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Rowing to make waves in the apparel business: Charles River Apparel CEO

A simple polo shirt with an embroidered company logo might seem like an easy garment to produce, even when ordered in large quantities for a corporation or university. But for Barry Lipsett, CEO of Charles River Apparel, behind every clothing piece lies a complex series of manufacturing and distribution decisions: How can warehouse operations be streamlined? What should the balance be between retail and business channels? How can new markets be developed? Is customer service up to par? Lipsett, the second generation in his family to lead the Sharon, Mass.-based apparel maker, is pleased with the business outcomes of late, since the company has posted strong double-digit growth – almost 50 percent – the past three years. Under Lipsett’s direction, Charles River Apparel has grown from five to over 80 employees, with a 100,000-square-foot design and distribution facility just outside of Boston. The company houses over a million garments in its facility, most available to ship within 24 hours, which Lipsett said allows quick distribution to its network of retail, sporting goods, college bookstores and resort stores. Lipsett talked to Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about staying ahead of the competition in the promotional “wearables” industry:

“My father, Walter Lipsett, used to row on the Charles River during college. So when he founded Charles River Apparel over three decades ago, the name of the company was a tribute to the teamwork and determination that is exemplified in the sport. Initially the company just sold rainwear to department stores but our company struggled to grow, although our trademark was classic New England style at a reasonable price. When I took over in 1993, we both knew I needed to refocus the business, adding to the product line. Our niche became promotional products and our signature logo, a rower on a skull boat, is emblematic of the core values we hold. We expanded from outwear to all sorts of sporting wear, including fleece jackets, sweatshirts, polos, sweatshirts, and workwear. Promotional apparel isn’t known for being fashion-forward, but we stay on top of trends by designing our entire line in-house and having a “Charles River” brand that combines style, performance and value. Monogrammed Charles River rain jackets are all the rage on e-commerce sites like Etsy, and social media, like lifestyle bloggers and Pinterest, have taken the brand to a new level. I have an inspirational business philosophy that I call “Power 10,” a motivation mantra from the coxswain which calls for the rowers to do ten powerful strokes. When an employee here goes above-and-beyond, it’s an example of putting muscle to the oar and giving all to the crew. My personal example of Power 10 is that last winter during the snowstorm, there were days it was practically impossible to deliver packages, so I personally took the van and brought the boxes to our customers. I personally own about 30 coats from Charles River – when you walk into the mud room, they’re all hanging there, as well as in the basement closet. It’s the Power 10 for my personal wardrobe.”

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