John Strotbeck estimates that he has outfitted millions of athletes through Philadelphia-based Boathouse Sports, selling one million units of outerwear and athletic equipment annually to professional, college and university athletes. and secondary over the past 20 years.
Now he’s betting some of those athletes, now in their 30s and 50s, will buy Boathouse clothing for the sake of nostalgia, reminding them of the “best years of their lives.”
The pandemic torpedoed Boathouse’s business in 2020, like many others. Between state restrictions on non-essential businesses and shutting down team sports for longer than expected, Boathouse could no longer count on its typical customers.
“COVID cost us 50% of our business over a period of about 18 months,” said Strotbeck, whose company has adapted in part by making tens of thousands of masks for doctors, nurses and nurses. Wawa workers.
And while business has now almost fully recovered, Strotbeck saw big changes in consumer behavior and preferences and felt the company needed to diversify its sales and marketing channels.
The plan: continue to equip teams but pivot towards more consumption channels. Strotbeck admitted that he needed help building a mainstream brand of the company he launched in 1985, between his appearances for the US Olympic rowing team at the 1984 and 1988 Games.
“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” Strotbeck said. So, 13 months ago, he hired CEO Cindy DiPietrantonio, former COO of Sidney Kimmel’s Jones Apparel Group, who managed seven acquisitions for the $ 4.5 billion company and a multitude labels like Stuart Weitzman, Nine West and Jones New York. She also ran the Alex and Ani jewelry brand.
The ambitious 90-day plan that DiPietrantonio started with had to be rejected when COVID-19 lingered. The company’s workforce has shrunk significantly, Strotbeck has been sidelined from the virus, and a malware attack has forced the new CEO to scribble financial data on the back of a briefcase.
It took some time to stabilize the ship, but now its mainstream e-commerce business is growing, currently by 10% in sales, a 34% increase over last year. The company has set a target of 30% for the share of total online sales for next year.
And it’s investing in physical stores – this fall in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and this spring, in five more stores in other waterfront cities like Annapolis, Md..
“Our goal is to make it more accessible by selling through key retailers, Boathouse branded pop-ups as well as Boathouse.com and through collaborations, ”said DiPietrantonio.
Nantucket was natural because the company has a large customer base in Boston, a large rowing city. Boathouse sold at Nantucket Municipal Pool, whose owner wore the product as a preparatory school and college athlete. And when the inventory went down there, sales increased on the Boston area website.
The CEO also beefed up her team and hired a director of e-commerce and marketing, directors of operations and finance, as well as merchandising and design associates. The company uses an agency to help with search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising, while internal employees handle other digital marketing and social media.
DiPietrantonio has 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 prep, so we made a few changes to the styles and tagged it with Boathouse,” she said.
There is a new version of Strotbeck’s first rowing jacket, the Gore-tex jacket Stevenson ($ 108- $ 264), a redesigned long swim parka that just arrived on the site ($ 198) and in 2022, the restyled Coaches Only retro jacket ($ 168).
Top sellers include the Compression “hole” (rowing shorts, $ 38 to $ 88) that customers wear for running, biking or rowing, the short trip ($ 52) and the pants ($ 68), its version of a jogger.
Last spring, the company launched the Tailwind hoodie ($ 78 to $ 88) and has sold over 1,000 units, repeatedly modifying the product with new colors and patterns.
DiPietrantonio worked with the design team to introduce new prints using technology Strotbeck invested in almost 15 years ago to compete with shoe brands called sublimation. It is the process by which a digital image is fused to 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 have eaten away at its varsity team business. It was a relatively unknown process, but today represents 70% of uniforms. Strotbeck estimates that he invested $ 1 million in equipment alone to be able to customize the clothes.
READ MORE: This Norristown sports equipment maker took a ‘Just Do It! »Attitude and whipped Nike in court
While the sportswear industry is extremely competitive, DiPietrantonio said there is room for more players. “Our competition is not shoe brands and it is not Lululemon, Athleta or Outdoor Voices. I think there is a white space between these two categories for a brand of authentic and quality outerwear and accessories. And that’s really where we are.
There are two groups the brand resonates with: former athletes who wore Boathouse and 15-25 year olds looking for an alternative to the big brands.
“They are looking for companies that are more than just making money,” Strotbeck said. “We make everything in the United States. It is important for people. It should be. It’s more important now after COVID than before, to be a socially responsible business. “
DiPietrantonio said the company pays at least $ 12 an hour for sewers – an increase from $ 10 before the pandemic – as well as health insurance and a 401 (k). “We gave [pay] increases in 2021 and will be in 2022, ”she said. “My goal is not to be competitive, but to have the best salaries in the industry. “
While many companies face distant supply issues, Boathouse’s issues are closer to home: finding enough local factory workers and dealing with the shortage of domestic truckers.
Still, the company was lucky. “Where most companies have between 14 and 19 weeks between ordering and delivery to the customer, we have between five and seven,” DiPietrantonio said.
Pre-COVD Boathouse had 225 employees, 170 at the plant alone. After the pandemic drained the workforce, the company now has 170 and 80 at the plant.
“We find it very difficult to bring people back or just hire new people,” Strotbeck said, despite the security measures in place.
The company offers search fees for new hires and training for new plant employees. Boathouse had to find local factories to outsource the work to fulfill or reject orders.
“It’s a national issue; it could be an international problem, ”he said.
His current 100,000 square foot facility was intentionally chosen where he could find garment artisans. Boathouse was courted by officials from Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky to move there in the late 1990s, when the company outgrown its 20,000 square foot Wissahickon Industrial Center facility. .
“We made an educated guess that if wages were lower in the South it would be difficult to find workers in a few years as the auto industry and IT were investing heavily in the regions. We have decided to stay in Philly. ”
He took out a map and put pins on where all of his employees lived. The company opened its Hunting Park Avenue plant in 2000, hoping to quadruple production capacity.
It hasn’t happened yet. But “I have this dream. I would love to employ thousands of people in Philadelphia, and I think it’s achievable.
“I know the products and she knows the brands, the consumers and how to grow a business, especially on the retail side,” said the founder, deferring to his new CEO. “She’s definitely going to take us to some really great places.