Boathouse Sports – a true Philly apparel maker – has ambitious plans for growth

John Strotbeck estimates he’s worn by millions of athletes through Philadelphia-based Boathouse Sports, which has sold 1 million units of outdoor apparel and sports gear for professional, college, and high school athletes annually for the past 20 years.

Now he’s betting that some of these athletes, now aged 30 to 50, will buy the Boathouse apparel for nostalgic reasons, to remind them of the “best years of their lives.”

The pandemic torpedoed Boathouse’s business in 2020, as it did for many other companies. Between state restrictions on non-essential businesses and a longer-than-expected moratorium on team sports, Boathouse can no longer count on its typical customers.

“COVID has cost us 50% of our business over about 18 months,” said Strutke, whose company has adapted in part by making tens of thousands of masks for doctors, nurses and Wawa workers.

While the business has now recovered almost entirely, Strotbeck saw significant changes in consumer behavior and preferences and felt the company had to diversify its sales and marketing channels.

The plan: keep equipping teams but focus on more consumer channels. Strutke realized he needed help building a consumer brand from the company he launched in 1985, between his appearances with the US Olympic rowing team at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.

“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” Strutke said. So, 13 months ago, the CEO, Cindy DePeitrantonio, appointed the former chief operating officer of Sydney Kimmel’s Jones Apparel Group who had managed seven acquisitions for the company’s $4.5 billion and several brands such as Stuart Weitzman, Nine West, and Jones New York. She also led the jewelry brand Alex and Ani.

The ambitious 90-day plan that DePetterrantonio had started had to be scrapped when COVID-19 lingered. The company’s workforce has plummeted, Strutk has been sidelined by the virus, and a malware attack made the new CEO scrawl financial statements on the back of a handkerchief.

It took a while to install ship, but now its consumer e-commerce business is growing, currently 10% of sales – a 34% increase from last year. The company has set a target of 30% for the Internet’s share of total sales for the next year.

And it’s investing in brick-and-mortar stores—this fall in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and in spring, five additional stores in other waterfront cities like Annapolis, Maryland.

“Our goal is to make it more accessible through sale at major retailers, Boathouse branded popups as well as and through collaborations,” DiPetterantoniou said.

Nantucket was natural because the company had a strong client base in Boston, a big rowing city. The Boathouse was sold to Nantucket’s TownPool, whose owner wore the product as a middle school and college athlete. And when stock dwindled there, sales on the Boston-area website increased.

The CEO also strengthened her team and appointed a director of e-commerce and marketing, directors of operations and finance, and marketing and design partners. The company uses an agency to help with search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising while the internal staff handles digital marketing and other social media.

DiPietrantonio also spent a lot of time listening to consumers and learning the brand’s DNA.

“Our consumers have an emotional attachment to what they wore in high school or middle school, so we made some tweaks to the styles and named it The Boathouse,” she said.

There’s a new version of Strotbeck’s first rowing jacket, the Gore-tex Stevenson Jacket ($108 – $264), a revamped long-sleeved swim jacket that just hit the site ($198), and in 2022, the redesigned Coach-only Jacket ($168) .

Bestsellers include the “Trou” compression (rowing shorts, $38 to $88) that customers wear to run, bike or paddle the short ride ($52) and shorts ($68), her version of the jogger.

Last spring, the company launched the Tailwind Jacket ($78-$88) and sold more than 1,000 units by frequently tweaking the product in new colors and patterns.

DiPietrantonio worked with the design team to offer new prints using technology that Strotbeck has invested in for nearly 15 years to compete with shoe brands called Sublimation. It is the process by which the digital image is incorporated into the performance fabric using a heat transfer process and expensive equipment.

The company added sublimation in 2007 to fend off shoe brands like Nike, Under Armor and Adidas that took up college team business. It was a relatively unknown process but now accounts for 70% of uniforms. Strotbeck estimates he invested $1 million in equipment alone to be able to customize the clothes.

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While the sports apparel sector is very competitive, DiPetterantino said there is room for more players. “Our competition is not footwear brands and it is not Lululemon or Athleta or Outdoor Voices. I think there is a white space between those two categories for a high-quality outdoor apparel and accessories brand. And this is really the place for us.”

There are two groups the brand likes: ex-sportsmen who have donned the Boathouse, and 15-25-year-olds looking for an alternative to the big brands.

“They are looking for companies that represent more than just profit,” Strutke said. “We make everything in the United States. This is important to people. It should be. It is more important now after COVID than it was before, to be a socially responsible company.”

DiPeitrantonio said the company pays at least $12 an hour for sanitation — up from $10 before the pandemic — along with health insurance and a 401(k). “Give us [pay] Increases in 2021 and will in 2022, she said. “My goal is not to be competitive but to earn some of the best wages in the industry.”

As many companies grapple with remote supply problems, Boathouse’s pain points have been closer to home: finding enough local factory workers and overcoming a shortage of local truck drivers.

The company is still fortunate. “While most companies handle 14 to 19 weeks from order to customer delivery, we handle five to seven,” DiPetrantonio said.

Pre-COVD Boathouse had 225 employees, 170 in the plant alone. After the pandemic drained the workforce, the company now totals 170 and 80 in the factory.

“We find it very difficult to persuade people to return or to hire new people,” Strubke said, despite the safety precautions in place.

The company offers a finder’s fee for new hires and training of new factory employees. The Boathouse had to find local factories to outsource the work to to meet or turn down the orders.

“This is a national issue. It could be an international issue.

Her current 100,000-square-foot facility was intentionally chosen where he could find apparel artisans. The Boathouse was courted by officials in Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky to move there in the late 1990s when the company outgrown the 20,000-square-foot Wissahickon Industrial Center facility.

“We made an informed guess that while wages were lower in the South, it would be difficult to find workers in a few years because the auto and data processing industries were investing heavily in the regions. We decided to stay in Philly.”

Take out a map and put pins on where all his employees live. The company opened the Hunting Park Avenue facility in 2000, hoping to eventually quadruple production capacity.

This has not happened yet. But “I have this dream. I want to hire thousands of people in Philadelphia, and I think it can be done.”

“I know the product and she knows the brands and consumers and how to grow the business, especially on the retail side,” the founder said, referring to his new CEO. “It will definitely take us to very big places.”


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