Born in 1934, NRS Founder Bill Parks grew up in South Bend, Indiana, home of the Studebaker Corporation. His grandfather, a sales training executive with Studebaker, became an important early role model in Bill’s life. Many of the lessons Bill learned from his grandfather about marketing, personnel management and integrity in business became touchstones when he went into business for himself.
After high school, Bill worked in a production bakery before enrolling at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University). He interrupted his undergraduate studies with a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, and following his discharge, he returned to school and eventually graduated with a B.A. in Business. He immediately pursued a master’s degree, but when he ran out of funds for tuition, he left the program and spent a couple of years working for the Cadillac Division of General Motors in Detroit. After returning to Michigan State for a second time, he completed a master’s degree in Finance and a Ph.D. in Finance and Economics.
Bill accepted a faculty position at the University of Oregon in Eugene in 1965, teaching courses in corporate finance, financial institutions and investments. As Bill taught business ethics and theory, he couldn’t help but recall an experience he’d had in graduate school. Bill had attended a talk given by his major professor to a group of business professionals. After the presentation, one of the attendees had remarked, “He may know his theory, but you can tell he’s never met a payroll!” Reflecting on his current position, this memory motivated Bill to see if he could actually apply abstract principles from business theory to the real world.
Bill’s business philosophy was considered unorthodox by many of his peers. While the prevailing theory of the time held that a business’s only responsibility was to produce profit for its shareholders, Bill believed that a company could aspire to have a positive impact on the lives of its customers and employees, and to be a force for good in the world. He wanted to start his own company, in part, to simply prove his ideas could work.
In the spring of 1969, Bill found his way aboard a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, an experience that would change his life—and the outdoor industry—forever. Bill became hooked on river running, bought a Montgomery Ward raft for $69, and talked his way onto any river trip he could. He saw potential for the sport to grow, and potential for a company to supply that sport with quality gear and a commitment to service. In 1972, Bill took $2,000 of his personal savings, stocked an inventory of gear in his garage and started Northwest River Supplies, Inc.
After founding NRS, Bill moved to Moscow, Idaho to join the faculty at the University of Idaho in the College of Business and Economics. He continued to build NRS while teaching fulltime, often hiring his students to assist customers, help out in the warehouse and fulfill orders.
NRS grew to become a multi-million-dollar international company, and in 2013 Bill began taking steps to protect his legacy for the future. While he had received numerous offers from investors over the years, Bill worried about the fate his company would face if sold to the highest bidder. So, he decided to sell it to his employees instead. Bill helped finance a deal to transfer all NRS stock to the company’s workers, and in early 2014 NRS became 100% employee owned.
In his later years, Bill remained involved in the NRS business and continued to carry out his longstanding tradition of having lunch with every new employee. He became passionate about corporate tax reform and dedicated much of his time to writing policy papers and lobbying Congress. He believed that corporations had a duty to pay their fair share and was appalled by the way many multinational companies exploited loopholes to avoid paying taxes. He founded the SalesFactor organization to advocate for a simple and equitable corporate tax system.
Bill passed away peacefully at St. Luke’s hospital in Boise, Idaho on March 5, 2023 at the age of 88. Even in his last days, he was discussing business with NRS managers and working on tax reform. His wife and best friend, Donna Holmes-Parks, was by his side until the end.