February 10, 2015
World War II was over, the economy was booming and fish and game populations were thriving. Bill and Chick Ward, brothers, entrepreneurs and lifelong outdoorsmen from Monticello, Arkansas, could finally put their idea into motion. What was once a precious commodity reserved only for the war was little more than scrap after Japan surrendered in 1945. Welders by trade, they bought surplus aluminum and built a boat.
"My father and uncle got tired of loading their wood boat into the back of their truck because it was so heavy," recalls Kim Ward, the son of Chick. "They wanted to make a boat out of aluminum, but until the war ended, there was none available."
Their first boat not only worked, it was the beginning of a three-generation boat-building business. The brothers eventually founded DuraCraft boats, the first company to make a welded-seam aluminum john boat. Chick and Bill not only revolutionized the industry, they built a thriving business that happened to coincide with the post-war economic boom. Everyone, it seemed, wanted an aluminum boat.
DuraCraft thrived well beyond the boom years and Kim eventually took over the company and expanded it. Health issues, along with a tempting buy-out offer, prompted him to sell the family business in 1983. His boys were young, says Kim, and "they just weren't ready to take over the business." Mike, 18 at the time, was caught off-guard.
"I spent a lot of time in the plant when I was a teenager doing a little bit of everything," he recalled. "I just thought I would work in the business."
Like a boat without a motor, Mike, now 49, and his brother John, 55, were adrift. They sold marine accessories for a while. Their father even opened a boat dealership, where Mike worked "on and off" for a few years.
Selling boats and accessories was fine, but Mike and John were boat builders. It's what their father did. It's what their grandfather did. It was only natural, perhaps even a matter of fate, they return to their roots. The Wards bought an old car dealership in their hometown and launched War Eagle boats.
"We just dropped the D off our last name and added Eagle," says John, on the origin of the company name.
That was in 1992. They quickly outgrew their first space, so they bought back the old DuraCraft plant, which sat empty for years. But even that facility proved too small as the company thrived. They now build boats in a revamped 300,000 square-foot Burlington yarn factory on the outskirts of Monticello.
Although War Eagle is now run by his sons, Kim, 78, is still involved. His office sits right between John and Mike's.
"Dad comes in three days a week. He likes to look at the numbers. He likes the business side of it," says Mike. "I don't think he ever wants to retire."
Who can blame him? Kim still gets to do what he's been doing all his life. Even better, he gets to do it with his boys. That is, if he can find them. Mike spends much of his time overseeing the manufacturing end of the business, walking the floor of the plant with an eye on the details. John? He's even harder to catch.
Though they have about 100 capable employees, one of the Ward brothers is always at the business and both transition from one role to another when the other one is absent. Mike, however, is the tinkerer, and spends at least a day or two each week on the water testing their boats, looking for subtle ways to improve them and putting customer feedback — good and bad — to the test. The winged transom design was his, an idea he came up with not through some computer-automated program, but old-fashioned experience. He simply had a hunch it would work.
"I don't know how many different aluminum boats I've run all through my life, but none of them turned very well. I tried the winged transom. I softened the corners of the hull. They both improved the boat's handling. I also designed the T-lock cap rail so we could mount accessories easier," explains Mike.
That first War Eagle boat, a prototype Mike designed, built and even camouflaged by hand, sits in a room at the factory. The company's boats still incorporate those first improvements as well as others, including a semi-V hull, a design grandad patented and one that's ideal for the harsh conditions typical of duck country.
The Wards grew up hunting the green timber of Cut-Off Creek Wildlife Management Area just down the road from Monticello. It was their original proving grounds, a place where run-of-the-mill aluminum boats were beaten to scrap at the hands of hardcore duck hunters.
War Eagle's winged transoms zig-zag around stumps, the semi-V hull deflects aquatic obstacles and the angled bow pushes through vegetation better than a square-front john. They are made for duck hunters by duck hunters, right down to the paint.
"Back in 1992, there was no professionally camouflaged boats made specifically for duck hunters. We were real busy in the spring, but winters were usually slow, so we realized we needed to broaden our reach," recalls Mike.
They floated the idea of actually camouflaging boats in their factory in an effort to capture a new niche by offering a complete package for duck hunters. The reaction to the idea of camo boats was nearly universal.
"There were a lot of negatives. We were told that camo boats won't sell," he says. "I don't really like to pat ourselves on the back, but we certainly proved a lot of people wrong."
It helped that the company entered into a licensing agreement with a fledgling camouflage company founded by Mississippian Toxey Haas. Hunters were craving something a bit more detailed than the standard military-type camo pattern that was the only choice at the time. Mossy Oak filled that void, ultimately building a huge market from hunters of all types, including waterfowlers, who became viciously loyal to the company's patterns. They not only had to wear the right pattern for the environment, they insisted their boats wear the same patterns.
War Eagle now also offers boats painted in Realtree, and has partnered with Ducks Unlimited (as well St. Jude Children's Research Hospital) to become the "official aluminum boat of DU," says Mike.
"We give a portion of every sale of our camo boats to DU. War Eagle also donates various products, including boats, to help raise money for DU. So far, we've donated more than $1 million back to the conservation organization," he adds. "A big portion of our customers are duck hunters. We just thought partnering with DU and giving back to the resource was the right thing to do."
These days, the Ward brothers give back a lot more than they take. Business is so good Mike and John spend most of their time at the War Eagle factory and at the DuraCraft plant. The Wards bought back their grandfather's business, in part out of nostalgia, but mostly due to the entrepreneurial spirit that runs in the family blood.
They do manage to steal away for a morning duck hunt every so often, sometimes returning to the very same haunts where Bill and Chick struggled to load that old wooden boat into the back of their truck.