NRS Celebrates 50th Anniversary: “We’re All Between Swims…” (Special PL Q&A with Mark Deming)

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NRS Celebrates 50th Anniversary: “We’re All Between Swims…”

“We’re all between swims” reads the lead messaging for the marketing literature for NRS’s 50th anniversary.

“A lot of things have changed since Bill Parks started selling gear out of his garage in 1972, but this hasn’t,” it reads. “This nugget of wisdom has been passed between whitewater kayakers since the days of fiberglass hulls and sew-your-own PFDs. It means that, whether experts or beginners… you’ve swum before and you’ll swim again. It reminds us to stay humble because the river humbles all. And it tells us to pay it forward on the water, because it’s only a matter of time before we need a little help from our friends.”

“So here’s to you. Thank you. You’re why we’ve made it this far and why we have the great fortune to dream about the next lap…”

Founded in 1972 by Bill Parks, who joined the faculty at the University of Idaho College of Business and Economics in the same year, NRS has grown from a mail-order business operated in Parks’ garage to a global outdoor sporting goods brand and prominent employer on the Palouse. “We never would have made it 50 years, or become the company we are today, without our amazing customers and community,” says Mark Deming, NRS Chief Marketing Officer. “Bill set out to build the kind of company he would want to buy from, and the kind of company he would want to work for. That approach has helped create loyal, long-lasting relationships with customers, employees and business partners in the Northwest and beyond. Bill likes to say that it’s the people who make NRS successful.”

After 50 years on the water, NRS celebrated the milestone this fall with special product roll-outs and deals, as well as hosting a giant block party and sale at their Moscow headquarters, featuring a free barbecue, live music, building tours, film screenings, and special discounts for shoppers. “This event was a big thank you to the people who have supported us all these years,” Deming says. “It was a great turn-out, with people, some of our most loyal customers,  coming all the way from Washington for it.”

Paddling Life caught up with Deming between mouthfuls of BBQ to dive a little deeper into what makes NRS so special.

NRS’s 50th Anniversary Q&A with Mark Deming

Paddling Life: How and why was the company founded? 

NRS was founded in 1972 by Bill Parks. Bill was an idealistic business professor who wanted to show that his ideas could work in the real world. A passionate river runner, Bill knew first-hand how difficult it was to source equipment for rafting and kayaking. So using $2,000 of his personal savings, he filled his garage with gear and typed up the first NRS catalog. Bill had a dream of creating a different kind of company, one that put people before profits, and that value is still what drives us 50 years later.

NRS
The NRS team in the early ’90s…

Paddling Life: How has it grown and developed over the last five decades?

From its early days as a garage startup and mail order retailer, NRS has grown to become the world’s leading provider of equipment and apparel for human-powered adventures on the water. As the foremost provider of professional-grade inflatable watercraft for commercial outfitters and guides, anglers have long used NRS gear to access hard-to-reach waters where conventional boats can’t go. NRS has responded by developing watercraft, life jackets, apparel and accessories designed for the adventure anglers pursuing fish off the beaten path.

Paddling Life: Fifty years is a long time in any business. What do you attribute NRS’ longevity to?

Bill founded NRS with a vision of treating his customers the way he would like to be treated and focused on providing outstanding service. As the company grew, he quickly learned that if he wanted NRS to be the kind of company he would want to do business with, it also needed to be the kind of company he would want to work for. He began to focus not only on caring for NRS customers, but on caring for NRS employees. Valuing employees not just human resources, but as human beings, turned out to be the “secret sauce” of NRS. In 2014, Bill sold NRS to his employees, making it one of the only 100 percent employee-owned businesses in the outdoor industry.

Paddling Life: What is NRS doing to secure its future for the next 50 years?

As NRS enters its next chapter, we are doubling down on the values that have brought us to where we are today. Business has a way of humbling everyone, and NRS is no exception, but in challenging times we always succeed by returning to our core values, focusing on customers and community, people and the planet—and building the best possible product. Being 100 percent employee-owned is a huge strength for our company, as our employees are literally invested in the business and share responsibility for delighting our customers with excellent products and service. When you call NRS, you always get the owner.

Paddling Life: Are there any standout products or bestsellers that have really helped NRS make its mark? 

In the mid-1970s, Bill began manufacturing products that he couldn’t source from other providers. His initial development effort, the NRS Bill’s Bag, was the first purpose-built dry bag for watersports and remains a bestseller nearly 50 years later. His second product effort, the NRS Strap, also became an iconic item that is considered the industry standard and remains extremely popular. Later, NRS became known for its expedition-quality inflatable boats, modular rowing frames, technical apparel and life jackets. In the early 2000s, NRS introduced the first fishing-specific life jacket, the Chinook Fishing PFD, which has become the world’s top-selling life jacket for anglers.

NRS
Fishing has long been a mainstay of NRS’s product line.

About NRS: 100% employee-owned, NRS is the world’s leading supplier of equipment and apparel for water recreation, safety and rescue. Founded in 1972 with a vision to create a better kind of company, NRS is dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of its customers, employees and community. For more information on NRS, visit www.nrs.com, email the company at service@nrs.com or call 877.677.4327.

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