Art Mitchel is old school, in a never-take-the-easy-way-out sort of way. Art, the “corporate navigator” of Harken (yes, it’s on his business card), is the third member of the company’s original afterguard. While Peter Harken covered product development and Olaf Harken covered marketing, Art kept the business on track, making the Harken brothers the success they are today. This required the honest hard work that builds a business. He has never been afraid of work.
Art, a longtime Wisconsinite, traces his family roots back to Finland, where sisu translates to “endurance.” My first introduction to him outside the Harken office was in the Laser class, 20 years ago, when I had just started at the company. There were many sunset evenings when I would see the name of his Laser, Sisu, on the transom and wonder what it meant. In his understated style, Art didn’t disclose much about it.
I think the most I got once was, “It’s a Finnish word that I like the sound of.”
Sisu is a fitting illustration for everything he does. He’s raced sailboats his whole life — and always put in more effort than the people on the starting line with him. He skied 34 sequential American Birkebeiners, the largest, and one of the longest (at 50 km), cross-country ski races in North America. To stay fit, he constantly ran, biked and paddled his carbon-fiber canoes. He ran more than a dozen marathons. For fun, he once joined a group that cross-country skied across the entire width of Finland — yes, the entire country. Never take the easy way out. That’s sisu.
Sisu also describes his ability to endure the ugliest parts of running a business in the marine industry. We Pewaukee youngsters have freed him of this burden lately, and while we’re managing just fine, we still rely on his guidance. No one will ever be better than Art.
Art grew up with a remarkable window into modern sailing. In Huntington Beach, California, he raced Stars against the likes of Lowell North before shipping off to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. As luck would have it, he met Peter Harken, and the two were roommates all four years. As a sidekick to Peter, you can bet he earned a minor in good times too. Harken always smiles when describing his sense of humor: “Oftentimes, I’m the butt of the jokes from him, or I’m caught for something he thought up. Only Mitch could get away with that.”
Art also went to school with Peter Barrett, a two-time Olympic medalist (1968 gold in the Star with North, and ’64 silver in the Finn), and he was the first manager hired by North to run North Sails, along with another close friend and confidant, Charlie Miller. As a sidekick to Barrett and Miller, Art learned a lot about hard work and doing the right thing.
It was Art’s law degree from the University of Wisconsin that landed him the rank of judge advocate in the U.S. Air Force, at the Strategic Air Command Base in Michigan. A successful career at First Wisconsin Trust Co. followed, but a suit and tie would only last so long.
“Olaf and I had been begging him to come help us at Harken,” says Peter Harken. “We’d show up at his bank office in our grubby clothes and tell him he didn’t belong there. He had a great job ready for him, and took a huge pay cut to come work for us and help us with the dirty work. On his first day, he said, ‘I know where to start,’ before picking up a broom.”
Art today could pen volumes on the brothers Harken, and they could do the same of him. “Because of our family name, Peter and I get all the hoopla and recognition,” writes Olaf in his memoirs, “but Mitch has spent his career in the trenches, keeping us out of real trouble (though somehow we still always manage to find some).”
There are a few words that define his impeccable character and his simple Midwestern traits: smart, honest and hardworking. Values grown right out of the Pewaukee soils. I lost my father when I was 18, and his passing forced me to grow up and seek advice from other role models. As a young and impressionable individual, I was forced to learn a lot from the people with whom I spent time. Fortunately for me, that time was spent with him. He has uncommon sisu, and he invested a lot to put me, and Harken, in a better place. That is the art of Art.
Originally printed in Sailing World Magazine, May/June 2019 SW 032