Success appears to attach itself to Sir Keith Mills like ivy to a rambling stately home. Actually that's not quite true. He's had his setbacks. The character who made his fortune from Air Miles and Nectar Cards was one of the highest-profile victims of the near collapse of US insurer AIG. But in most of his endeavours, and certainly in regard to sport, you'd want the talismanic Mills as an ally. Not a rival.
A crew member of the Alex Thomson-skippered boat that won the 1999 Clipper round-the-world yacht race, he was the business brain, as CEO, of the London 2012 bid. No wonder his involvement with the British America's Cup campaign, Team Origin, augurs so well, offering a promise that British yachting's most elusive prize could finally return to the land where it was first contested in 1851.
The event was named after the first winner, the schooner America, which overcame a 15-strong British fleet in a race around the Isle of Wight. The US clung on to the trophy for a staggering 132 years – until 1983 – when Alan Bond, the Ealing-born Australian, finally seized the trophy with his yacht Australia. New Zealand have also claimed the trophy. But never Britain.
Mills is determined to rectify that omission, while also establishing national fascination and pride in a sport that is as much dependent on technology and design as the talent of the skipper and crew.
The next America's Cup, the 34th, is unlikely to take place before late 2013, but the countdown begins this week, during Cowes Week, when Team Origin will face the current defenders of the America's Cup, the US team BMW Oracle, in a series of match-racing events. "Next week is the springboard, the start of our campaign to win the America's Cup – and what better way to do so than by racing the guys who hold it, racing round the original course from 1851," said Mills, the team principal.
"We want to capture the imagination of the British public. We have a big educational job to do. There aren't many stories in sport that are as extraordinary as the America's Cup. We'd like to get the British public involved in sharing that story with us as we progress over the next two to three years, with the prospect of bringing the Cup back to the UK, then hosting the next one."
The closest this nation has come to winning the world's oldest international sporting competition was Sir Thomas Lipton, the Glasgow-born son of poor Irish parents, who founded the eponymous tea and grocery empire between the two world wars. It was Lipton who provided the inspiration for Mills. "I was a keen amateur sailor as a kid but lost interest for over 20 years while I built up my businesses," Mills said. "I was reintroduced to sailing in the late 1990s when the round-the-world race rekindled my interest. It was during that event that I read about Thomas Lipton, who tried to win the America's Cup for 30 years and failed. That's when I became obsessed with trying to win back a cup that this country's never won."
Mills, the 59-year-old Essex-born son of a factory worker, who started working life as a copy assistant in Fleet Street, says he is the right man to head the pursuit of the Auld Mug because "I take a common-sense approach, I get on and do things. That's what the America's Cup needs. It does not need upper-class toffs who think the world owes them a living. Nothing has been delivered to me on a plate. I've had to work for it. If we win the America's Cup, we'll have worked for that, too".
Mills insists that Team Origin has the designers and builders, as well as the crew – led by the skipper, three-time Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie – to mount a potent challenge.
It had been a particularly hectic week for the entrepreneur, who is deputy chairman (to Lord Coe) of the London Organising Committee. We spoke the day after the world's media had been invited to the Olympic Park, two years out from the start of the London Games, with the project ahead of schedule. Mills, who is focused on areas like ticketing, volunteering and the torch relay, said: "We were always optimistic this would go well. Those who hadn't seen the Olympic Park were completely blown away. It is an extraordinary achievement."
The only aspect of the America's Cup project that Mills will not be involved in is the actual sailing, although you suspect that he would be on board, given half a chance. He laughs. "Nobody gets on the boat unless they're the best in the world. Even me. And I'm the one who writes out the cheques..."