Philadelphia's Boathouse Sports outfitting Olympic rowers


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Though U.S. athletes wore chic China-made Ralph Lauren duds during the Olympics' opening ceremony Friday, a 225-employee company in North Philadelphia is taking special pride that one team -- the rowers -- will be wearing made-in-the-U.S.A. racing unisuits and practice gear in London.

The story of that company, Boathouse Sports Inc., is one of a small American apparel manufacturer in a rusted-out industrial city beating the odds in an era of global trade flows and multibillion-dollar, big-brand conglomerates.

"We compete because a) we are custom and b) we are fast," the company's founder, John Strotbeck, himself a former Olympic rower, said. "You should never turn your back on your core."

He was talking about Boathouse's rowing niche, but he also could have been talking about Philadelphia, having spurned offers in the late 1990s to relocate to cheaper-labor Southern states.

Bitten with the rowing bug at Marietta College in Ohio, Mr. Strotbeck "sweep rowed" in a double -- a two-person boat -- at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, then sculled in a quad -- a four-man boat -- at the '88 games in Seoul, South Korea.

In 1989, he launched Boathouse Sports in a factory in Northern Liberties. Within a few years, Boathouse had expanded into an almost-exclusive outerwear company that sold parkas, award jackets and warm-ups to athletes for Division I football teams, the National Football League, and other sports.

Times were good in the 1990s. But then Nike and Adidas crashed the party by paying multimillion-dollar sponsorships to outfit Division I teams for the national TV exposure, wiping out part of Boathouse's business.

Seeking new revenue, Mr. Strotbeck, 55, recast Boathouse to supply full lines of apparel, uniforms and accessories for other sports that "flew under the radar," he said.

The company processes about 45,000 orders a year and has annual revenues of about $20 million. It pitches its products to coaches and athletic directors with the simple message that Boathouse will manufacture custom uniforms and deliver them within 20 days of an order -- a difficult timetable for a Chinese factory.

"We do everything from design, graphics, inventory of raw materials, cutting and sewing, screening and sublimation, to putting it in a box," Mr. Strotbeck said.

When he was an Olympic athlete in 1984, the official clothing sponsor was Levi's. Four years later, the clothing sponsor was Adidas.

"This is not anything new," he said of the made-in-China Ralph Lauren clothing for the Olympics, "but given the changes in the economy, there's a realization that we can make stuff in the U.S., and should make things in the U.S."

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