If you are a fan of the wildly popular reality show, Duck Dynasty, and watched this season’s one-hour finale, you weren’t alone. Over nine million viewers tuned in to follow the adventures of the first family of fowl - the Roberstons.
After wrapping up its third season as A&E’s most watched program, they have launched into celebrity status and recently appeared on the Country Music Channel’s CMA Awards Show, and numerous talk shows. Yes, they are full-fledged celebrities! The history of their family and the struggles they have endured to launch their business are filled with plot lines not even Hollywood could dream up.
Born on the Bayou
With its headquarters in Monroe, Louisiana, the Dynasty started in 1972 when the patriarch of the family, Phil Roberston, had a dream of starting a duck call business. By that time, he’d sown all of his wild oats, and then some.
In addition to being a skilled outdoorsman, Phil was an excellent athlete in his younger days and was the starting quarterback for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Not bad, considering the second string quarterback was Terry Bradshaw, who went on to win four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Phil turned down a shot at the NFL, because it interfered with hunting season. He went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in health and physical education.
Phil was only seventeen when he married his high school sweetheart, affectionately known as Miss Kay. She was only sixteen and pregnant with their first son, Alan. Their family quickly grew as Jase and Willie were born in quick succession. Miss Kay had her hands full in trying to raise three young boys and trying to keep her husband away from the bottle and out of trouble. Unfortunately, her efforts were in vain. After getting into a barroom brawl, Phil fled the authorities and left his family for a few weeks, living in the wild until the situation cooled down. While Phil would be civil for a while, he always slipped back into his reckless ways.
During one drunken episode, he told Kay to get the boys and leave, that he was sick and tired of them and wanted to be left alone. Kay did just that. After a few months, she found him crying in his truck in the parking lot where she worked. He begged Kay to take him back. She agreed, on the condition that he quit drinking. He honored her request and set out to rebuild the relationships that had been broken with her and the boys. Not long after that, when visiting with a preacher who Kay had sent to talk with him, he gave his life to the Lord, was baptized, and had a new lease on life. He has never touched a bottle since.
Phil and Kay were able to purchase a remote piece of land near the Ouachita River in Louisiana with two small houses on it. Phil thought that he could earn a living from fishing the river. The three boys loved having constant access to the outdoor life and helping their father with the fishing business. Willie learned his business skills early in life by selling fresh fish to the local markets.
The Call of the Wild
Phil had a unique talent for being able to call ducks and earned the nickname “The Duck Commander.” Manufactured duck calls hadn’t changed much since they first started being mass produced in the late 1800’s, and Phil had some ideas on how they could be improved. With the help of some friends, Phil produced the first prototype of his version of the duck call. Excited by the success of the prototype, Phil borrowed $25,000 to buy a used commercial-grade lathe and put up a sign on his shop labeled “Duck Commander Worldwide.”
Alan, Jase and Willie became the production line along with Phil’s brother, Si, in the fledgling business, and orders started coming in. Every aspect of the business was run out of their house. The kitchen phone rang with interested buyers from all over the country, even around the world.
As Willie got older, he had different plans for his future than working in the family business. He chose to attend seminary school and married Korie Howard. The next year he and his new bride left to attend college in Arkansas at the Alma Mater of her parents, Harding University. After graduating, he worked at a church camp where he helped develop new programs and streamline their organization.
Passing the Baton
About this time, the Duck Commander business was starting to grow to the point that Phil couldn’t keep up with the business aspect of the company, and he did his best to avoid it. Willie and Korie kept getting the sense that he should go back to work at the family business. After praying for God’s direction for him, he approached Phil and Kay about it. They were excited to have him back but needed to find a position for him.
After getting back up to speed on the processes and operations, Willie realized that they desperately needed help running the business. He got to work revamping their e-commerce presence and reorganizing their finances to allow them to expand and grow.
Back in 1988, when he was still running the company, Phil had the idea to start filming some of their hunting escapades and to document some of the techniques they use. He packaged the first set of videos in a VHS tape and called it Duckmen I: Duckmen of Louisiana. It sold a hundred copies. He didn’t realize it then, but it would one day turn out to be one of the most lucrative ventures he’d ever undertaken. Over the years they produced more of the Duckmen series of videos and eventually began producing a new DVD every year. Phil and Kay’s fourth son, Jep, had a knack for cinematography. He filmed and produced the Duck Commander videos.
The DVDs began to increase in popularity and went from being purely documentary-style to integrating humorous commentary from Phil, Si, Jase and the rest of the gang. It wasn’t long until some of the large companies that produced hunting equipment such as ammunition, shotguns and clothing began to take notice of the DVDs and offered to provide sponsorships to Duck Commander. Key relationships were also forged with the big sporting goods stores, and they began to carry Duck Commander products.
In 2009, the Benelli Firearms Company produced a show on the Outdoor Channel called Benelli Presents Duck Commander, featuring the Duck Commander business. It contained hunting tips and behind the scenes, information about the company and proved to be wildly successful. It appealed to a much broader audience and attracted more lucrative sponsorship opportunities.
Camouflage and Cuff Links
The Duck Commander business grew exponentially with the success of their TV shows. Their biggest break came when a producer from the cable network, A&E, offered to produce a reality show about them. Although Phil was skeptical about whether a mainstream audience would be drawn to their show, Willie thought it was worth a shot. Duck Dynasty first aired on March 21, 2012 on A&E and has grown in popularity ever since. They have just recently signed to produce the fourth season of their hit show.
While it may seem that their fame has been serendipitous, nothing could be farther from the truth. It has been the result of decades of hard work, putting all that they’ve had on the line time and time again. They have relied on the guidance and provision of God to fulfill the vision that God gave Phil over forty years ago. There’s no denying the impact that the bearded boys from Louisiana have had on our pop culture (see bobble head inset). The Robertsons have gone from a platform that was literally the size of their front porch to a world-wide, multi-media platform that reaches millions of people. Every family member is capitalizing on the opportunity to leverage their platform to reach people that may have never heard about the message of the Gospel before. Because they have worked so hard, year after year, struggling to make ends meet, people can identify with them and their message. Just as the Apostle Paul wrote in Phillipians 4:11-13, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” For Willie, the most important impacts are the eternal ones. “We think Proverbs 3:5-6 sums up how we do business.”
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."Proverbs 3:5-6
When asked about the advantages and disadvantages of being in the public eye, Willie replied:
“Our family has been blessed with a unique opportunity to reach into the lives of so many people and really bring our faith to a broad audience. While we have a lot of fun with the show, sharing our faith is the main reason we do it."Willie Robertson
The disadvantage is that it has really taken us to a place where we are instantly recognized wherever we go.”
If you have seen an episode of Duck Dynasty, you know that they always end with the family praying at the dinner table. For Willie and the rest of the Duck Dynasty cast, it was important to depict the role that faith plays in their lives and in their business. Willie explained, “The producers at A&E knew how important our faith is and that part of the deal for us was that this needed to be on the show. While it is certainly edited throughout the show (The producers didn’t want them to use the name of Jesus, fearing it would offend some people. Phil told them “No Jesus, no show!”), we still maintain that our faith [and family] are the most important things to us and it must be represented that way.”
There are challenges and rewards when having so many family members involved with a business, but for the Duck Commander Company, their motto is “Nepotism Rules!” Even though they affectionately refer to Willie as “Boss Hog”, it’s all in good fun and they wouldn’t have it any other way. They enjoy being able to spend so much time together and having the peace of mind in knowing that they can trust one another. The culture of the Duck Commander business has been a key factor in its longevity and growth. “Our culture has always reflected that of its founder, