A Shell Game

John Tytus
Bill Tytus, president of
Pocock Racing Shells in Everett, has led the company into becoming one of the
top suppliers of racing shells in the country.

The first time he visited the crew boathouseat Syracuse University in 1992, John Tytus
says he noticed something odd about the facilities. “The men had a full locker
room upstairs that was spacious and pretty nice,” says Tytus, 35, who rowed on
the Orange crew from 1992 to 1996 and now directs sales for Pocock Racing
Shells in Everett. But wedged downstairs in a corner of the boathouse, the
Syracuse women’s crew changed clothes in a room that Tytus says was “about as
big as a clothes closet.”

Syracuse’s locker room arrangements were the norm for
college crews in the early ’90s, when competitive college rowing was dominated
by lanky guys like the six-foot, four-and-a-half-inch Tytus and women were an
afterthought. In 1997, that changed. That was the year the NCAA belatedly
recognized Title IX of the Federal Education Amendment, originally passed in
1972, and began sponsoring national championship racing for women rowers. The
NCAA’s decision started a tide of cash flowing into college rowing programs for

At Syracuse, the women got a spacious new locker room of their
own, and other college athletic departments at schools like Michigan, Ohio
State and the University of Virginia that had been allocating millions to
male-dominated sports like football and basketball—and not much to women’s
athletics—suddenly became gender sensitive. Washington State University, for
example, elevated its women’s crew—but not the men—to a varsity sport, making
the team eligible for scholarships and financial support from the school’s
athletic department. Clemson’s women’s crew now rows out of what Tytus
describes as “a Taj Mahal” of a boathouse.

“The guys,” he says, “still row out of a shed.”

John Boyer
On the floor of Pocock Racing Shells' factory,

employee John Boyer preps a hull for
a second layup.

For Pocock, the NCAA’s decision to support Title IX was a
lifesaver. George Pocock began building sleek wooden racing boats for the
University of Washington in 1911 in an unlighted former tearoom on Lake Union,
and for decades afterward, the family-owned company dominated the business of
making college racing shells in the United States. Pocock boats, hand-crafted
like fine furniture, brought back Olympic gold for Seattle rowers and national
rowing titles for the UW. But by 1985, when Bill Tytus, John’s dad, bought the
company from Seattle rowing icon Stan Pocock, the company was floundering.

“Stan was a dear friend, but he was getting old,” says Bill
Tytus, 63, a former championship rower who gave his son the middle name Pocock,
and who still heads the company as president. “Colleges were buying the hotshot
composite boats and Pocock was still making wooden boats. Sales were down to
maybe 50 boats a year.” The company, he says, was close to shutting down.

Under Title IX, schools receiving federal funding were required to
encourage more women to participate in intercollegiate sports. Perhaps more
important, they had to spend proportionately on men’s and women’s sports
programs. Critics grumbled that the NCAA was slow to respond to the federal
mandate while college athletic directors complained, in turn, that traditional
women’s sports like field hockey and soccer just didn’t consume enough cash resources
to match their big-time football and basketball programs—an important
distinction because Title IX measures compliance by the amount of money devoted
to women’s sports compared with that given to men’s sports.

By the mid-’90s, says Tytus, “a bunch of athletic directors
were sitting around drinking cocktails and they decided women’s crew was an
easy way to get Title IX off their backs.” Crew can indeed cost a pile when a
boathouse, training equipment, coaches and all the other paraphernalia that goes
with messing about in $35,000 boats are added up. Since most college crews race
boats with eight rowers and a coxswain, and serious programs often put several
boats at a time on the water at the varsity and freshman levels, “women’s crew
became a big factor in meeting the Title IX requirements,” says Brett Johnson,
director of operations for USRowing, a Princeton, N.J.-based organization that
oversees many of crew’s competitive events.           

In 1997, USRowing had about 70 women’s rowing programs in
its membership, Johnson says. Last year, that number was up to 140. Moreover,
as women’s crew has grown at the collegiate level, the sport’s popularity has
spilled over to postcollege, or Masters, programs, many of which are populated
by middle-aged women and mothers whose daughters took up rowing in college. To
meet Title IX requirements, colleges now award athletic scholarships to
promising young female rowers, making women’s crew prominent at the high school
level. In Florida, for example, the number of high schools with rowing programs
has climbed from 15 to 47 in the past decade. “When a bunch of parents in
Arkansas find out their daughters can get a full ride to a major university,”
says Bill Tytus, “rowing starts to look pretty interesting.”

