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HUDSON Boat Works rides wave of success in global markets

Rowing team on a boat

Like many competitive sports, rowing took a hit as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world.

First, marquee events, such as the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, were postponed. Then national championships—including those in Canada and the United States—and other major regattas were cancelled.

But some things didn’t change.

The first, of course, was that rowers kept rowing. Many took COVID-19-inspired precautions, such as rowing alone or in “double bubbles” with a set partner. Both options were easier in small boats rather than in larger, 4- and 8-seat, boats.

The second was the maxim that, as always, every stroke counted.

After all, whether you’re training as an Olympic-calibre single sculler or a pairs crew from a local club team, even a fraction of a second could make the difference between winning and losing that next big event.

That’s why HUDSON Boat Works hasn’t stopped looking for ways to give athletes an edge—even during the pandemic, when the London, Ontario-based manufacturer of elite racing shells pivoted to building more of the smaller boats it figured would be in greater demand because of concerns over social distancing.

Doing so helped keep the nearly 40-year-old company afloat and maintain its reputation for setting the pace.

“Within the first month of pivoting our strategy, we had effectively switched our product offering, and our sales have actually grown,” says Craig McAllister, HUDSON’s commercial manager. “If we had stuck to our previous strategy of focusing on larger boats, we would have been affected very negatively by the pandemic.”

From humble beginnings in founder Jack Coughlan’s garage in 1981, HUDSON boats have won more than 90 medals at the Olympics and World Rowing Championships and were used to set a world record in the men’s eight event at the Athens 2004 Olympics. Every time a boat wins, athletes and coaches take note of the brand.

With 85% of their boats headed for international waters, exporting keeps the company riding the wave of success, says Glen Burston, HUDSON’s operations manager.

“For us, the support from the government and Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service has gone a long way towards keeping our investment here while we diversify into other countries,” says Burston. “It’s a nice spot to be in, exporting half of total production to the U.S. But we also have significant overseas exports to the U.K., Europe, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries.”

Burston says Canada’s trade agreements with Europe, through the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), and with the Asia-Pacific region, through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), also help.

“The European trade deal, CETA, was incredible,” he says. “It levelled the playing field, made us much more competitive and took away barriers.

“On the Pacific side, the CPTPP effectively lowers our tariffs with Australia and New Zealand by 5%. That makes us virtually competitive with domestic builders there, which is an incredible leg up for us.”

Federal support through programs such as CanExport has also gone a long way toward helping HUDSON keep an even keel in existing and new markets.

“We’re doing a big push into South America, in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru, and CanExport funding has really been our biggest help,” says Burston, noting that the company received a CanExport grant and used it to cover a significant portion of travel costs to South America before COVID-19 hit.

“Our next steps would include cracking the robust club market in those countries,” McAllister adds, “When it’s finally safe to travel and meet in person again, CanExport can help make that happen with funding to attend in-person meetings and introductions.”

“The grant isn’t huge,” says McAllister. “But it opens doors and allows us to say ‘Let’s take a chance on this.’”

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