Builder collective weathers recession with new international market

When most people in the boating industry look to tackle the challenges of a fragmenting market and lagging sales, they look in their own backyard. A group of jet boat manufacturers in the Northwest thought a little different.

Looking to live up to their claim to fame as the“jet boat capital of the world,” a group of small manufacturers overcame their competitive spirit and took a plunge into international waters together as the Snake River Boat Builders.

Valley Vision, Inc., a trade association that looks to draw new industry to the Lewis Clark Valley was an instrumental body in the entire process. Executive Director Doug Mattoon said the economic downturn pushed the project forward.

“The impetus was, when the recession hit us back in 2006-2007, the manufacturers were looking around and seeing that if they didn’t do something to expand their customer base, that they were going to have a hard time struggling through until the economy recovered,” said Mattoon.

The fact that the area helped manufactures hammer their boats into masterpieces of the craft also put them ahead of the other international players.

“This particular region was very conducive to the design and development of the product, so as a result, we have a significant number of small manufacturers here in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley,” said Mattoon. “So over the years they had refined the welded-aluminum product.”

Made up of nine local manufacturers, Snake River Boat Builders set their sights on Europe, where they introduced their rugged, specialized boats to a brand new market.

“It was a brand new product to the European Union area, so we saw a opportunity to develop a market there,” said Mattoon.  “If we could get the product introduced and people could see the value and the economy of the welded-aluminum boat that it would be a hit over there.”

The goal was a seemingly simple one, but there was a whole lot of work involved on the path to the European market. The first obstacle was getting local competitors to work together. When asked about overcoming their competitive spirit, Mattoon just laughed.

“You know, you gotta realize this is a small community and these are small manufacturers, so they really are in competition with each other. But, surprisingly, even though there are several manufacturers, their products vary a great deal from one company to another for what their intended uses are,” said Mattoon. This industry “was sort of a cluster that existed here naturally, and pulling them together, they realized they would have a much bigger impact working together to brand the product itself.”

With the help of various local organizations and bodies such as the various U.S. Commercial Service offices proved instrumental in opening doors.

After getting the various egos in the same room, the paperwork was a breeze, akin to standard U.S. certification.  The knowledge of international import laws was one of the most valuable things for the Snake River Boat Builders.

“What has happened through all this is they’ve learned how to export,” said Mattoon.  “They’re all doing more export than they used to do, even though it might not be to the European Union per se. The two biggest customers right now happen to be Canada and Russia.”

Though the certification was not terribly difficult, the logistics of moving the boats was tricky.

“Most of these are big enough that they won’t fit in a container, so logistics of shipping get a little more difficult. So I think that was a big part of it,” explained Mattoon.

Getting those freshly delivered boats in front of customers was the next step.

“They went to Boots Dussledorf two years in a row and really started introducing the brand to the European Union market. They also made a brief appearance at Salón Náutico, so it kind of got the brand introduced,” said Mattoon.

Various European boating publications also carried news of the boat options from a little valley in the Northwest U.S. The boats were an instant hit with boaters looking for durable and efficient options.

“For these areas that they’re going to, it’s a new product, new material, it’s very fuel efficient because of its light weight and then just the long-term durability. If you look at the European market, they’ve always been very focused on products that last a long time,” said Mattoon, adding that the light weight of the boats was another selling point.  “Gas and taxes over there are a little higher, so the more efficiency they can get the better. “

Instead of jet boats, however, outboard-ready boats are the collective’s biggest sellers thus far.

“Right now all the exports are primarily recreational uses, and probably more outboards then there are jet drives these days. But there are military, coast guard, search-and-rescue kinds of operations that are purchasing the boats also,” said Mattoon.

Not only did the project help manufactures weather the recession; exporting has become a major source of income.

“Out of our little community, the nine manufactures last year [2012] exported approximately $20 million worth of product,” said Mattoon.

The project continues as builders continue to certify their models and look to new markets across the globe.

“We will continue marketing the brand whenever we have the opportunity; they are moving forward with getting CE Mark certification on the various models for the larger production boat companies as opposed to the custom manufacturers,” said Mattoon.

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