Seattle’s Green Lake junior crew program, sponsored by the
city’s Parks and Recreation department and the Rowing Advisory Council, now
draws 130 high school rowers annually, from Everett to south Seattle, says
Patricia McCarrier, the program’s director. Ninety of the junior rowers are
women and McCarrier says most of them get rowing scholarships when they

Pocock began focusing on women’s rowing in 1997 when Bill
Tytus designed a racing shell specifically for women. The boat was roomier than
the men’s racing craft, with less drag through the water. “Women,” explains
Tytus, “have a center of gravity that is considerably aft of men.” When the UW
women won national championship gold medals in Pocock’s new boat in 2001 and
2002 and a silver in 2003, orders came rolling in from other schools.

“In crew,” says John Tytus, “you buy the boat that beats

By 2002, Pocock’s annual sales had grown to 240 boats and
the company was grossing about $2 million annually. Sales drifted down to 160
boats last year as the recession forced cutbacks in college spending on men’s
sports, pulling down Title IX-driven spending on women’s crew as well. But this
year, the Tytuses expect to sell about 200 boats and gross $2 million. Pocock’s
Everett workroom, located in a hangar-like building nestled next to Boeing’s
much larger aircraft hangars, is bustling these days, with 14 employees,
including the Tytuses, working on 20 racing shells in various stages of
construction. Two-thirds of the boats, says John Tytus, will go to women’s

The proximity to Boeing is no coincidence. Early on, when
business was slow and still housed on the shore of Lake Union, Boeing hired
Pocock to build pontoons for float planes. Boeing eventually took its business
in another direction, but came back in 1995, hiring Tytus to design and build
prototypes of winglets for the aircraft maker’s fleet of 737s and 747s. The
contract lasted six years and produced some unusual designs, pulling Pocock
through some hard years until the racing-shell business kicked back in. “It was
good money that came along just when we needed it,” says Bill Tytus.

But the industry is not without competition. Pocock’s
strongest rivalry, in the way collegiate sports can be, is with New Haven,
Conn.-based Vespoli. Sales of Vespoli’s racing shells have climbed even faster
than Pocock’s. Last year, says Mike Vespoli, the company’s chief executive, the
business sold 425 boats, giving it the top spot over Pocock. The two firms
compete fiercely for college and high school business—Vespoli boasts he snagged
John Tytus’ alma mater, Syracuse, this year, and got a toehold on the West
Coast recently by wrapping up a sale to the University of California at
Berkeley crew. Tytus won Green Lake away from Vespoli three years ago and says
he’s sold the program $500,000 in new boats since then. Half of Pocock’s boats
go to college programs, he says, including East Coast crew powerhouses like
Navy, Harvard and Cornell.

Still, Pocock and Vespoli were both disappointed when the UW
varsity men’s and women’s crews chose top-of-the-line, German-made Empachers to
race in during the past two years. Last year, the UW men’s heavyweights won the
IRA (Intercollegiate Rowing Association) championship in the German boat, which
cost $45,000 compared with Pocock’s priciest shell, which is $10,000 cheaper.
“Empacher is expensive,” says UW women’s crew coach Bob Ernst. But, he adds,
“Empacher is the best flying machine in the world.”

That opinion hurts. Empachers are the racing shell of choice
these days for top-tier crews like Harvard’s varsity eight and Brown, which can
afford them. “It takes a brave coach to show up in a non-Empacher boat these
days,” says Mike Vespoli.

But Ernst has plenty of praise for Pocock as well. “They
build very good boats and they are very supportive of our program,” says Ernst,
who has coached both the UW’s top men’s and women’s crews and raced them in
Pococks in the past. UW crews practice in Pococks, which Ernst says are more
durable and easier to fix than the German racing boats. Currently, the UW boathouse
has 63 Pocock shells, along with two Vespolis and three Empachers.

John Tytus says he can live with those
numbers. “We’re competitive people,” he says. “We want to see our boats go fast
and win. But most of all we want to see our boats sell.”   

Related: The Crew Crew: Business connections made through crew racing.

