Dyed in the Wool

By Jen Whiting

Chris Cookson and Joe Camillo of RegattaSports in the St. Catharines Rowing Club Boathouse in Ontario, Canada, Wednesday, April 4, 2018. (Nick Iwanyshyn for Rowing News)

If you’ve been rowing a long time, you’ve probably forgotten this conversation, or the fact that you had it at all. You may have asked your coach directly. Or maybe you asked an experienced teammate, someone you trusted and could be frank with. Or you had this conversation quietly, in your own mind, and spent an entire season figuring it out. Whichever way you came to the answer, you asked the question, “Which seat is the best seat in the boat?” You may even have taken it one step further, asking, “Am I in the best seat in the boat?” For all rowers, however, regardless of the seat you row, the answer becomes clearer with time.

Chris Cookson and Joe Camillo, the founders of RegattaSport, each had this conversation early in life. They were both young when they started rowing. They both fell in love with the sport, and, after rowing for a full stint during their university years, both ended up on the Canadian national team in the 1980s, rowing in the lightweight men’s eight.

Cookson, the taller of the two, learned to row when he was 10 years old at St. Catharines Rowing School in the Mecca of Canadian rowing, St. Catharines, Ontario. He started with other athletes his size, rowing together in an eight during his summer vacation. When he got to high school, he kept rowing. “Rowing is the biggest sport in the city,” Cookson explains, as he describes what it was like to grow up in St. Catharines, the home of the Canadian Henley and the Canadian secondary schools championship. Cookson had watched his brother Peter row successfully. During his early high school years, Chris Cookson was a coxswain, but during the summer between his junior and senior years, he grew eight inches and spent his last year of high school in a rower’s seat.

Cookson was drawn to the discipline of the sport, the technicality of the stroke, and the sheer joy of going fast. In college, at the University of Western Ontario in London, he rowed for four years and, at the end of it, knew he had to keep going. He made the Canadian squad, coxing at the 1979 lightweight world championships. He faced his brother in that boat, Chris in the coxswain’s cockpit and Peter in stroke seat.

Camillo, the other partner at the helm of RegattaSport, found rowing at 17 after a hit-and-run accident nearly cost him one of his legs. In rehab, rowing was presented as an option for recovery training. He jumped at it, wanting to feel the rush of athleticism again. He joined Leander Boat Club in Hamilton, Ontario, and competed at St. Catharines regularly. “Rowing provided me some focus. I became a fixture at the boat club. It was part of my coming-of-age,” says Camillo. He speaks easily, always a laugh at the end of his sentences. It’s not that he’s making a joke, I realize as we talk; he just carries a sense of joviality with him. He’s a natural storyteller.

Both men followed the call of rowing at the highest level and made their way to the international rowing scene. In 1987, Cookson was in stroke seat and Camillo was in five of the Canadian men’s lightweight eight. It was there, after the worlds final in Copenhagen, that the two men began talking about a business. What began as a conversation between two athletes in 1987 on a walk to the Copenhagen train station turned into an idea that has become one of the most technical clothing companies in water sports, RegattaSport.

Camillo, the storyteller, had earned his MBA from McMaster University. “I was supposed to work on Mahogany Row, in board rooms,” Camillo chuckles, “but I like making things.” Camillo reflects back to the train station discussion. “Chris said to me, ‘You have an MBA, don’t you? I want to open a rowing store. Will you do it with me?’” Cookson chimes in: “Actually, that was the second time I’d brought it up. I’d mentioned the idea in front of the whole group [the lightweight eight]. Everyone thought it was a great idea but I didn’t want eight partners.”

Cookson took time off from the national team to turn his idea into a reality. “I knew nothing more than I knew what I wanted as an athlete.” Cookson remembers that during his elite rowing years, good gear was hard to come by. “One year at the world championships,” he explains, “our jackets came from New Zealand, unis from another country, and shorts from somewhere else. One of our orders never even made it in time. I thought, ‘This is crazy. There’s got to be a place where you can get everything and get it on time.’” And so RegattaSport was born.

What happened next was textbook entrepreneurialism. The two men—along with Cookson’s brother, Peter, and Kathy Boyes, two early partners—rented a 250-square-foot shop in Port Dalhousie, a stone’s throw from the grandstand at Canadian Henley.

Camillo explains, “We started in March of 1988. We’d meet at night and on the weekends. I had a full-time job at NorTel, doing telecom sales and marketing, but even that couldn’t support us.” Camillo goes over it like it all happened yesterday. “Chris had already quit his job and was the only full-time person for the first few years. Eventually, I quit my job, too, because it was getting in the way of the business.” Just like getting in a boat for the first time, the rowers had a steep learning curve. “We had to learn how to make things. We’d go to fabric stores and home sewers. We made rowing shorts and tank tops. Chris led the treks to regattas. We had no choice but to learn how to run the business.”

