In a cut pea field on a sunny Saskatchewan morning, Randy Hill thumbs through his iPhone, checking emails between flocks. His partner in crime and fellow Hard Core vice president Mike Galloway does the same. For the two original members of this ever-expanding gear and decoy company, the work never stops.
"Honestly, I feel like I retired when I started here," jokes Hill, who was a heavy equipment operator in a previous life. "We put in some long hours just like everybody does'¦but I drive by and see people doing a certain type of work and I think to myself, 'oh my god, am I lucky.'"
Randy grew up on a farm in Grand Ridge, Ill., near the current headquarters of Hard Core in Ottawa. His dad would drop him off with relatives on cold fall mornings and he would sit in a blind all day eating awful-tasting sandwiches, waiting on the birds.
He and some friends started scouting on their own as they got older, but with no money for decoys, they would go out to the field the next morning and lay down exactly where the geese had been feeding the day before. Randy became bird-obsessed, so much so that he never played sports in high school. He was too busy hunting.
A math teacher tried to dissuade Hill from chasing ducks, geese and running coon hounds, telling the young man "he couldn't hunt for the rest of his life." But even teachers are wrong sometimes.
"I told him, I'm going to try," said Hill, chuckling. "I had a plan. I was a farmer's kid, and knew I wanted to operate bulldozers and as a hunter, it didn't hurt we were laid off during the winter."
Galloway's father Norm owned bars and restaurants in Cleveland and would get home early in the morning, wake-up his only son and take to the grouse woods. Mike hated the long walks just for a few birds.
But after the hunt, it was straight to a dirt-on-the-floor tavern where Mike would devour greasy cheeseburgers and pump quarters into the PAC-MAN machine while Norm tipped a few cold ones. They would scramble home for a nap, get back up by 3 p.m. and do all the chores — mom was none the wiser.
"When I woke up on Saturday mornings, we would go hunting," Galloway said. "I can smell that truck right now. I didn't know any different. I thought everybody hung out with their dad on Saturday, shot guns, went hunting'¦"
On one of those Saturday mornings, Norm laid down a challenge. He gave Mike a box of shells, left him on a point and said, "I bet you can't kill a limit of ducks with these." As Norm tells it, his boy shot five birds with five shells, but Mike says it was more like nine shells. Either way, that was the day he fell in love with waterfowl.
"We were shooting (targets) one night and he said, 'man, I'd like to get you on some ducks because you wouldn't be so hot,'" Galloway said. "He exaggerates the story a little bit, but I did kill my five."
The Galloway clan is a mix of barkeeps and firemen (in some cases both). Steeped in Irish Catholic tradition, Mike broke from the mold and attended Ohio University where he played college lacrosse and began a career in finance after graduation.
His boss at the time was asking employees to join country clubs to meet prospective clients. Mike asked if he could join a duck club, softball leagues and an archery club instead.
"It was a great learning experience; one of the better things I've ever done in my life," Galloway said. "Since we already had two guys at country clubs, I asked if I could join the duck club, and he (the boss) said 'absolutely.' He didn't care. He was going to pay for it as long as we were out there shaking hands and meeting people."
When Randy wasn't running dozers (and even when he was) a goose call was firmly pressed against his lips. He was good, and many of the guys he worked with were bird hunters and sought him out for tips. They would pull over between job sites and Randy would give impromptu lessons.
At one point, he entered a novice calling competition and won, which led to state tournaments and the worlds on Maryland's Eastern Shore. With Tim Grounds, Jeff Foiles and Fred Zink on the circuit, it was arguably one of the most difficult times to be a competitive caller.
"I basically traveled around and got my butt kicked," Hill said. "I don't want to sound like I'm 80 years old, but YouTube didn't exist back then, so it was a lot harder to become a great (stage) caller. You had to be around somebody who was a great caller to learn anything."
But Hill did become an accomplished meat caller by listening to and practicing with tournament veterans, and guiding in southern Illinois and Michigan. Though you won't see his goose chops on the Internet, rest assured he speaks fluent gander and hen mallard. And the way he talks about birds is enough to get any waterfowler's blood up.
"I'm looking for that one bird that shows me a little attention," Hill says. "I'll do anything to get one of those geese to think 'that's my partner, that's my family down there.' There's nothing better than when the flock is leaving and one just peels out. And sometimes, he'll bring the whole flock. Then it's like 'man, I got'em.'"
After a few years as a broker, Galloway joined Flambeau (one of his clients). It would lead to a career in sales and product development, with an expertise in decoys. He worked with hunting industry magnate Will Primos and spent a week with Phil Robertson in the Louisiana marsh, an experience he describes as getting to "play catch with Mickey Mantle if you're a die-hard Yankee fan."
Randy had started a fledgling call business and begun doing some side work, designing hats and T-shirts for friend Jim Schiefelbein of Bone Collector. Looking to break into the waterfowl industry, Schiefelbein purchased Hard Core, which by then, Galloway was a part of.
The polished son of a Cleveland bartender, who worked his way up the industry ladder, Galloway was paired with the local self-made dozer driver, Randy, who just happened to be the hardest of hardcore waterfowlers with a flair for concept and design.
"We both believe in 'do what you're told when you're told,'" Galloway said. "If it's his responsibility to get something done, Randy gets it done. There's no sense of entitlement with Randy. You wouldn't know if he was the VP of product development, or if he was running the warehouse. Because (titles) don't mean anything to him."
The two have taken Hard Core from a few dozen products and relative obscurity to a catalog of gear sold in box stores nationwide. They've partnered with stalwarts like Beretta and sponsored big-name events like the world calling championships in Stuttgart.
The brand has taken off under Schiefelbein's direction, and they're already expanding and talking about taking Hard Core mainstream. Because as Galloway puts it "you can be a Hard Core anything'¦teacher, writer, as long as you have a passion for it."
Randy and Mike have traveled the world together. They've eaten unidentifiable food in China and Vietnam, hung out backstage with country music stars in Pittsburgh and been pulled over by a state trooper driving a pack of outdoor writers through the night in the Dakotas after a canceled flight.
Last year, they missed Thanksgiving with their families, chowing down on a store-bought rotisserie chicken in a Wal-Mart parking lot on the way to Arkansas. But like the company slogan says, "It's Not Easy."
"Jim shoots for the stars," Hill said. "He's eight miles down the road and through two curves'¦he has a vision. When we first started here it was three guys and he starts putting all these cubicles up. We're laughing, because nothing was even in the works. Guess what? We're out of cubicle space and we're adding more offices."