June 17, 2015
By David Hart
After spending part of the 1993 season hunting from a boat with a custom-made blind on the Mississippi River, Tom Matthews thought there was a market for a similar product. Instead of making custom blinds for specific boats, though, he wanted to make one that worked for everyone. Matthews envisioned a blind that set up and broke down quickly and one that also concealed hunters and their boat.
At the time, there was nothing of the sort. In fact, there was virtually nothing made specifically for duck or goose hunters beyond standard decoys and calls, says Allen Hughes. So he and Matthews, along with partner Tate Wood, spent weekends and evenings over the next several months building one that met their standards.
"We went through a lot of aluminum framing and camo netting before we made something we all liked. Once we knew we had something that worked and that we could make, we started working outdoor shows," recalls Hughes. "Some guys thought it was the greatest thing they had ever seen and some guys said, 'I can build that out of two-by-fours.' Mostly, though, the response was very positive."
The three men were convinced they were onto something, so Hughes quit his job as a bond broker to focus all his energy on the company. So did Wood, an insurance claims adjuster. Matthews, who worked in real estate, had already quit his job. They named their company Avery Outdoors after Wood's father Avery and went to work designing other waterfowl-specific products based on their experiences as duck hunters.
"We knew we couldn't survive with a single product, so we started working on other products," says Hughes.
The partners kicked around the idea of adding decoys to the company line-up, but it didn't take root until a decoy manufacturer from China approached Matthews.
"Tom was spending a lot of time overseas. That got us thinking about it again, so we started talking to carvers about making more realistic decoys than were available. We were seeking a look that included species-specific molds, different positions, even sex-specific molds that brought more realism to decoys than was currently available," says Hughes.
Thanks in part to the addition of decoys, the Memphis-based company ultimately blossomed into the largest waterfowl equipment business in the world. Its reach extends to Europe, South America and even New Zealand. Anywhere there are ducks and duck hunters, there's a good chance the Avery logo isn't far away.
Paying the Price
The boat blind may have been the first product to grab the attention of hardcore duck hunters, but it wasn't the only one.
Avery territory manager Derek Rambo recalls seeing the company's blind bag as he was stocking up on gear several years before he started working for the company. It sold for $129, a steep price at the time. But it turned out plenty of hunters were willing to pay it, proving there was demand for high-quality, niche equipment.
"There was nothing like that available," says Rambo.
Like Rambo, long-time employee Travis Mueller became a fan of the company long before he started working there. He was at a local sporting goods store when he noticed an item that made perfect sense to a waterfowler: a floating gun case.
Like the company's original blind bag, the gun case cost well above a typical shotgun case. Mueller, however, wasn't fazed by the price tag. He bought it on the spot, and still has it.
"Who wouldn't want to spend a little money to make sure they never lose their shotgun over the side of a boat?" he said. "I thought it was the greatest idea ever."
It didn't take long for other companies to realize the potential market for waterfowl equipment and many started knocking off Avery products. That increased competition forced the company to become innovative in another aspect: overseas manufacturing. Although derided as "cheap" and even considered un-American by some, making products in China was a vital step to stay atop the industry.
"You have to keep costs down to stay competitive. It's just a necessary part of business," Rambo says. "Many other companies started doing the same thing after we did it, so you could say we were leaders in that area, as well."
Hughes adds the move to China was brought on by another factor: The continued decline of America's textile industry.
"We were having a difficult time finding enough places to do all the sewing we needed to have done because there just weren't many places left. The entire textile industry was moving overseas. It was a no-brainer and something that was just necessary," he says.
About that same time, Mueller was working as an assistant manager at Scheels in Iowa. He was invited on a hunt in North Dakota with a friend who had just gotten a job with Avery. As fate would have it, Fred Zink, also a new Avery employee, was on the same hunt. Mueller and the other two hunters hit it off and he received a call from Matthews a few days later.
"Apparently, they told Tom he should hire me. Tom called and asked me when I could come down and talk with him. I never even filled out a job application," recalls Mueller, who was hired in 2001.
His role at the company evolved from territory manager to national sales staff manager, although he also helps with product design and photography.
Rambo also started working for Avery in 2001, only he started as a pro-staffer. The "pro," says pro-staff manager Rusty Hallock, stands for "promotional." They don't get paid, but there are plenty of perks, just the same.
The network of pro-staffers, likely the largest and most organized in the hunting industry, is one reason the company has prospered. Marketing is a critical factor in the success of any business. It's even more important in a relatively small industry filled with viable competition.
The 175 or so pro-staffers cover every state and nearly a half-dozen countries. They are the eyes and ears of Avery's territory sales managers, working trade and consumer shows, media events and help with in-store promotions.
In exchange, they are given discounts on product and opportunities to test new products and participate in media hunts and other high-profile events.
"I think a lot of guys sign on because they just love duck and goose hunting and they love being around other guys who love the sport. They are all pretty serious waterfowl hunters and we are fairly selective of who we take on because they are the face of Avery. They are often the first ones a potential customer comes in contact with," says Hallock, a professional firefighter from Maryland who serves as the pro-staff manager on a part-time basis. "It's also a great way to develop a network of other hunters. There have been a lot of friendships made over the years and a lot of those guys travel all over the country to hunt with other pro-staffers."
Hallock says the pro-staff is in some ways a feeder system into the company itself. It's also been a stepping-stone into a career within the hunting industry. Several current employees, including Rambo, started out as entry-level pro-staff members.
So did a number of well-known hunting industry personalities, including Habitat Flats owner Tony Vandemore. Avery alumni include founders of at least three other waterfowl-specific businesses, including company co-founder Tate Wood, who started Drake after leaving Avery. That new competition from company insiders may have cut into Avery's bottom line, but it has undoubtedly benefitted the industry as a whole. It's also been a boon to duck hunters.
"Any time you have competition, it's going to be better for the industry. Products get better, prices come down. Our blind bag is a perfect example. It was $129 when it was first introduced, but you can buy essentially the same bag now for 40 bucks," says Rambo. "It actually has even more features than the original and it's made with better materials."
Like any successful company, Avery hasn't been immune from growing pains. The decision to shift manufacturing to China drew some backlash from American hunters, known for their patriotism. The company also struggled to fill large orders at times, an unfortunate pitfall of success.
There was strife in upper management, something that trickled down to the rest of the company's staff and bled out into the waterfowl hunting community. As a consequence, they lost the confidence of some of their most loyal customers.
That's in the past, insists Hughes. There have been some significant changes within the company, changes that will likely lead to a renewed and invigorated brand. Hughes wants to refocus on Avery's original "positiveness," the foundation of its original success.
"My vision is to get back to the company's core principles. We plan to rejuvenate our customer service and shore up our deliveries so they get out on time," he says. "There is a lot of potential in this industry. We hope to take advantage of it as best we can."