04 May 2017
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Going the Distance

Globe-trotting adventures inspire lessons for life and business
by Jill Radsken

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Photo courtesy of Martin Frey

Martin Frey (AMP 165, 2003) didn’t plan to become the first person in the world to climb the Seven Summits and sail the Seven Seas, an achievement that earned him placement in the Guinness World Records. Yet the investor, speaker, and former managing director for the governor’s office of economic development in Utah, last year wrapped up an 11-year path of voyage and endurance spanning 38 countries, climbing 14.5 vertical miles, and sailing 35,000 nautical miles.

“Real learning and personal growth come when we continually step outside your comfort zone and you keep pushing ourselves forward,” says Frey, who completed the final leg of his journey in April 2016 by sailing 6,000 miles across the North Pacific Ocean in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

Drawn to the ocean as a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Frey idolized Jacques Cousteau and, at age 12, bought his first sailboat with money saved from collecting and recycling his neighbors’ newspapers.

Although he dreamed of being a marine biologist, Frey’s academic passion was engineering, which sprang from working in a machine shop at age 11. As a teen, he began to design mechanical systems.

“I developed a clutch system and mounted our lawnmower engine onto my 3-speed bike. My top speed was 53 mph!” he says.

With an engineering degree earned at Brigham Young University, Frey worked in the defense industry during the 1980s. When the Internet arrived, he transitioned to Silicon Valley, where he worked 13 years for Cisco Systems during its meteoric rise. His passion for engaging with customers led him to run a global support organization for Cisco’s biggest customers.

While at Cisco, the company sent him to HBS’s Advanced Management Program, where Frey found his classmates as inspiring as the professors and courses.

“What they were doing in the world was amazing, and I realized I had been given a tremendous opportunity. I gained leadership skills and strategic vision that has enabled me to make a difference in the world,” he says. “I came out of my undergraduate studies at Brigham Young, thinking that I should give back. Years later, I came out of my experience at Harvard empowered and determined to give back.”

That thinking reshaped Frey’s career path, and, after a brief return to California, he left Cisco in January 2005 to work as managing director of Utah’s Office of Economic Development under Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr.

“I had learned from [HBS professor] Michael Porter about the synergy that comes from establishing industry clusters, and that became our focus. We became metrics driven and also changed the culture by hiring former CEOs who had the ability to add more value to Utah businesses and attract other CEOs to relocate to the state. Twelve of the last 14 people I hired were former CEOs. We turned key state programs—like incentives—into a P&L, meaning that if they added jobs and tax revenue to the state, we’d continue to increase their funding,” he says. “It was a fun, dynamic way to help evolve Utah, which Forbes Magazine has ranked first on their Best State for Business list six times in the last seven years.”

Frey left the government role to be an angel investor, allowing him more flexibility for his adventures. Inspired by Utah’s many mountainous peaks, Frey learned to climb as a way to explore the native scenery. Seeking higher peaks to climb, he summited Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro (19, 341 feet) while on safari with his daughter Meredith in August 2005. In 2009, he climbed Mt. Denali (20,310 feet) in Alaska, just 350 miles from the Arctic Circle. “Denali was my first big-mountain expedition, and I experienced and learned more on Denali than any other mountain,” he says.

Four months after Denali, Frey’s close friend and climbing partner, Steve Gasser, died unexpectedly at age 46. To honor Gasser, Frey continued to climb, bringing his photo to each summit. Subsequent climbs were Mt. Aconcagua, in South America (2011); Mt. Everest, in Asia (2011); Mt. Elbrus, in Europe (2012); Carstensz Pyramid, in Indonesia (2012); Mt. Vinson, in Antarctica (2012); and Mt. Kosciuszko, in Australia (2013).

With the Seven Summits conquered, Frey turned to his first love—the ocean—for his next adventures, inspired in no small part by his daughter Lily, who was born in 2009 with a rare genetic disorder that has left her severely disabled.