Cookson breaks a smile as he describes the early years, “My office was in a closet. There weren’t any computers back then. It was 1988. Everything was done by mail and phone.” He slows down here a bit and I jump in with a question. His answer, just like the 250-square-foot-shop-office-in-a-closet, is textbook. “No, it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t make it. We were growing every year.” He hits a beat. “We’re still growing.”

While Camillo set out to develop the manufacturing side of the business, Cookson took on the business development end, traveling to customers at regattas and to clubs and universities throughout Canada. And it’s here, in this part of the story, that the seat conversation surfaces. As each man describes his role—Camillo as the vertical manufacturing guy and Cookson as the “front man”—we end up right back in a rowing shell.

Cookson starts it off. “We’re a good team that way. We both have different skill sets. We’ve gotten to know each other over the years. It’s a lot like a boat.” Camillo adds, “I started this when I was 25. You learn your strengths. I’m more on the back end, in the manufacturing, and Chris handles the products, the marketing, the finance. We recognize our strengths and we keep a separation of duties, respecting those boundaries. I think it’s that trust: you do this and I’ll do that and rarely do we over step because, well, that causes animosity.” He slips back into the boat metaphor, “You’ve got to be in time, from catch to finish. You’ve got to hold on to those basics. They carry you on to certain things in life, like a business.” He pauses and laughs. “I’m not saying we’re perfect.”

Each partner has indeed developed an expertise all his own. Camillo’s wife told him not to start the business. “She told me, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing,’ and she was right. You just figure it out. You learn. I knew systems and I knew how to solve problems. When you’re struggling—married with kids—you take that leap of faith.”

What has emerged over the past 30 years is a business that employs nearly 50 people in total (40 on the manufacturing side and eight on the business side), one that is committed to making its products in North America, and that understands the biggest challenge they will face each day is not inventory control or what type of machine to invest in next but rather how to be flexible enough to meet the needs of customers who are demanding, and rightly so. In many ways, this challenge is the sole reason RegattaSport exists at all.

“Rowers and coaches are more particular about what they wear and want in the high-performance fabrics. We search them out everywhere throughout the world,” says Cookson. Camillo explains the manufacturing details behind meeting these demands. “You need equipment and the proper facility. It’s capital intensive and stressful, but you’ve got to be able to deliver within a specific timeframe.” He chuckles softly and I can almost predict where he’s going. “When you’re dealing with rowers, you’re dealing with type-A personalities. Whether it’s six units, four units, or 100, you have to deliver. We want to make people happy. We want them to feel good about what they wear. And we like to keep the jobs here in North America.”

I ask each partner to explain his toughest challenge. Camillo immediately launches into a discussion peppered with manufacturing lingo, “Trying to collapse the manufacturing process. We used to surge and top-stitch and bind the product. Now the number one machine is the flat-lock machine. It’s more cumbersome and more expensive, but the consumer is more educated; they want more.” I think he’s done, but he goes on, “Sublimation, keeping it vibrant and exciting. Keeping inventory—inventory kills—so you can meet that next order. We bring on young people to help us keep it exciting.”

Cookson takes it from a different angle, “There’s always something around the corner waiting for you. Any void we see, we try to fill it. We’ve grown into different sports like dragon boating and canoe/kayak racing. They want the high-performance fabrics, too. They use different cuts, but they’re just as demanding about the fabrics. The market is changing a lot, too. Ten years ago, the big sports companies pursued the university teams heavily. But rowing isn’t limited to college or high school. People are active and they want good gear. Masters rowers are our fastest growing part of the sport.”

The future is clear to these men. They each see growth in the sport, which means they can’t stop. As businessmen, they sound more like the national team rowers they once were. Cookson shares his philosophy, “If you have an idea and you believe in it enough to persist and pursue it, you’ll make it work. We were told many times we wouldn’t make it. And I had a million people tell me, ‘I had that idea, too.’ There are tons of great ideas in the world but the spoils go to those who do it.” Camillo sounds more like the engine-room rower that he was. He says simply, “You just never stop.” I’m not sure if they’re talking about RegattaSport or rowing in a world championship race, or both.

Each of the partners focuses on his seat, rowing his side. If there is one thing that strikes me as undeniable about these two men it is that they are rowers at heart. They understand what makes a good lineup in a boat. They know that it’s not a question of which seat in the boat is the best seat; it’s a question of which seat is the one where you can make the biggest contribution.