Strokes of genius
London canoe maker says rugged, all-Canadian watercraft have marketing campaign built in.
At a kitchen island during a dinner party, or at the pub in the final semester of an MBA program — these are places where entrepreneurial dreams often start. Not so for Tim Miller. His were born in 1986 while stoking a fire on the shore of the French River with his future business partners, Pat Malloy and Zoltan Balogh, their canoes resting nearby. There was some whisky, Miller jokes, but the rest was 100-proof entrepreneurial spirit. “We were sitting there and my buddies, who I’ve known since high school, said they knew a guy in Glanworth, Ken Fisher, a journeyman electrician, who was thinking of selling his canoe-making business,” he said. “I had a contracting and cabinetry company in Calgary and was looking for something in London. Because of Fisher’s journeyman work taking priority, there were issues with delivering his product. “Well, we stepped in and delivered.” Did they ever. The Nova Craft canoe has grown to become a quintessential Canadian watercraft. Miller has customers all over the world, from the U.K. and Germany to New Zealand. Mountain Equipment Co-op is their largest Canadian distributor. Parks, including Pinery Provincial Park an hour west of London, have a fleet of Nova Crafts to rent. The canoe, says Miller, has a built-in marketing campaign embedded in its historical design that speaks to authenticity, to the wild and untamed ruggedness of Canada. It seems customers everywhere want Canadian canoes. “When people around the world think of a canoe, they think of Canada and vice versa. It’s that simple,” says Miller. “A canoe trip in Ontario is just fantastic. You can go anywhere. I keep telling people that Canadian culture and history owes so much to the canoe. It’s one thing we have that is distinctly ours.” Nova Craft also is an industry leader in technology and material design. Currently, Miller employs 23 full-timers in London, making canoes at their plant on the outskirts of Old East Village — no outsourcing production here. Currently, they manufacture five styles of canoe to fit different paddling needs: the Prospector; the Recreational; the Cruiser; the Outfitter; and the Whitewater. Miller has thrown his canoes off buildings and pummelled them with a sledgehammer to prove their durability. One group of Mountain Equipment Co-op paddlers tried — unsuccessfully — to destroy a Nova Craft by steering it into river boulders, throwing it off a cliff and shooting it out of a moving car. Video of the stunt went viral. Miller says indigenous cultures built the first canoes and their design style has remained unchanged for thousands of years. Archeologists discovered a canoe in the Netherlands that dates back to 8200 BC. “That’s the essence of the canoe,” says Miller. “The design will never change and that’s unique. The only thing that changes are the materials.” Miller and his wife, Theresa, still enjoy paddling in Killarney Provincial Park and dipping their paddles into the cool, clear waters of Georgian Bay. But they’re just as happy paddling down the Thames toward Delaware, or on the Big Creek paddle route at Long Point Provincial Park. “My favourite trips were the ones with the family when the kids were young,” says Miller. “The bonds we made will last forever. Everyone worked together, co-operating, building fires, huddling in the tent. Kids can get a bit soft these days. Paddling helps them build strength and resiliency.” If you’ve ever walked the shores of the Thames, or driven across the Grand and thought about launching a canoe adventure, Miller says that there’s never been a better time with Canada marking its 150th anniversary this year. Why not go — and take a Nova Craft canoe with you?