The Snake River Boatbuilding Cartel

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Hells Canyon Marine
A 24-foot Hells Canyon Marine “Granite HD” jet boat on the Snake River.

Running the turbulent waters of the Hells Canyon of the Snake River requires boats that are tough, powerful and agile, and capable of handling shallow drafts.

Designing and manufacturing them was the sort of challenge that attracted “real rugged individualists” who thought they could build a better boat than anyone else and weren’t reluctant to try proving it, says Bruce Larson, director of administration, finance and marketing for Renaissance Marine Group Inc.

Out of that challenge and that competitiveness arose a cluster of companies building welded-aluminum jet boats in the twin cities of Clarkston, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho. Over the years, they diversified into boats for other types of waters (lakes and saltwater) as well as other applications—recreational, government, commercial. All of the companies “developed their own niche of the market,” Larson says. “In the last 15 years, the businesses that are still here have recognized that the jet market has been a static market, and if they wanted to grow, they had to build boats compatible with other waters.”

Now those boatbuilders want to diversify further by increasing global sales, specifically to Europe. The eight boatbuilders and one boat-trailer manufacturer have launched an export promotion program with a website, training programs on how to tap the overseas market and a visit from the editor of a German boating magazine. Still to come are a trade mission of European boat dealers to Lewiston-Clarkston, and a booth at a boat show in Dusseldorf.

The international sales the Snake River boatbuilders have recorded to date have helped offset recession in the American market. Renaissance cut a third of its production staff in 2008, then trimmed work hours in 2009. “Had we not had that foreign piece of business, the layoffs would have been bigger and the cutbacks would have been bigger,” Larson says.

Larson and others believe they can sell even more abroad. “These are products the European consumer isn’t seeing,” he adds.

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