ten year itch’. Having joined Smith & Williamson in 2008, this idea came about in 2018/19. When I joined the firm, I was there to start up and lead a brand new area of the business. It was hard work but fantastic fun, but by then things were feeling a bit repetitive and it was time for someone else to have a go.
How have you prepared yourself for this challenge?
Honestly, I’m still trying to do that. When I first thought seriously about doing this – it was two-and-a-half years ago. When it got to 18 months away – it started waking me up at night. You start thinking and reading about what can happen on these journeys – like the Cracknell and Fogle book on this same challenge – which is absolutely terrifying. You quickly appreciate how much organisation has to go into a challenge like this. Obviously, there is the physical training – but then you have to find the right boat, get sponsorship, get the relevant registrations and licenses, complete courses and get a range of qualifications, and so much more.
Once you get the boat, you need to kit it out with the right tech and equipment – then get an understanding how it all works. We then built a website, designed logos – it’s just like starting a new business. I’m probably spending 4-5 hours a day working on all this.
How big a shock is all the preparation for the event?
Massive! As I said earlier, the amount of organisation required is unbelievable. Every small detail needs to be attended to, and once you’ve completed one thing, it has an uncanny habit of generating another. It seems never-ending, but we are at a stage now where we have our boat, Lily – a second-hand Rannoch 25 – a 24-foot ocean rowing boat.
We took delivery on March 1 this year from The Seablings, a brother and sister pair who rowed her across the Atlantic in 2019, breaking two Atlantic records. Through coincidence after coincidence, and fate, she found us. We therefore have a strong affinity to her and think she will look after us while we are on the ocean.
Are there similarities between the entrepreneurial journey and what you are looking to achieve?
Yes, definitely. You start out with an idea, and then once you get going there are a million things to learn and new challenges to overcome – which then always leads to the next step on the journey. There is a huge amount of overlap between the life of an entrepreneur and the challenge we are taking on. There is a lot of decision making and a lot of trusting your instincts about what is right and wrong. And there is a lot of learning on the job!
Like tour challenge, an entrepreneur’s journey never goes completely to plan, and it is about adapting to what is in front of you.
Can you tell me about the charity you are supporting?
If we were raising money for a traditional charity we would have been like everyone else – and we wouldn’t be playing to my strengths in the entrepreneurial world, making it challenging to make a difference. With UnLtd, which is also known as The Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, we appeal to a particular community who understand the benefits that entrepreneurs bring to society – creating jobs, wealth, enabling philanthropy, benefiting local communities – all these amazing attributes.
UnLtd focuses on segments of the community that are effectively trapped by their origins – often living in deprived areas with no access to funding. They are entrepreneurial but cannot break out of their environment. Whether they are ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, etc – they often don’t have access to the same opportunities as others.
So I looked for a charity that enables this great thing we call entrepreneurship – and I found UnLtd.
This charity finds, funds and supports ‘social entrepreneurs’ – people who are building enterprises and ‘doing good’ in the community – and have now supported thousands to start their business journeys. In 2018/19, the charity backed 458 social entrepreneurs,59% of them women, with around 30% coming from a BAME background and many more suffering from a disability. Their impact report shows that the businesses they backed just in that one year have positively benefited the lives of more than 330,000 people. So, that felt like the right cause to back – and they continue to seed entrepreneurial businesses with £15,000 to £20,000 to get them started. They are an amazing partner and we hope to get them better known within the business community. We have a hugely ambitious target of raising them £1m.
What have your friends and family made of the Atlantic journey?
Understandably, my wife was pretty negative about it at the start! However, I think she is now accepting of it as we are taking it extremely seriously and constantly looking at the safety side of what we are doing. My 40 year-old son certainly wishes he could do it!
Does a world record now involved help inspire you?
Absolutely – I have always been competitive, and the idea that we can be a Guinness World Record holder for the oldest pair ever to row not just the Atlantic, but any ocean in the world, is amazing. It is a big driver to achieve this now – and it has added a lot of purpose to what we hope to achieve. We are not too worried about how long it takes, as long as it is a sensible time, but our mission now is to do this, do it safely and remain as friends – as well as raising as much money as possible for our amazing charity.
You mentioned the Fogle/Cracknell journey – have they been an inspiration? Is there anyone else that you look up to, in regards to this challenge?
We learned a lot from reading their book and understanding their challenges and experiences. It’s clear that they were seriously unprepared for their journey across the Atlantic – and the horror stories they suffered as a result. They took part in exactly the same challenge that we are attempting. As technology has advanced, what we have is going to be a lot more reliable. And we have some amazing bits of kit to help us. We are totally dependent on our water-maker – however, we also need to completely understand how to fix all our kit!
For example, we have solar panels, a steering system and a very important rudder. If any of these break, it can be very serious. We have got the right boat and the right equipment – what we have to do is stay fit and well enough during the course of our journey to look after Lily and all of her kit.
What will an average day look like?
We will need to eat around 5,000 calories and drink around 10 litres of water a day. The basic principle for each day is – two hours on, two hours off, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with an hour off on one day a week. That hour off will be for going under the boat and scraping off all the barnacles and cleaning the boat itself. During our regular two hours off, you have got to wash yourself, feed yourself, and get some sleep – so the idea is to have a 90-minute sleep cycle.
The first part of the challenge is going to be very difficult. We are going to be thrown straight into a harsh environment, as when you leave the Canaries you are faced with a very rough stretch of water. This means we are likely to suffer seasickness almost immediately and, if so, we will find it difficult eating and drinking. This usually triggers an immediate and severe weight loss – and in total rowers often lose between 10kgs, often more, on an Atlantic crossing. The first week is what I fear most!
How has your career so far prepared you for this challenge?
Physically – not at all! However, I am relatively fit for my age and run, bike, row and ski – but obviously this takes it to a whole other level. As a result, I have taken on a personal trainer for the first time in my life, and I am working with him all the way until December. I am primarily doing this to build up my strength. I still have a lot of work to do!
Mentally, it is slightly different. I am a fighter and I don’t give up easily – and I think the older you get, the more resilient you become. The struggle will be that first week to 10 days, where the shock of the challenge is in front of you, but after that, it is about dealing with the boredom and repetitive nature of the challenge. So, I am hopeful that both my age, as well as my career, have helped me prepare for the mental side of what is to come.