WILDFOWL Spotlight: Drake Waterfowl
May 06, 2014
Like all the best people in the waterfowl industry, Drake founder Tate Wood is the last one to want to draw attention to himself. But you can only dodge a determined editor for so long, and when I finally got him on the phone, he insisted co-founder Bobby Windham Jr. get equal billing. With a little chat it was easy to see why.
Two partners joined at the hip waders since pretty much the sixth grade have a lot of stories and history. Leaders talk about team building, focus on shared goals and tackling opponents, but as Delta boys turned football players, that's exactly what these two did in the land where the line between the gridiron and religion is blurry.
One time, they double-teamed a particularly nasty linebacker until he was so flinchy he fell on his face at the snap, prompting his coach to yell at him, "Boy, what is wrong with you?!"
The duo grew up in Greenwood, Miss., and played football through high school, learning all the great stubbornness and life lessons sports can teach.
In one instance, they were playing Marshall Academy, down 14-0 at halftime. Tate was the tight end, Bobby right beside him, as always, at tackle, backed up against their own goal line. They tried a play that ran right between the two, where they could cross-block, and struck for 10 yards.
"We ran that play seven or eight times and got seven to 10 yards at a time," Bobby recalls. "You just don't do that (calling the same play) but we got momentum and that was the teamwork we took from high school," he said. "They'd yell 'watch the cross-block' and I'd yell back 'you can't stop it! You can't stop it!' They knew it was coming and they couldn't stop us. That was something really cool to experience."
And about a perfect metaphor for how Drake waterfowl gear, located in Olive Branch, Miss., took the duck hunting world by storm since the launch in 2002.
The boys both went to Mississippi State, graduating with degrees in finance around 1988. Wood became a claims adjustor for catastrophe insurance ("have ladder will travel") and lived in the Keys, Miami, L.A., New York, Atlanta, and Fort Lauderdale, having fun and seeing the country. Bobby, with his father, had always owned video stores on the Delta.
After college, he went on to become a plant manager for a Caterpillar supplier, picking up business acumen that would prove invaluable down the road.
Neither forgot their roots. "Being from Greenwood, you are forever a Delta boy and no matter where you go people make fun of your accent, but that works for you, too," Wood said.
The two had always talked about running a business together, because they'd always been brothers in arms.
"All through high school, we were side-by-side in the huddle and on the o-line and we double-teamed lots of position players," Wood said. "We always were able to communicate well and it all started right there in the huddle, working together reading strengths and weaknesses and looking for opportunities'¦like if a linemen was lined up shaded a bit to the inside or outside we could recognize how that worked to our advantage; we'd tell the quarterback and get a play to exploit that."
That spirit carried right over into business, and the duo still have lunch together a minimum of four days a week to talk things over and share family happenings.
In 2001 they both found themselves unemployed, but ambitious, and decided to get into the importation business for the hunting industry. Tate's father Avery Wood started taking Tate duck hunting when he was 3 and it was a major part of life for both he and Bobby.
Tate co-founded Avery back in '94, and was looking again at duck hunting products from a position of a lifelong love of the sport. He and Bobby felt there was a hole in the clothing market for duck hunters, and started talking about what they liked and didn't like about current products.
"We took it from starting to think about what you do from the moment you wake up to go duck hunting'¦what is the first thing you do, the second thing you do, the third'¦all the way through the end of the hunt," Tate said.
"We were looking for ways to improve what was out there and identify what was completely missing. It turns out there was a lot, and we've worked hard ever since to fill that void. The market's response shows we've done a decent job."
Drake experienced rapid growth from day one.
"Once we took a good look at products we designed, we knew it would not be the products that would prevent us from being successful, with our amount of desire. But there are unforeseen obstacles in the business world and we thought that was the only thing that might keep us from being successful, the bureaucracy and politics in any business.
That was all we had to fear, but when you start a biz you can't think for one second 'this might not succeed.' We threw ourselves completely into it and went hell-bent-for-leather."
"It was either going to be success or bankruptcy," Bobby said, chuckling. "We didn't want to fail."
Good, Bad & Ugly
The team built gear from a duck hunter's perspective, and "once we get products to people they would say it was fresh, new, that they'd never seen this before," Bobby said.
The hinged pockets to hold shells, the magnets to hold pockets closed, the half waterproof upper and fleece below jackets, all these were Drake innovations. "We took some good ol' Mississippi Delta country thinking, and put it to work," Bobby said.
"Innovation became our trademark. One day we were at Mack's and a nicely groomed gray haired gentleman from Woolrich looked at our pieces closely and said 'Boys, hats off. I'm going to have to keep my eye on ya'all because I think you're onto something.' That made us feel good."
"Yes," Tate agreed, "because the majority of people said 'you think you can actually take on Columbia or Browning? Ya'all are out of your minds.' That's mostly what we heard. But we are just redneck enough we don't care about those kinds of opinions, and stayed the course."
The opinion they focused most on was each other's, the one they trusted.
"When either you have a business or you're on a football team, trust is immeasurably important to the success of the organization," Tate said. "You have to know the people around you have your back and because we go back to sixth grade we know the good, the bad and the ugly about each other. He's got the north, I've got the south and I don't have to worry about what's coming from my backside."
Expanding that trust to a broader circle has helped Drake tackle new demands, too. The company operates on what is truly a round table in spirit, with everyone checking their egos at the door and working hard at meetings "where nobody's opinion is not important, and everyone has something we can learn from," Tate said. "If we come to a unanimous yes on something it is almost always a success. We have a diverse group, so if we all get on the same page with something it's usually a winner."
Popularity has brought a new challenge. What do you do when you set out to be the No. 1 hard core hunting brand for one niche, succeed wildly, and then suddenly the strength of the name and that logo that everyone is in love with creates demands to move outside that core niche?
Retailers have clamored for a deer hunting line from Drake for years, and there is new interest from many people who don't hunt and quite a number of women.
"For whatever reason, we have a rapidly growing non-hunting consumer buying Drake and the one challenge we are facing is an entirely different market than what we've focused on. A new arena, the fun outdoors lifestyle market," Tate said. "We have retailer after retailer calling us asking to be a dealer and we ask if they carry hunting goods and they often respond 'no we don't.' So that is a new challenge we are having a good time embracing."
Drake employs many women, and their input has become critical at the roundtable because of these new demands. Additionally, in 2003, Drake bought McAlister bird hunting clothing, and in 2004 launched Ol' Tom technical turkey gear. In 2006, they launched Rut Wear (non-typical deer gear). And in 2014, due to dealer demand, you will find Drake branded non-typical soft shell deer hunting products: something they resisted for 11 years but finally acquiesced to the endless requests.
And of course, everyone loves Drake's Old School line, a purely nostalgic product the team came up with after seeing chat room discussions on "that old woodland brown camo." "One of our people brought some in, and I saw it on his desk. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked at it and just started grinning," Tate said. Bobby had the same reaction.
"We made some samples and it had the same effect on everybody," Bobby said. "Buyers would see it and say it reminded them of when their grandpa or dad took them hunting. It was to get back to our roots. It touches a lot of memories."
It's a hit. In fact, the team is doing promotions with it with Mountain Dew, the huge soft drink company owned by Pepsi. The pattern is a tribute to waterfowling's traditions, something they never veer far from. When WILDFOWL finally caught up with Wood, he was just returning from duck hunting an island in the middle of the Mississippi in Tennessee near Reelfoot. We didn't have to ask if the 36 ducks they'd bagged were greenheads.
It doesn't get more central Mississippi flyway than that, or than Drake gear.