Upgrading the Tuber Section

Upgrading the Tuber Section

Lamb Weston’s expansion of a french fry processing plant showcases the state’s potato industry.
No doubt you’ve noticed that Washington is in the grips of a gustatory frenzy, with an entire industry growing up around the desire to provide eaters and drinkers with the latest in exotic, artisanal, handcrafted, small-batch, organic food and beverages.
For sheer economic impact, though, few comestibles can top the humblest of vegetables and possibly the most popular mass-market product made from it: the potato and the french fry.
Lamb Weston, part of packaged-foods giant ConAgra Foods Inc., is adding a second french-fry production line to its existing plant in Richland. Construction is expected to be finished by autumn 2017. 
Even by the standards of big agriculture, in a region that does food processing in a big way, the Lamb Weston project is no small potatoes. The $200 million-plus investment will add 128 full-time positions to a plant that already employs 500. The new line will increase annual processing capacity by more than 300 million pounds of spuds.
Potatoes don’t get quite the same attention as Washington’s other major agricultural commodities — wheat and apples — but they are a big deal nevertheless. In 2014, potatoes were a $771 million crop in Washington, placing the state second only to Idaho (which touts “Famous Potatoes” on its license plates) in the nation. The Washington State Potato Commission says Washington growers plant more than 160,000 acres annually in the Columbia Basin and the Skagit Valley, producing yields per acre that are the highest in the world — about 30 tons — and twice the national average.
Making stuff from potatoes is also a big deal in Washington. Nearly 87 percent of Washington’s potato crop gets processed as dehydrated potatoes, potato chips and frozen french fries. The commission says Washington leads the United States in frozen french fry production, accounting for 20 percent of the nation’s output. Fries are also a major contributor to Washington’s export economy: Of the french fries made in this state and shipped internationally, Japan alone purchases about 65 percent.
Growing, harvesting, transporting, storing and shipping large quantities of potatoes make for a sizable economic presence. With about 4,500 employees across the Columbia Basin, Lamb Weston operates an innovation center in Richland, it has corporate offices in Kennewick and it runs processing facilities in Connell, Pasco, Quincy and Warden, in addition to the Richland plant that’s being expanded. It sources potatoes from growers in the Columbia Basin — its purchases will increase when the new line begins operating — and it sells frozen potato products like packaged french fries under its own brand names as well as for sale by retailers under private labels. 
It’s not alone, of course. Idaho-based Simplot has potato-processing plants in Moses Lake and Othello, each making an array of products, including french fries. The Canadian potato giant McCain Foods also has a french fry plant in Othello.
French fry consumption is considered a maturing market. At times in the past decade and a half, there have been reports of consumption plateauing and even declining. Still, the London-based market research firm Euromonitor International predicts a 10 percent increase — about 2.6 billion pounds — in the worldwide frozen-potato category between this year and 2020.
That projection appears to be enough to encourage ConAgra, which is spinning out Idaho-based Lamb Weston as a separate publicly held company this fall, to invest not only in the Richland expansion but also in Boardman, Oregon, where it plans to make more hash brown patties and potato puffs.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to help our customers realize their global growth projections,” says Lamb Weston President Greg Schlafer of the expansion, “but we need to make more french fries to do that.”
The Richland project will add operations, maintenance and technical staff — a mix of salaried and hourly positions — to run the line. But the economic impact goes beyond those employed at the plant, during and after construction.
For example, more food processing means more work for companies that manufacture food-processing equipment, such as Walla Walla’s Key Technology, which makes optical inspection systems, laser sorters and sizing, grading, and packaging conveyors for potato lines. While the company won’t get specific about customers and their projects, Key’s most recent quarterly earnings report mentions “a large seven-figure order received from a major potato processor.”
The Lamb Weston expansion also signals the potential of the Tri-Cities and the state as a place for large-scale food processing. Schlafer cited cooperation from Governor Jay Inslee’s office, the state Department of Commerce, the Association of Washington Business, the city of Richland and the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, as being key “community partners.”
TRIDEC President and CEO Carl Adrian believes the Lamb Weston announcement will certainly be heard elsewhere in the industry. While they might not care to admit to it, Adrian says, executives at other food companies see announcements like Lamb Weston’s and start asking, “If they’re there, how come we’re not?” 

Potato Power
The humble spud’s impact in Washington state.

160,000 | Washington acres planted in potatoes
#1 | Washington potato growers’ worldwide ranking in per-acre yield  
87% | Proportion of Washington potatoes processed into french fries, potato chips and mashed potatoes
99% | Proportion of Washington potato farms that are family owned
$4.6 billion | Industry’s impact on the state economy
23,500 | Jobs supported by the Washington potato industry
8% | Proportion of potato volume that becomes a byproduct (such as starch for the paper industry or feed for the cattle industry) in a french fry plant

Shoestring Operations
Companies making french fries in Washington

Lamb Weston | Plants in Connell, Pasco (2), Quincy, Richland and Warden

J.R. Simplot Co. | 
Plants in Moses Lake and Othello

McCain Foods | 
Plant in Othello
SOURCE: Washington State Potato Commission