For Northwest River Supplies founder Bill Parks, customer and industry relationships are key to growing a thriving company.
Parks, an avid river rafter, entrepreneur and former professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Business and Economics, launched Northwest River Supplies as a mail-order business in his garage in 1972.
Using $2,000 in savings, he acquired an inventory of boating gear and typed out the company’s first catalog.
Today, the Moscow, Idaho-based company has more than 140 employees and has expanded into a worldwide supplier of apparel, rafting, camping and kayaking equipment.
The company, which is completely employee-owned, celebrated its 50th anniversary last month.
Parks, 88, continues to devote his time to the company, in addition to advocating for the watersports industry and educating others about tax inequality as founding director of salesfactor.org, a group that promotes national corporate finance reform.
When Parks founded Northwest River Supplies, he aimed to create a company he would want to buy from and work for – an approach that spurred long-standing relationships with customers, employees and business partners.
“I didn’t set out to get rich, I set out to make the best company I could,” Parks said. “I wanted employees to be proud to have a job at NRS and they feel it’s a rewarding job.”
From educator to business owner
Parks grew up in South Bend, Indiana. His grandfather, David Osborne, was a sales training executive with automotive manufacturer Studebaker for more than 30 years.
Osborne was an early role model for Parks, teaching him about marketing, managing personnel and business integrity.
“My mother and father were divorced when I was very little,” Parks said. “So, I was raised by my mother and grandparents, and I just admired my grandfather very much.”
After high school, Parks worked in a production bakery before enrolling at Michigan State College, which is now Michigan State University. He took a break in college to serve two years in the Army, later returning to MSU to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business.
Parks spent a couple of years working in the Cadillac division of General Motors in Detroit prior to returning to MSU to obtain a master’s degree in finance, and a doctorate in finance and economics.
In 1965, Parks joined the faculty at the University of Oregon in Eugene, teaching classes in corporate finance, financial institutions and investments.
While Parks was teaching business ethics and theory, he recalled an experience that occurred while in graduate school. One of his professors gave a speech to a group of business professionals. Afterward, an attendee said the professor knew business theory but lacked payroll experience.
That motivated Parks to see if he could apply his academic knowledge to the real world, and that’s when his idea was sparked for Northwest River Supplies.
“I really wanted to figure out, ‘How do you do it in real life?,’ ” Parks said of operating a business. “I was a ski instructor, but I had very recently picked up rafting. And I was really into rafting. It was so much fun, but it was so difficult to get equipment that I just knew there had to be more.”
After realizing potential existed for rafting to grow as a sport, Parks launched Northwest River Supplies in 1972. He sourced gear from various suppliers, stocked inventory in his garage and sold it via a mail-order catalog.
The same year he founded Northwest River Supplies, Parks moved to Moscow to join the faculty at the University of Idaho’s College of Business and Economics. He continued to build the company while teaching full time.
As demand grew for rafting products, Northwest River Supplies began developing and manufacturing its own items. The company’s first product was its cam straps, used to tie down gear and frames on whitewater rafts.
“In 1974, we had a 100-year flood on the Salmon River. Boats turned over and people couldn’t reach equipment because it was all tied in,” Parks said. “And I said, ‘That’s it, that is what is needed for safety.’”
It became evident that boaters needed dry storage for their multiday trips. Prices were climbing for military surplus bags, which were becoming limited in supply, Parks said.
Parks considered making dry bags out of PVC material, but after talking to a company in Seattle, he learned PVC could be welded into bags, which was more economical.
“I used to go and sleep on this guy’s couch in Seattle on the weekends and work in his factory until we had a design,” Parks said of creating Northwest River Supplies’ dry bags. “So, the first big thing that we had was straps and the second thing was waterproof bags.”
By 1980, Northwest River Supplies was generating more than a million dollars in sales. However, other watersport and outdoor companies entered the market and also created mail-order catalogs.
“I started realizing that we were also getting competition from stores,” Parks said. “If I put a product in the catalog and somebody read it, they would just go into a store and buy it.”
Northwest River Supplies worked on product quality and innovation for years, eventually growing into a multimillion-dollar national company. In 2013, Parks began taking steps to protect the company’s legacy.
Although Parks received offers throughout the years from investors to buy the company, he thought it was important to give back to his employees.
He financed a deal to transfer the company’s stock to its workers, making it 100% employee-owned in 2014.
Demand for stand-up paddleboards has been a notable change in the watersports industry, Parks said.
“They were sort of a niche thing for a number of years but have become such commodities that you can go down to Costco or wherever and buy a board for $400,” he said.
The pandemic has also contributed to the rising popularity of watersports and outdoor activities, Parks added.
Another industry change is that outdoor companies have consolidated with others over the years. Some became publicly traded, while Northwest River Supplies has remained independent, Parks said.
“I hope we’ll stay independent,” Parks said. “For us, the idea was that we spent the money on customer service and product quality in order to gain market share. We tried to price our goods fairly.”
Last month, Northwest River Supplies purchased a more than 12,470-square-foot building at 1126 Alturas Drive in Moscow from the Clearwater Economic Development Association. The company plans to move its product development and repair operations to the building, allowing room for continued expansion.
The company conducts design, repair, sales, assembly and warehousing of watersports equipment and apparel at its headquarters at 1638 S. Blaine St.
When Northwest River Supplies had its 50th anniversary celebration at its headquarters last month, Parks was pleasantly surprised at the response from customers and the community, he said.
“I’m really floored that it has turned out this way,” Parks said of the company. “But one of the reasons that it has is because rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and related things have gotten so much more popular than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Everybody now thinks of going out on the water one way or the other.”
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