Telling John Strotbeck that he can’t just pushes him further so he can.
This was true in the 1980s when he made the U.S. Olympic rowing team, twice, and again recently when his company was selected to outfit the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic rowing teams in London.
Boathouse Sports, the business Strotbeck started in 1989, beat out Nike Sports to not only be the U.S. rowing teams’ apparel supplier, but also to outfit U.S. athletes at the Pan American Games and the Para Olympics. Strotbeck sees his business success as an extension of his personal belief.
“Whatever anybody tells you that you can’t do, look the other way — just do it,” he says, ironically using Nike’s tag line.
The 57-year-old Feltonville businessman, who was born in Narberth, Pa., and grew up in Atlantic City, first rowed as a senior at Atlantic City High School.
“I was the runt of the rowing team and was told by one of the national coaches in ’82 that I was too small to make the team,” he recalled.
Strotbeck pushed past that critique to win a spot on the U.S. rowing team in the 1984 Los Angeles games and again, in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. That spirit transferred into his post-Olympic life when he started Boathouse Sports.
“I visited a lot of apparel guys in Manhattan, particularly back in the late ’80s, and they told me what I couldn’t do after I told them my plans,” he recounted. “Most of them are out of business but Boathouse is still chugging along.”
Annual revenues for Boathouse topped $20 million last year.
According to Strotbeck, he supplies athletic-wear to most colleges, high schools and prep schools in eastern Pennsylvania. And, in lousy weather, the Eagles players and staff can be seen wearing his rain gear. “We’ve supplied the NFL for 12 years and have introduced new styles over that time, but Andy Reid refuses to wear anything but that black jacket,” he said with a laugh.
Back to his first love
The U.S. rowers’ racing unisuits and practice gear all came from the 120,000-square-foot facility on Hunting Park Avenue. Rowing was the primary target when Strotbeck started out in the apparel business. Competition from larger apparel makers squeezed Boathouse out of the running and expanding their offerings into sports outerwear (parkas, warm-ups).
Things came full circle when Strotbeck refocused on his first love, rowing, in 2007.
“We started doing full lines of apparel for sports where we can be relevant,” he said. “And rowing, being the one nearest and dearest to our hearts, was part of that plan.
In 2009, Strotbeck got the contract to outfit the national rowing teams. “We beat out Nike, my least favorite four letter word,” he jokingly added.
A member of the Vesper Club, Strotbeck can often be seen sculling or sweep-rowing on the Schuylkill. “I took a 20-year break from rowing and put on some weight,” he stated. “I’ve lost 50 pounds and now it feels good to be back on the water.”
Strotbeck’s love for the sport and for the Olympic games is timeless. “I look at the Olympics as an athlete,” he says. “I mean, one of the beauties of being an Olympian is that there is no past tense for Olympian — once an Olympian, always an Olympian. I think the Olympics are still the purest of all sporting activities.”