Former Mustangs keep their oars in the water

Glen Burston and Craig McAllister just cannot stay out of the water.

Initially meeting up at Western in 1989, the two rowed for Western during their time at university and even moved on to be national team members for Canada at one point.

While their competitive days may be behind them, the pair is now getting behind other elite rowers around the world through their work at Hudson Boat Works, a London,Ont.-based manufacturer of Olympic-class rowing shells and a world leader in the development of racing hull shapes, carbon composite construction and components specific to the sport.

It was during his fourth-year Engineering project, one tied into oars and rowing, that Burston, BESc’93, MEng’02, struck up a relationship with Jack Coughlan, Hudson owner and president. After a couple years in the auto industry, a 2004 call from Coughlan brought Burston back to his love of rowing in a new capacity.

“An opportunity arose at Hudson for someone with engineering skills to come on board. There was no hesitation,” said Burston, Hudson operations manager.

McAllister, BA’92, would come on board two years later, reuniting the Mustangs at the London facility.

The boating business is booming these days, with Hudson Boat Works in the midst of wrapping up a major expansion to double its working space to almost 40,000 square feet. The staff will grow from 50 to 70 with the expansion to accommodate the high-quality product coming out of the Fanshawe Road facility, which finds itself with more than a month-long backlog on orders.

A good problem to have, Burston admitted.

“A lot of folks go to offshore manufacturing where it’s cheaper. But our strategic plan was to move toward the higher end of the quality side. We stopped worrying about being price sensitive to our customers and started worrying about what can we do to make things better by applying technology every step along the way,” Burston said.

The company has partnered with world-class designers in hull shapes, worked with suppliers to develop its own material and joined forces with Nike to develop better ergonomics for the rowers. “So we reached out to a lot of very technically skilled companies to try and create a brand together that would have an advantage in the market place,” Burston continued.

With the United States and Canada providing its main customer base, a growing international reputation has keyed a recent expansion into international markets, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Hudson looks to double current sales revenue in the next four years.

“It was very cyclical when we were catering primarily to the North American market. There was a lot of seasonality. But since the international market has grown, it has become more consistent throughout the year,” said McAllister, Hudson’s commercial manager.

Just seven years ago, 90 per cent of the business was based in North American. Today, that number is 60 per cent.

“The majority is still in the North American market, which is our bread and butter,” McAllister said. “Even smaller markets you wouldn’t think of for rowing, such as Israel, Turkey, Korea and Mexico, have since been tapped. We have shipped a boat to every continent except Antarctica.”

Engineering, rigid instructions and computerized cutting equipment are part of the start-to-finish process in producing a boat, which takes approximately two weeks to complete.

“If we’re going to climb up that quality ladder based on our product quality, we can’t make mistakes. You’re looking to win and for the next best thing, and if you’re not always pushing the boundaries of technology, you’re going to be left behind,” Burston said. “We’ve got to get it right the first time by implementing new processes to be more efficient.”

That Hudson efficiency is on display at the London Olympics as Burston and Coughlan are in England ready to assist with their boats at a moment’s notice.

“It’s about full service, to ensure nothing goes wrong,” Burston said.

But what could go wrong? Flash back to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“An hour before the finals in Beijing, the U.S. men’s team had their boat down to clean it and dropped it,” Burston said. “It’s a tough boat, but it’s not meant to be dropped. They cracked the hull and I had one hour to get that boat back into shape. It’s more the nervous athletes, which is quite understandable.”

While Burston always roots for any team using Hudson boats, he admitted “there is still national pride” when it comes to cheering for the medal winners.

Hudson boats have won 69 medals at the Olympics and World Rowing championships since 1984. In the Men’s 8 competition at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the world record of 5:19 for the Olympic distance of 2000m, which still stands today, was set in a Hudson.

Quite an accomplishment for a company that started out with two employees in a garage that has since transformed into one competing on the world stage – but still proudly built in London, Ont.