The Rowing Dock is a Growing Family Business on Lady Bird Lake
The brand has quintupled under the ownership of Susan Goldberg, who wants to expand access to the lake for all Austinites
By Kaitlyn Harmon
Photos courtesy of Rowing Dock
Prior to 2010, Susan Goldberg had never stepped foot on a paddle board. In 2022, Goldberg is 12 years into being the owner of Austin’s hidden gem rowing location, the Rowing Dock.
“Before buying the business, she had no experience in the outdoor industry,” says Goldberg’s daughter and the Rowing Dock’s director of marketing and communications, Kate Aoueille. “Regardless, she had the faith that she could figure it out, which speaks to her tenacity and entrepreneurial mindset. That mentality is a huge reason this business has grown to the scale it has.”
The Rowing Dock was founded by Rachel Yates Thomas more than 20 years ago. Yates Thomas was an avid rower who started the Rowing Dock as a business catered toward the rowing population. After starting a family, Yates Thomas was no longer interested in running the business. Around the same time, Goldberg was looking to make a change from her commercial real estate career. To Goldberg, it was all a coincidence.
“It was kind of all of the stars aligning,” says Goldberg. “I saw the tremendous opportunity that was available if I was able to hire the right people and partner with the right people. Back then, Austin was growing, but I just saw that this was this magical place that had the potential to be a massive draw to people to allow them to access the lake.”
Nestled in the western side of Lady Bird Lake as the only concession not on the hike-and-bike trail, the Rowing Dock came under the ownership of Goldberg in 2010 as a woman-owned, woman-led entity.
When Goldberg first took the reins of the Rowing Dock, the business had 50 kayaks, zero canoes and two stand-up paddle boards. Today, the Rowing Dock has quintupled in size and revenue, now with nearly 150 kayaks, 25 canoes and 200 paddle boards.
Every move Goldberg has made has required a leap of faith. In 2013, the San Antonio-born, quasi-native Austinite — who has lived in Austin since 1986 — decided to rebrand the Rowing Dock by hiring an advertising agency in a time when social media was exploding. She also considered who the business would cater to as it grew.
“[The business] was geared toward rowers, not geared toward the public,” explains Goldberg. “Around 2013, we did a major rebrand, but the other thing that has really grown is actually the thing that I am most proud of: we have this incredible facility that is open to everybody in Austin, and yet, we also recognize there’s this huge swath of Austin that really has never been able to get out on the lake for socioeconomic reasons. We are unbelievably vested in making sure the entire community is able to get out onto the lake even if they don’t have the resources to do it.”
The Rowing Dock serves the Austin community through its philanthropic efforts. Over the past 10 years, the company has donated over $1 million to causes like the Texas River School, as well as through hosting in-kind events, thanks to the work of Goldberg, Aoueille and Director of Operations Lindsay Rohler.
This past Earth Day, the Rowing Dock partnered with EpicSUP to clean up trash around Lady Bird Lake. The 2022 Earth Day Clean Up yielded 6,000 pounds of cleaned-up trash, making the event the largest land and lake cleanup in Austin’s history. Aoueille and Rohler played a major role in the milestone and continue to play an important role in the dock’s biweekly Saturday cleanups on the lake.
Goldberg has created and cultivated an environment at the Rowing Dock that draws in both locals and tourists. In a male-dominated outdoor industry, Goldberg’s leadership and staff showcase representation for other female entrepreneurs, an important aspect to the Rowing Dock’s business and philosophy.
After a career in corporate America, Aoueille joined her mother more than two years ago and describes the dock as a familial, tight-knit business that brings people joy.
“I saw [my mom] in a totally different perspective,” explains Aoueille. “I had only seen her as a mom. What’s beautiful in what I have seen in working with her is she’s able to take the same qualities of being a mom and apply those to being an owner of a business. She’s kind of the mom of Rowing Dock.”
What Goldberg brings to the table as the “mom” of the Rowing Dock is a nurturing, welcoming nature that invites others in. When Rohler joined the Rowing Dock as director of operations, she had never stayed in a job for more than two years. Now Rowing Dock’s longest-tenured employee, Rohler wanted a job that got her off of Mopac each day, but she found much more than that.
“It’s this long-term reward we’re getting from all these people that get to work with Rowing Dock or be a part of that Rowing Dock culture,” says Rohler. “It’s this extended family.”
To date, the Rowing Dock has had five couples marry who originally met at the dock as part of the Rowing Dock staff. Not only has the dock been a matchmaker for former employees, but it has also served as a memory for couples who have gotten engaged at the dock, couples who have had first dates at the dock and, yes, even couples who have held their weddings at the dock.
Goldberg is dedicated to attracting more and more visitors to enjoy the unique to Austin experience that is being on Lady Bird Lake.
“It gives me incredible joy to see people coming out and getting away from the stress, getting away from the traffic, just coming and immersing themselves in this really beautiful experience out on the water,” says Goldberg. “And we get to provide that, and we take a lot of pride in doing that.”