THE AMERICA’S CUP : ‘I’M THE BEST’ : Words to Live By for Dennis Conner
The look on Dennis Conner’s face was annoyed. The mood was irritated, the response perturbed.
Conner was answering questions from the media--the flotsam and jetsam of a skipper’s day--and one query in particular seemed as welcome as a mass of wet kelp.
If the question posed by the San Diego TV reporter were wind, Conner’s look seemed to say, it could best be described by the title of the Bob Dylan song “Idiot Wind.”
This live-at-5 newsman wanted to know about Conner’s strategy of “keeping it close.” It refers to today’s opening race in the best of three competition between Conner’s Stars & Stripes catamaran and Michael Fay’s monohull, New Zealand.
“I never said I’d be keeping it close,” Conner snapped. “I’d like to win --by as wide a margin as possible. I want to win the race. This is my fifth America’s Cup. In sailing races, you try to win. You don’t try to keep it close.”
Baby-faced, sun-bleached Dennis Conner, who wears a Rolex watch and an occasional look of aggravated condescension, said the media are “the worst thing” about being the skipper of the Stars & Stripes.
“They’re always trying to nail you, always out to get you,” he said during an interview last week. “But I’ve gotten so sharp to their ways, I can usually shut them down. I can nail them . There’s not a one of ‘em I’m afraid of.”
Is Dennis Conner abrasive? Is he confrontational and always on edge, as critics in the media have charged? Maybe the best person to ask is Frank Trovato, Conner’s business partner and the president of Dennis Conner, Inc.
That’s the parent corporation of Vera’s Drapery Shop, a wholesale drapery manufacturing outlet, and Dennis Conner Interiors, which sells draperies and floor coverings to some of the major home builders in San Diego.
“The abrasiveness should be looked at as a guy trying to go in high gear all the time,” Trovato said carefully. “He tolerates no small talk or chitchat. It’s like if you worked for Lee Iacocca, and you stopped him in the hall, he wouldn’t ask you about the corn on your left toe. Dennis is the same way.”
Trovato, who has known Conner for 12 years, was asked if the skipper has a sensitive side. Is there more to the man than the biting, competitive, macho side he seems to always show the media?
Trovato turned to a co-worker and, with a rippling laugh, said, “He wants to know if Dennis has a sensitive side.”
After another long pause, he said, “We tried to come up with a juicy one for you but just couldn’t.”
So, what’s the most touching thing Dennis Conner ever did?
“Oh, kick a dog, maybe,” Trovato said.
Vera Ripp has known Conner since 1976. She, like Trovato, describes the man as relentlessly hard-working and demanding (especially of employees), tough but fair, honest, “ruthlessly intelligent” and a superb, detail-oriented businessman.
But is he . . . sensitive? Even a little bit?
“Very,” Ripp said. “If he hurts somebody, he’ll apologize.”
Ripp said Conner, in 1978, bought Vera’s Draperies, the shop owned by her and her husband, Dick Ripp.
“We were ready to retire, and we had the nicest workshop,” she said. “Dennis wanted the biggest workshop in San Diego, so he got it. He usually gets what he wants. If he wants something, he goes after it, and usually, he gets it.”
She worked for Conner about seven years before retiring two years ago. She said she and Conner never disagreed and that he was always “wonderful to me . . . very fair and generous, both to me and my husband.”
She said the kindest thing Conner ever did was throw her a surprise 75th birthday party. He gave her a big bouquet of roses and wished her his best forever. She was “deeply” touched.
Is such a man also abrasive at times?
“He gets his mind made up, and that’s it,” Ripp said. “He usually thinks he’s right, and usually, he is. He stands up for himself, and you’d better not cross him. But he was never rude to me--never.”
Ripp said Conner always listens to the suggestions of underlings and, if he deems them wise, will follow through, always giving credit where credit is due.
“You never have to tell him anything twice,” she said. “He listens like you wouldn’t believe.”
Ripp said Conner does not have a sense of humor--that humor baffles him like a wind he can’t negotiate and doesn’t understand.
“He’s got so much on his mind, I guess he doesn’t have time for humor,” she said.
Ripp called him an otherworldly worker, saying he puts in 16 to 18 hours a day, getting up at 5 a.m. to sail or play racquetball before opening the shop at 7.
She said he’s “good with people,” overseeing 50 employees in the drapery manufacturing plant and another 50 in Dennis Conner Interiors. She said as far as she knows he has “a wonderful relationship” with wife Judith and his two daughters, Shanna, 16, and Julie, 18. She said he’s even good to his Golden Retriever, Bud.
Trovato said Conner hates Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s slow-growth leanings as much as he hates something called the New Zealand Challenge.
He says Conner’s political leanings are strictly big business--"He’s a Bush-Quayle boy all the way.”
Trovato and Conner say, with outspoken fervor, that the mayor’s backing of a slow-growth initiative on the November ballot hurts San Diego business as much as a stormy wind hurts a catamaran.
“The present administration of the city doesn’t like building,” Conner said. “So what do you get? Not as much building, not as much business. You’re right--I don’t like it. Not one bit.”
He may be outspoken, he may be abrasive, but at least he’s fair, Trovato said, pointing out, in the words of a good lieutenant, that Conner never asks of anyone what he wouldn’t ask of himself.
“His best attribute is in being a communicator,” Trovato said. “He can communicate with people in a warehouse and then put on a corporate hat and deal with Pepsi or Sail America or the King of Spain.
“His blessing is being able to wear many hats with equal effectiveness. He deals with people purely on a professional level. And if they’re rewarded, it’s always--and only--for a job well done.”
In being asked how Conner had been kind to him, Trovato said, “The trust the guy has. When he was in Australia (trying to win back the Cup in 1987), he relied on me totally . He put his checkbook in my care. That impresses me more than anything.”
Conner, who shares a birthday with Trovato, turns 46 a week from Friday. The skipper concedes the Cup is now a circus of Barnum & Bailey magnitude. The winds of pleasure on the seas he loves are balanced by the idiot wind, and he admits being frustrated by shenanigans, by the falderal he can’t control.
Control, say Trovato and Ripp and anyone who has ever known or worked for Dennis Conner, is an issue that motivates not only his personality but his life.
He’s the first-born child of Pamela and Paul R. Conner, a commercial fisherman during Dennis’ childhood and later an executive with Convair General Dynamics. The elder Conner died in 1982. Conner’s mother and younger sister live in San Diego.
At this point, what motivates this first-born son? He has a family he says he loves, a business he enjoys, an income that many covet and a permanent port in the annals of sailing history.
He’s as much of a stalwart in the history of San Diego sports as Ted Williams, Bill Walton or Billy Casper.
So what keeps him going?
“I like to deal with really successful people,” he said. “And this is the only way I get to meet them. I get the opportunity to rub shoulders with the kingpins of corporate America . . . Donald Trump. President Reagan. Robert Crandall, the chief executive officer of (AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines). Crandall was on my boat just the other day. Most people would never get to meet such a man. But I get to show him what I can do.
“Look at this way: I’m the skipper of the No. 1 boat. He’s the skipper of the No. 1 airline. We share a mutual admiration, a respect. He’s the best. I’m the best. How many people can really say they’re the best?”