Front row: Bill Parks builds Northwest River Supplies into a thriving Moscow company


For Northwest River Supplies founder Bill Parks, customer and industry relationships are essential to growing a successful business.

Parks, a rafting enthusiast, entrepreneur, and former professor at the University of Idaho College of Business and Economics, started Northwest River Supplies as a mail-order business out of his garage in 1972.

Using $2,000 in savings, he acquired an inventory of navigational equipment and typed up the company’s first catalog.

Today, the Moscow, Idaho-based company has more than 140 employees and has grown into a global supplier of apparel, rafting, camping and kayaking.

The company, which is wholly employee-owned, celebrated its 50th anniversary last month.

Parks, 88, continues to dedicate his time to business, in addition to advocating for the water sports industry and educating others about tax inequality as founding director of, 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 with – an approach that has fostered longstanding relationships with customers, employees and business partners.

“I didn’t set out to get rich, I set out to build the best business possible,” Parks said. “I wanted employees to be proud to have a job at NRS and to feel that it is rewarding work.”

From educator to entrepreneur

Parks grew up in South Bend, Indiana. His grandfather, David Osborne, was head of business training at automaker Studebaker for more than 30 years.

Osborne was an early role model for Parks, teaching him about marketing, people management and business integrity.

“My mom and dad got divorced when I was very young,” Parks said. “So I was raised by my mother and my grandparents, and I looked up to my grandfather a lot.”

After high school, Parks worked at a production bakery before enrolling at Michigan State College, which is now Michigan State University. He took a break from college to serve two years in the military, then returned to MSU to earn a Bachelor of Commerce.

Parks spent a few years working in the Cadillac division of General Motors in Detroit before returning to MSU to earn 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 courses in corporate finance, financial institutions, and investments.

While Parks was teaching ethics and business theory, he recalls an experience that happened while in graduate school. One of his professors gave a speech in front of a group of professionals. Afterwards, a participant said that the professor knew business theory but lacked payroll experience.

This motivated Parks to see if he could apply his academic knowledge to the real world, and it was then that his idea sprouted for Northwest River Supplies.

“I really wanted to figure out, ‘How do you do in real life?'” Parks said of running a business. “I was a ski instructor, but I discovered rafting very recently. And I was really into rafting. It was so much fun, but it was so hard to get gear that I knew there had to be more.

NRS founder

After realizing there was potential for rafting to develop as a sport, Parks started Northwest River Supplies in 1972. He sourced equipment from a variety of vendors, stocked inventory in his garage, and sold through a mail order catalog.

The same year he founded Northwest River Supplies, Parks moved to Moscow to join the faculty of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Idaho. He continued to build the business while teaching full time.

As demand for rafting products increased, Northwest River Supplies began to develop and manufacture its own items. The company’s first product was its cam straps, used to tie down the gear and frames of whitewater rafts.

“In 1974, we had a century-old flood on the Salmon River. The boats flipped over and people couldn’t reach the equipment because everything was tied down,” Parks said. “And I said, ‘That’s it, that’s what it takes for safety.'”

It became apparent that boaters needed dry storage for their multi-day trips. Prices were climbing for surplus military bags, the supply of which was becoming limited, Parks said.

Parks considered making waterproof bags out of PVC, but after talking to a company in Seattle, he learned that PVC could be welded into bags, which was more economical.

“I used to go 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 the bags. from Northwest River Supplies. “So the first big thing we had was straps and the second thing was dry bags.”

By 1980, Northwest River Supplies was generating over $1 million in sales. However, other water sports and outdoor companies entered the market and also created mail order catalogs.

“I started to realize that we were also getting competition from stores,” Parks said. “If I put a product in the catalog and someone reads it, they’ll just go to a store and buy it.”

Northwest River Supplies has worked on product quality and innovation for years, eventually becoming a multi-million dollar national company. In 2013, Parks began taking steps to protect the company’s legacy.

Although Parks had over the years received offers from investors to buy the company, he believed it was important to give back to his employees.

He funded a deal to transfer the shares of the company to its employees, making it 100% employee owned in 2014.

Changes in the industry

The demand for stand-up paddleboards has been a notable shift in the water sports industry, Parks said.

“They were kind of niche for a number of years, but have become such staples that you can go to Costco or wherever and buy a board for $400,” he said.

The pandemic has also contributed to the growing popularity of water sports and outdoor activities, Parks added.

Another industry change is that outdoor businesses have consolidated with others over the years. Some went public, while Northwest River Supplies remained independent, Parks said.

“I hope we stay independent,” Parks said. “For us, the idea was to spend money on customer service and product quality in order to gain market share. We have tried to price our products 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 into the building, allowing for continued expansion.

The company designs, repairs, sells, assembles and stores water sports equipment and apparel at its headquarters at 1638 S. Blaine St.

When Northwest River Supplies celebrated its 50th anniversary at its headquarters last month, Parks was pleasantly surprised by the response from customers and the community, he said.

“I’m really amazed it turned out like this,” Parks said of the venture. “But one of the reasons it is is because rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and related activities have become so much more popular than they were a while ago. 30 or 40 years old. Everyone is now thinking about getting out on the water one way or another.


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