Former Rutgers rower applies lessons learned on the river to his career as an executive
Jeffrey Klepacki likes to say he earned his MBA on the river.
What he means, really, is that a lot of the experience he draws on as an executive – determination, discipline, resiliency – he gained from his participation on the Rutgers varsity crew team and the experience of regular training, team work and intense competition.
Klepacki, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Livingston College (Class of 1990), continued to compete after college, winning the world championships in 1994,1998 and 1999 and securing a spot on the U.S. Olympic rowing team three times – at the games in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the National Rowing Foundation’s Hall of Fame for his life time achievements.
“I got life lessons from my 16 years of competing,” Klepacki said.
During two recent events sponsored by Rutgers Business School, including a panel discussion at the London Olympics, Klepacki has talked about his time as an athlete and how the lessons he learned have helped to shape his management style. He is currently a senior vice president at Delaware Investments, where he is head of the company’s third party distribution.
“Business coaches will tell you that leaders don’t react. To be a leader, you need to have an internal GPS system pointed to the long-term objectives,” he said. “Athletics inspires a unique discipline. It becomes part of your DNA and how you process things.’’
In a sport like rowing and in business, people have to stay focused on the long-term, to be well-prepared and to learn from mistakes and persevere.
If business people succeed by recognizing and creating opportunities, then some athletes may have an advantage. There’s a certain determination that comes from being a serious competitor in a sport like rowing. Klepacki said losing a race required going back into the water the next day or the next week and “creating the opportunity again to win.”
Rowing brought Klepacki to Rutgers University, where the sport has a storied history that dates back to 1864 when the first crew team was created. In 1952, two Rutgers rowers won gold medals for the two-man pair event at the Olympic games in Helsinki. It was the first time a boat from the U.S. won the event. More than a dozen more Rutgers rowers, including Klepacki, would go on to represent the country in the Olympics.
After trying different sports during high school, including football and basketball, Klepacki got a taste for rowing in his senior year. Kearny was one of few high schools with a crew team. “I feel very fortunate that Kearny had a rowing program. Many athletes don’t start rowing until college in the U.S.,” Klepacki said.
“I fell into this team culture,” he said. “It was the competition that compelled me to keep going.”
Photo by ed hewitt. Jeffrey Klepacki and his teammates in 1998, celebrating their gold medals for the World Championship Men's 8 in Cologne, Germany.
At Rutgers, he could continue the sport while he studied economics. Early on, Klepacki decided he would go into business, an idea inspired by his insurance-selling father, Kearny’s proximity to bustling Wall Street and a neighbor who commuted daily to the World Trade Center.
There are lots of experiences that help to shape a person’s character. For Klepacki, rowing supplemented his life at college. “It provided structure and discipline. Of course, there were parties and we had our fun, but rowing became an additional class,” he said. “I learned about myself, about the sport and about team work.”
Klepacki’s office at Delaware Investments towers over Center City Philadelphia. From the windows of his office on the 36th floor, he has a bird’s-eye-view of the Schuylkill River, a popular rowing venue and its landmark Boathouse Row, a cluster of structures that includes 10 rowing clubs.
Klepacki knows the spot well. He spent time training on the Schuylkill in the early 1990’s when he vied for a spot on the team that went on to win the World Championship. The serendipitous view of the rowing clubs is a constant reminder, like a photograph or a favorite quote, of what drives Klepacki and keeps him grounded.
In 2007, Rutgers University eliminated men’s heavyweight crew and men’s lightweight crew as varsity sports. If a student wants to row at Rutgers now, there is a club dedicated to the sport, but Klepacki said the club is not producing the same caliber of competitive athletes and some of the most venerable regattas, including the 143-year-old race against Princeton, are in jeopardy.
The Olympic games in London last summer represented the first time in decades that Rutgers did not send rowers to compete. “It reflects what’s happening with the club,” he said.
“Many of the athletes who I rowed with would not look at Rutgers now because there is no varsity program,” he said. “Anyone who wants to row for a Division 1 program will be forced to go out of state if they don’t make it to Princeton.”
Klepacki and a group of his former crew team members are hoping that will change.
“We continue to work with the university,” he said, “to restore crew to varsity status.”
At a glance: Jeff Klepacki
Born: In Kearny, on Dec. 17, 1968
Graduated: Class of 1990, Livingston College, economics
Residence: Hopewell Township
Family life: Married to Melissa; two sons, Henry, 7, and Ted, 5.
Career highlights: Delaware Investments, a $175 billion investment management firm since 2009; Allianz Global Investors, where he began as a sales manager in 2001 and held positions of increased responsibility until 2009 when he left as a national sales director.
Favorite past-times: Spending time with family and doing charity work, including some voluntary consulting work for a new organization, Restore Our Shore (www.restoreourshore.com) created to help state residents impacted by Super Storm Sandy. “We have a goal to raise $150,000 by Memorial Day… Each weekend we’re going to a different community in need to offer any assistance we can.”
An analogy he makes between crew and the business world: “The concept of team work and having a real understanding of what that means. In business, there are so many good individuals. How do you combine all the talent and manage it to make the sum of the total greater than the individuals.”
Why he continues to lobby to have rowing restored as a varsity sport: “At an early age, it had such a big impact on my life. It led to life-long friendships and life-long memories. Rutgers was the stepping stone for me to compete at the Olympic level. I want to make sure that opportunity is preserved for others coming out of New Jersey.”