September 30, 2022

A Calculated Push Into Entertainment Lifts ‘Duck Dynasty’ Family’s Fortunes

And that was true even before they were television stars.

They certainly are stars now — the subjects of the biggest reality show hit in the history of cable television, “Duck Dynasty,” which has shattered ratings records this summer, reaching a high of 11.8 million viewers for the season premiere this month.

But in the more contained world of ducks, guns and camouflage gear, the Robertsons were already celebrities thanks to the family’s core business: sales of duck gear, especially duck calls.

Now the range of merchandise attached to the Robertson name is so vast — shirts, caps, coolers, books, edibles, hunting gear of every kind — that keeping track of it has become almost impossible, said Willie Robertson, scion of the Robertson clan and president of the Duck Commander company.

Last week, he was at the corporate headquarters of Walmart and was surprised to see his face on a garden gnome. “I knew I had a Chia Pet and a bobblehead and an action figure,” Mr. Robertson said by phone. “I didn’t know I had a garden gnome. That’s awesome. I guess Pez dispenser is the last weird thing I have to see myself on.”

Chances are that pitch will come shortly. “Every day I get pitched on this, pitched on that,” Mr. Robertson said. “It’s like you’re living in a movie.”

That movie is mostly a creation of Mr. Robertson and his family, a conscious dive into the entertainment world that has lifted a regional business into an international phenomenon. The show is seen in more than 100 countries, drawing strong ratings on networks from England to Latin America.

The show does well across this country, though as might be expected, it fares best in the South, with Atlanta, Knoxville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and Birmingham, Ala., among the top locations in ratings.

“I thought we were booming before,” Mr. Robertson said. “Booming is a relative term.”

The family-owned business has private sales figures, but Mr. Robertson offered some indications of the level of growth. “I’ve seen figures of 2,200 percent growth,” he said.

“You couldn’t chart it as far as where we have had business growth. It’s bursting at every level, every store.”

Sales of duck calls to actual hunters are now a minority, he said, with the dominant buyers being people who “put it on their desk and toot on it.”

Sarah McKinney, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said the company’s stores across the country stocked “Duck Dynasty” merchandise in six separate departments.

T-shirts featuring “Duck Dynasty” characters are now the top sellers, Ms. McKinney said, among women and girls as well as men. And sales of “Duck” back-to-school material have soared this year, she said.

“Duck Dynasty” began on the AE network after some members of the family appeared for three seasons on an Outdoor Channel show tailored more specifically to actual duck hunting. David McKillop, the general manager of AE, said the network viewed a tape and realized the potential for his channel was in the family interaction.

After what he called “a vision meeting” with Mr. Robertson, AE commissioned two pilots. The second ended with a scene of the family gathered around the dinner table.

That clicked. AE saw an overarching theme: “A cross between ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘The Waltons.’ ” A family dinner would cap each episode, Mr. McKillop said. “It would be like, ‘Goodnight, John-Boy.’ ”

Willie Robertson is not reticent about his own role in building what is now an imposing duck-centric empire. The family business was started by his father, Phil, a Louisiana football standout who translated an obsession with hunting ducks into the now enormous duck-call business.

Willie Robertson credits some of his business acumen to experience he gained in his 20s after he left the family company to run a children’s camp business.

“I was able to watch the family business from afar,” he said. “I was able to come in with a lot of energy and a vision for growing it even bigger.”

When Mr. Robertson returned to Duck Commander, he realized his father had created a strong brand, but “he had pretty much run out of ideas,” Mr. Robertson said.

“He didn’t know how to take it to the next level, and it might have started a downward slide, like a lot of family businesses do.”

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Wichita Clings to Airplane Capital Identity

“It’s good for Kansas, it’s good for Wichita and it’s a great day to be alive here and to profess victory,” said Senator Pat Roberts, part of the political team that spent a decade battling on behalf of the company. “Every once in a while the good guys win.”

That celebration last February was supposed to confirm this city’s enduring status as the “Air Capital of the World.” But less than a year later, on Jan. 4, Boeing executives solemnly gathered here for another announcement. The jobs would not be arriving after all, they said. Instead, they would shut down all of the company’s local operations by the end of 2013.

Barring some unexpected act of salvation, this is how Boeing leaves Wichita after eight decades as one of its biggest employers and most prestigious brands: in a trail of broken promises and bitter recriminations.

