Selling Europeans on a Northwest favorite

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Nine regional companies will display at the Düsseldorf show as part of a program to boost exports

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Nine Northwest marine companies - eight builders of aluminum boats and one trailer manufacturer - are taking part in an innovative program that will allow them to introduce their vessels to European boaters. The goal is to increase their exports and expand the region's economy.

The Snake River Boat Builders Export Program brings together builders from Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., with distributors, magazine editors and others from Germany to meet and learn from one another. The program will conclude in January, when the builders exhibit in a special pavilion at Boot Düsseldorf, one of the largest European boat shows.

"They made us an offer we couldn't refuse," says Don Murphy of Clarkston-based Aztec Fabrications/ Phantom Jet Boats. "Because our industry is in such a downturn right now - the last year and a half has been pretty dismal for us sales-wise - it turned out if we had done less than $1 million in gross profits in the past year we qualified to get in on this program. And we said, 'Hey, we're in.' "

"We couldn't help but get excited," adds Murphy, the father of one of the boatbuilder's owners. Murphy helped his son get the company off the ground in 1997.

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The other businesses in the program are Bentz Boats, Custom Weld Boats, Gateway Trailers, Hells Canyon Marine, Renaissance Marine Group, Riddle Marine, SJX Jet Boats and Thunder Jet. These companies build specialized aluminum boats (some with waterjet propulsion) that are probably unlike anything seen at Düsseldorf.

Gary White of marketer P'Chelle International, who helped spearhead the program, says there are two levels of participation: Tier One companies had more than $1 million in gross profits in 2009 and Tier Two participants had less. Of those taking part, two companies are Tier One and seven are Tier Two.

The program is run through the Clearwater Economic Development Association through a grant from USDA Rural Development. Initiated by CEDA and based on a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program required a $21,500 matching grant to move forward. Utilizing matching contributions from Lewiston and Clarkston and a lead contribution from the Southeast Washington Economic Development Association, the program received the necessary funding.

"Economic projections and industry experts show that the success of this program can lead to over 20 new direct boatbuilding jobs and 15 indirect jobs, with total additional earnings in the valley of $1.3 million," according to the economic association.

Because the USDA requires the program to focus on companies with lower gross profits, White explains, Tier Two participants receive one paid airfare to Germany for the show and Tier One companies do not.

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All companies paid $1,000 to be in the program. White says he knows of no other effort in the country like it.

"I personally saw it as an opportunity to gain some greater exposure for the boats that we build, and through the program it sounds like there will be some training as far as working on international shipments, exports, financing," says Bryan Bentz, owner of Lewiston, Idaho-based Bentz Boats.

"This is an educational tool that hopefully will lead to more sales as people understand what the boats are all about and what they're capable of," he explains. "There's such a wide variety of applications, from recreational to commercial uses."

Program details

The program began during the first week of June when Paul Warren-Smith, a U.S. commercial service specialist based in Frankfurt, Germany, and Klaus Emil Schneiders, editor-in-chief of Skipper magazine, visited the program participants.

"Warren-Smith was on a mission to become familiar with the boatbuilders and their products in preparation for a European boat buyers' recruiting trip to the valley in the fall," White says in a release about the program. "Mr. Schneiders was researching for an article to be published mid- to late summer."

The program continues with in-depth training on aspects of exporting to the European Union.

In the beginning of November, after visiting the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, Warren-Smith will return to the region with about a dozen wholesale distributors interested in representing the builders overseas.

The program concludes in January at the Düsseldorf International Boat Show.

"I'm optimistic that something might happen. ... One of my goals is to take advantage of all the opportunities that I can," says Doug Riddle, owner of Lewiston's Riddle Marine, which builds about 25 boats a year for commercial and recreational markets.

Riddle says he has done some exporting - he has sent boats to Nepal, Canada, Mexico, England and Panama - but he mostly sells in the United States and he'd like to expand his base.

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The June visit with Warren-Smith and Schneiders went well, he says. It was a good start.

"The guys were real enthusiasts," Riddle adds. "They were really stoked about the boats that they drove. They couldn't believe how they handled."

Bentz, who builds 10 to 15 boats a year for commercial and recreational markets, also had high hopes for a successful program after the June meetings.

"We tried to give them a sense of who each of us are, who we try to cater to," he explains. "We've all developed our own markets and what we work toward, and we are very individualistic."

Murphy, from Phantom Jet Boats, says his company builds 80 to 100 boats a year in good times, although that number has dropped because of the poor economy. The company, he says, had been working on getting its CE certification to allow it to sell in Europe, and this program should help it complete that process.

"One of the things that I've learned over the course of time is that in the Northwest, jetboats and aluminum jetboats are pretty prominent. Everybody knows what they are. A lot of people have them, have ridden in them. The farther away you get from the Northwest, the less known they are," Bentz says. "I personally saw it as an opportunity."

For information, e-mail gary@pchelle.com or go to www.snakeriverboats.com.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.

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