WILDFOWL Spotlight: Dakota Decoy
October 14, 2014
How, in the crowded world of decoy manufacturing, did Dakota Decoy's Bill Willroth so quickly carve out a major niche doing something he loves? In his case, the answer is you start out doing something you don't love nearly as much first, and let the passion drive you home.
And, of course, it helps to corner the market on baby goose lawn ornaments, too.
Dakota started officially in 2007, when Bill decided to do his own thing after working with legendary decoy icon Art Ladehoff over at Clinton Decoy Company (home of Big Foot) for some time. And while his success came quickly (11,000 boxes of floating mallards and 80 shipping containers last year), the journey to get there was a long one.
For years, Bill slaved away in the stressful role of newspaper publisher for five different papers, selling out his interests in '95 but staying on and running them until joining with Ladehoff in 2005. But his roots were always in the marsh. It's tough not to be a bit envious of Bill when you hear about his childhood.
Born in Iowa, his dad was also a newspaper publisher, and the family landed in bird-hunter heaven when he was 3; moving to Vermillion, S.D., where he has spent the rest of his 50 years. Dad didn't hunt, but his best friend was an attorney who did expose him to it, and as a result Bill ran the Missouri River in his own boat since he was 9 years old.
"Dad bought me a 12-foot Lund with my own 9.9 Evinrude, and told us to stay close," Bill says. "At 12, I took it from Sioux City, Iowa, clear to Yankton on the Missouri, 60 miles of what they called the wild Missouri River, the dam-free stretch."
One trip in a duck blind and he was hooked, killing ducks with a single-shot 20-gauge Winchester with which he became so proficient "we could get three shots off holding two shells in our mouth." By age 12, he and his buddy were full-fledged killers, out on their own building duck blinds and wandering away from the adults. Dakota's first decoys were goose models "but I tell you what, I am a duck hunter, and could care less if I kill another goose," he says.
"The first ducks we killed on our own. We were walking back to the boat, saw some ducks low, mature drakes with green heads, thought they were mallards, hunkered down and I learned two lessons," he laughs. "I learned what a spoonbill was and I learned about lead'¦I aimed at the lead duck and one about four ducks back crumpled dead."
We can all relate to that. Bill's fire for hunting ducks over water haunts him non-stop.
"Something about those birds feet down coming to water, when you have called them and they aren't coming to food, they are coming to your calling on this Missouri River, it's incredible. I love the water, because we grew up on the river."
He met Art Ladehoff in Springfield Bottoms in 1989 and the two were soon tight hunting buddies, with Art venturing out to SoDak to hunt each fall. For years, the duo were often the only two guys in the Bottoms on the Missouri in SoDak, a place now overrun with hunters. In 2004 the Avery juggernaut was taking off, so Art asked Bill to help in marketing and sales.
He took the leap and jumped into this crazy waterfowl industry with Ladehoff, got in there and loved it, and soon wanted to do it himself.
"I kept coming back to my home town of Vermillion and a friend, Tom French (now Bill's partner), kept asking 'you want to do this ourselves?" Willroth had the knowledge, French had the dough. Enter those silly lawn ornaments. Working with Big Foot, Bill had learned that a large percentage of their business was lawn and garden dealers! From flea markets to flower shops, "we need baby geese," people said.
Ladehoff, the original hardcore of hardcores, wasn't into making goslings. Bill decided if he did a decent gosling he could kill it with that lawn and garden market and he and French formed their own company. They hired a carver and in Nov. 2007 the first honkers came out, along with those goslings. The carvings were a smash hit with waterfowlers, despite the crowded industry, after his web guy, Scott Moody (one of WF's favorite photogs) posted photos of the carvings on a forum (the photos of the sentry, active and feeder).
"We had 82 messages the next morning from guys who saw the photos. I never once did call on lawn and garden. Hunters got ahold of them and it just took off once they saw the decoys."
At Big Foot he'd learned hunters wanted durability, and now he had the carvings he needed, so he flew to China and made decoys. Most people try to sell the product then make it. Bill took the leap of faith instead, and built up a warehouse full of decoys before making a single sales call.
"Scary, seeing all those containers and thousands of boxes of Canada goose decoys and then start making sales calls. Most people would think I'm an idiot," he said. "But Cabela's picked us up in 2008 and Scheels stores followed right away. We sold direct a lot the first two years, now we have 195 dealers'¦we went from three (products) to now over 34."
The key is just old fashioned business sense. "Good product backed by good customer service. We try to fix stuff the same day. I answer the phone and get it taken care of. I call it the best paint and warranty business in the country," he says.
Hence the 80 shipping containers 40-feet-long, and a booming floating mallard demand. Bill calls Vermillion headquarters, but there's a warehouse now in Sioux Falls, too. He does not want to go too fast, though.
"The goal is to keep producing top quality decoys that look like the real deal'¦my guys are always pushing for more and I tell them 'guys it's a marathon not a sprint, relax we are going to do it," he says. "I could go to China and put out a 100-page catalogue tomorrow but it would be junk. We will continue to ease into it and have our own carver. We will add one or two products per year."
For 2014 expect a green-winged teal floater and new full-body mallards, along with a hen turkey. For 2015 Dakota's focus is on revising all honkers and adding a floating gadwall. Happy with the state of the waterfowl industry, he sees good things for everyone.
"We are seeing a rebound, more people are getting back into it. People weathered the recession, and people find money for their hobbies. Guys stayed home from big travels and found they can kill birds at home, too. We are seeing more young kids and more girls and women, it's awesome. It's a healthy sport and a buyer's market with so much selection from clothing to decoys and guns, everything has gotten better."
He would sure like to see SoDak's nasty rule against non-resident hunters revised. "Before I started Dakota I loved that rule, now I hate it," he laughs. "I love that we protect resources for residents but it makes it tough for me to get guys here to hunt."
Bill is a quick-to-smile gentleman who tries to stay above the fray.
"I don't hold a grudge, I like allies, not enemies," he said. "We did wake up the decoy market; they had to start producing better-looking higher-quality decoys because that's what we were doing. If you look at the decoys out there now versus when we started in 2007 it's a night and day difference."
He will keep pushing, too, because he digs his new gig.
"Compared to being publisher, ah, man, it's awesome. People think you have it made but it's still a lot of work, a lot of hours, 12- to 14-hour days, but you are doing what you love to do and I get to talk hunting and decoys all day every day. It's a blast. I can't wait to put the key in the door and unlock it every day."