For most of the country, this is just one more plant closing, just 2,160 more lost jobs in a Midwestern city — nothing particularly dramatic in these difficult times. But the exit has been another painful blow to the city of Wichita and the airplane manufacturing industry that has sustained it, the sudden reversal of fortune only adding to the feeling of betrayal.

After waves of layoffs and threatened departures by the plane makers, there is a growing fear that this city, like so many other manufacturing centers, is at risk of losing its identity as one of those American places where people make things and are paid well for it.

David Robertson, who has worked at Boeing for 35 of his 54 years, following his father into the business, said he suspected that when the jobs head elsewhere his employer will miss the commitment and expertise built through company clans like his.

“What did we talk about at supper?” Mr. Robertson asked. “We talked about planes. You go to a place where people don’t have that history, where people haven’t been doing it for generations, and to them it’s just a job.”

This was a fading cow town when a few eyes-to-the-skies businessmen helped transform Wichita into the largest city in Kansas and a major aviation manufacturing hub. Cessna, Beech and Lear are a few whose names still grace planes made here. The city still makes almost half the general aviation airplanes in the world. And Wichita is where Air Force One goes for a tuneup.

Some believe the departure of Boeing will be damaging only symbolically because the company sold off its much larger commercial division here, now called Spirit Aerosystems. But others, worried about an eroding identity and a declining share of the market, ask whether this time is different.

“This is not a cyclical thing,” said Bob Brewer, president of the local chapter of the aerospace engineering union. “This isn’t Boeing cycling down. This is Boeing cycling out.”

Boeing, which is based in Chicago, anchored itself to the community when it took over the local Stearman Aircraft Company in 1929. With a focus on building larger planes for commercial travel and military use, as opposed to the small-plane makers that dominate here, Boeing gained a reputation for generous compensation and opportunities for career growth.

Today, a typical airplane worker here earns about $71,000 a year, about 80 percent higher than the average income in the city, according to the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.

A Boeing employee for four decades, Steve Rooney, who runs the local machinists’ union, joined the company just like his father and grandfather. His daughter worked at Boeing as well, until she was laid off several years ago.

“How can you tell people, ‘Learn the trade, get involved, there is a future here’?” Mr. Rooney asked. “Is there?” He nodded his head and let the question linger.

This scene — a major local airplane maker departing while citing costs — almost played out a year ago. Hawker Beechcraft was on the verge of moving to Louisiana before the company agreed to take a smaller incentive package to remain for at least a decade, embracing what the company calls “the stay and make it work strategy.”

W. W. Boisture Jr., the chairman and chief executive of the company, which cut its local work force by nearly half, said the decision was between “a very attractive economic offer” and “a multigenerational work force that has been committed to this company for decades.” He did not pretend that the decision was easy.

Though employment in airplane manufacturing here dropped to 29,000 from 42,000 in 2008 — accounting for more than half the lost jobs during that period — there are some positive signs. Airbus, the European rival to Boeing, expanded the office it opened here. Spirit has been increasing production. Last week Bombardier Aerospace announced it was expanding its Learjet site. But it is Boeing’s departure that dominates the conversation.

For residents, the message seemed unequivocal before the $35 billion contract to build aerial refueling tankers was secured. “Tanker Win Would Bring 7,500 Jobs, $388 Million to Kansas,” one Boeing press release declared.

But when the company concluded that it was prohibitively expensive to stay in the enormous facility — which includes 97 buildings — executives deflected charges of deceit by saying that the issues had not been anticipated.

Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican who is investigating whether the company planned to close the factory even as it assured the jobs were headed here — as union leaders have charged — dismissed the explanation as “incomprehensible.”

Mr. Roberts, also a Republican and a part of the Congressional delegation that fought for the contract, called the episode a bitter lesson. “They broke their promise not just to me but to the men and women who have worked for them for 80 years,” he said.

A Boeing spokesman, Jarrod Bartlett, said executives would not discuss the departure because, “We’re still trying to work through everything.” The company has emphasized that it spent $3.2 billion with 475 Kansas suppliers last year and that those relationships would be continuing.

As shift workers streamed out of aviation factories here last week, Debbie Humble, 46, who has survived her own layoffs over the years, said that even though her job at Spirit felt secure she had been unnerved by the recent developments.

“You never thought you’d see Boeing leave,” Ms. Humble said. “They were the biggest thing out here.”

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