Larry Leonard, Quantum Sail Design

Larry Leonard has something that most other local sailmakers don't have. He's a townie. At the age of 10, he started sailing in the junior program at Annapolis Yacht Club and spent all of his summers on the water. The future, as he saw it, would include running the family business in town, A. Leonard Sporting Goods...and sons. ("Everything was '...and sons,'" he says.)

However, when Leonard was a junior at Annapolis High School, his father sold the store to his largest competitor and retired. Leonard went on to attend Johns Hopkins University where he earned a degree in social behavioral sciences. His father, meanwhile, had been experimenting with sail making and suggested opening a business. "My father knew a little because we had been around sailing so much," Leonard recalls, and "I had worked one summer for a sail maker."

Leonard remembers the first time he drove to Howe & Bainbridge, a sail supply company in Boston, to buy several bolts of fabric, two pairs of scissors and some awls. The return trip took him through Baltimore where he bought some used sewing machines. "I think my father was crazy---I'm not sure," says Leonard. "He must have really been bored. I was young and naive and didn't know any better. I had always been taught that you had to work hard to be successful...and we did." The year was 1976 and the winter was brutal. For the first three or four months, the Leonards did almost nothing but varnish the floor. "It was pretty scary when we started out," Leonard says. "We had a nice floor though."

Much of Leonard Sails' equipment and a few employees were acquired from another sail loft that went out of business. The first customers were friends. "We never lost money," Leonard says, "not even the first year."

In 1983, the company became a franchise, doing business as Sobstad Sail Makers. Their successes included wins in major sailing races such as the America's Cup and the Whitbread. "Unfortunately, the vision that the owner had for the company was not the same as ours," says Leonard. "When we won [races], we were not able to advertise those successes. Those were big events for us and very tough to win. I decided we were going in a different direction."

Leonard quit Sobstad and started Quantum Sail Design Group in 1997 with just one loft again. He spent the first nine months interviewing people he had competed against in the past, people he respected, who shared his business style.

Long-time family friend Tad Hutchins, who is now a director and sail consultant with Quantum, describes Leonard as extremely honest and hard working. "One of the things not many people know, especially around here, is his sailing talent," says Hutchins. "He was on the boat that won the Rolex Swan World Championship in early September, in the role of tactician. He would be capable of steering an America's Cup boat---which is pretty much considered world wide to be top of the hill, the peak, the best thing you could do as a sailor. But he prefers to concentrate on building the company, to grow the dream."

Quantum Sail Design now operates 55 facilities world wide. In the beginning, Leonard utilized the franchise model, having other companies join as affiliates. For the long term, he wants the companies merged into one. "Merging makes for a more efficient business model," he says. "All the expenses live under one roof. We are not paying four different production managers." Salesmen, rather than competing against each other, are now a part of the same national sales team.

The merging process has begun on the international level, as well, but has turned out to be a bit more challenging than Leonard had anticipated due to cultural issues and the language barrier. "People understand English, but not the subtleties," he explains. "It's very different. We have to learn how to deal with each culture, how people do business."

Much has changed in sail making since Leonard started out. "It was an art form," he says. "Now it is a lot more scientific with computers, laser cutters, the wind tunnel. I still think it helps to be some kind of an artist. If it was pure science, it would be a matter of buying the tools and anybody could create fast shapes. There will always be some element of artistic quality. That is why we have been successful in competing at a high level."

Over the last four years, Quantum has been testing its sails in the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel. "It came about because we had just won the Whitbread," Leonard says. "The very next year we had trouble selling sails into the fleet again [because] a competitor had been doing wind tunnel testing in Auckland, New Zealand. Based on their success, I felt I had to do something." Quantum applied for and received a matching funds grant from the University of Maryland for sail testing. The results of the wind tunnel testing are obvious---Quantum is selling sails!

One reason for the company's success, Leonard believes, is that each project is highly customized. "We try to treat customers that way, as opposed to developing a commodity and selling out of a box," he says. Through the years, Leonard's philosophy has been to turn his customers into friends. As a result, there has been much local support for the company, beginning with Leonard Sails almost three decades ago. "We are very careful with people's money," Leonard says. "We never try to sell them something they don't need or want."

Because the Quantum Sail Design Group has its roots in Annapolis, the company is dedicated to the market and the people here. "I think sometimes we are perceived as having moved on," says Leonard, "but that is not the case. We aspire to do other things because that is how the community grows and, technology-wise, that allows us to serve Annapolis better."


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Powerboat Show
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Renaissance Festival
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