Photo by Tessa Marie Images
Can Bryn Mawr native John Strotbeck turn his rowing apparel company Boathouse Sports into a household name?
John Strotbeck has a history of relentless commitment. Take the 1984 Olympics. Standing in the tunnel in the Los Angeles Coliseum, with Michael Jordan right behind him, he decided in that moment that he would quit his job and train to win a gold medal four years later in Seoul.
Months later, the Bryn Mawr native was looking for something to do in the winter months, when he couldn’t train on the Schuylkill River. He contacted the owners of Boathouse Sports in Philly’s Fairmount section and offered to help them out. For the princely rate of $7.50/hour, he hand-illustrated a catalog, had it printed and distributed it at rowing competitions in Center City and Massachusetts.
At the ’88 Summer Olympics in Seoul, he finished 13th in the quad competition, then did “the dumbest thing in the world.” He bought Boathouse, a bankrupt entity. He paid off its debts, focused on its core business—providing top-flight apparel to the rowing community—and made the company a success. “In the next 20 years, we built the best custom outerwear company in the world,” Strotbeck says.
Today, Boathouse Sports outfits high school, college and professional teams in a wide variety of sports across the country and internationally. It recently moved from customized, team-specific items to selling apparel to the general public via its website. Boathouse clothing is now in retail outlets in the Northeast, and Strotbeck can see a day when there are standalone Boathouse stores.
It’s an ambitious blueprint fraught with uncertainty. But Boathouse just keeps moving forward—much like its owner, a two-time Olympian who some coaches thought was too small to compete at the highest level. “I think Boathouse can be a $200 million brand pretty quickly,” says Strotbeck. “We have to get the stuff made and get it out the door.”
Strotbeck, 65, speaks with the surety of someone who’s lived a little. He’s won seven national rowing titles, a gold medal at the 1983 Pan American Games, a bronze at the 1985 World Championships and silvers at the 1986 Goodwill Games and 1987 Pan Americans. As he described his vision for Boathouse to Cindy DiPietrantonio, she felt as if he’d offered her nirvana—at an employee discount. DiPietrantonio joined Boathouse as CEO and president in September 2020 after 25 years in retail for Jones New York and shorter stints at Alex and Ani and the Alex Apparel Group.
DiPietrantonio’s experience had been confined to New York City. But when she saw the Boathouse manufacturing process and the company’s devotion to remaining in Philadelphia, she was in. “Once I took a tour and saw the cut-and-sew operation and how John never left, I was impressed,” she says. “I wanted to push the brand into retail. I couldn’t say no.”
When Strotbeck took over Boathouse, large sneaker companies like Nike and Adidas hadn’t started making apparel, so Boathouse products found their way into the NFL. “I’ve got a picture of Bill Parcells with a Boathouse coat,” DiPietrantonio says.
Now that the major brands have entered the marketplace and negotiated exclusive deals with leagues and colleges, it’s harder for Boathouse to get its logo on pro sidelines, but Strotbeck says the products are still in up to 8,000 schools a year. They’re also available as special orders for organizations and businesses, who choose the brand in part because of nostalgic connections. “I talked to private equity guys on Wall Street, and they remember wearing Boathouse,” DiPietrantonio says. “Everybody has a story. Some of the best times of their lives were in Boathouse. They say, ‘We would love to wear it now.’”
Bob Annunziata has been at Horace Mann School in the Bronx for 34 years. He’s been a Boathouse customer nearly that long, drawn to its stability, willingness to create new designs and products, and stellar customer service. “I wanted our coaches and professional staff dressed in the best possible apparel, in terms of look and functionality,” he says.
When Horace Mann needed uniforms for its middle school teams, Boathouse created youth sizes it hadn’t manufactured before. When the school was executing its most recent uniform design for the soccer team, players wanted a “light-to-dark” style with Horace Mann’s maroon school color. “Boathouse came back with a gorgeous design,” Annunziata says.
Such flexibility can come at a higher cost. But its quality and durability are huge pluses for schools not interested in replacing uniforms every year.
Last summer, Boathouse gear appeared in its first retail outlet, on Nantucket in Massachusetts. There is no great rush to flood stores with the apparel, but there is a plan for wider distribution. “Philadelphia is a big market for us,” DiPietrantonio says. “Boston and Connecticut are huge areas.”
And it’s not just the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Fort Worth Country Day School in Texas is such an enthusiastic customer “its equipment room looks like a Boathouse retail store,” DiPietrantonio says.
The company survived the COVID doldrums by pivoting to making PPE equipment, but it still hasn’t regained all of its factory staff. Regardless, the goal has never been universal availability, and there are new frontiers to explore.
“Cindy is the CEO and runs this day-to-day, and I am in a complementary role,” Strotbeck says. “She’s the apparel pro who understands retail. I understand how to get things made.”