“My original idea of a typical retirement went out the window when Lily was born, because we knew we would become very homebound. So we turned our Plan B into a big adventure, choosing to sail around the world as a family while Lily was still portable,” he says. “In 2013, we spent nine months sailing the beautiful islands of the South Pacific. For Lily, her Mt. Everest would be taking one step or feeding herself. This blessing has made me much more empathetic towards others with needs. Some challenges in life you just have to endure well.”

Lily and Frey’s wife, Kym, stayed home for his remaining crossings between 2013 and 2016 (the Indian Ocean, South Atlantic, Southern Ocean, Arctic Ocean, completing the Northwest Passage, and finally the North Pacific, which he did during the 2016 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race as a crew member on the 70-foot Visit Seattle). Those journeys proved both physically and mentally challenging. Frey suffered chronic seasickness, and, on the last Pacific journey, developed trench foot from being constantly wet, as the 19-person crew battled 120-mph wind gusts and 35-foot waves.

Photo by Rod Mar

“There was a lot of problem-solving along the way and great effort to stay on the critical path needed to complete each leg of the journey,” Frey says. “Each endeavor took on a life of its own, and I loved embracing these challenges to see if I could pull them off.”

Many of his struggles were profound. After watching all of the physically stronger members of his climbing team drop out of their summit attempt on Denali, Frey endured a six-day storm at 17,000 feet in -35F temperature. These are among the moments and lessons he has brought, post-adventure, to speaking engagements in boardrooms, classrooms, startups, sales meetings, and nonprofits across the world.

“I love helping people realize they can do hard things, harder than they ever thought possible,” says Frey. “I’ve also observed interesting team dynamics on these adventures.

“There is a big difference between the team that celebrates making it to the summit and the same team that later has to rescue a teammate from a deep crevasse. Challenges forge teams and transform them, and that translates into leadership practices and organizational culture in the business world.”

Beyond his near-weekly speaking engagements, Frey continues to help Utah’s economy as an angel investor who is focused on commercialization of technologies emerging from the state’s universities and its dynamic startup environment.

“As an investor, I’ve transitioned from a model that solely maximizes returns to one in which I hope to get great returns and provide a social good. Our team now mentors companies to build their social impact in addition to their for-profit mission,” he says.

“What we are crafting in our social sector is similar to what we did in economic development—building our social impact ecosystem instead of just working in silos. WalletHub recently ranked Utah as the leading state in both charitable giving and volunteerism; and we’re now hoping to become the leader in nonprofit efficacy. We’re continuing to transform Utah.”

Advice for Any Adventure

HBS alums are scaling new heights around the world. No matter what endeavor you face, Frey says, mental preparation is the true determining factor of an adventurer’s success. In planning your next life-changing feat, consider this advice:

Think big, then bigger. Frey encourages would-be adventurers to think of themselves “as capable of much more than you currently envision” and to recognize that “real learning and personal growth come from stepping outside your comfort zone.” He quotes John A. Shedd’s 1928 book, Salt from My Attic: "A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for,” adding that adventurers should be “willing to dare greatly while still safely managing risk.”

Fully engage your support team with the same passion you have for your endeavor. “They will help carry the load when things get tough,” Frey says, adding an African proverb he quotes often. "If you want to go fast, go alone. I if you want to go far, go together."

Become comfortable being uncomfortable. “High adventure requires that you make decisions without all the information you would like. Be adaptable as the situation unfolds without being hesitant to press forward and persevere,” Frey says. “Above all else, keep making decisions.”

The joy of achievement is exponentially greater as the difficulty of your challenge increases. To get there, Frey says, “Keep focused on the summit even when you can't see it day to day. The best path forward usually isn't a straight line to your objective.”

Homer had it right in The Odyssey when he wrote, “The journey is the thing,” says Frey, who recommends adventurers not always focus on the destination. “Allow time to have fun and enjoy the people you meet along the way.”

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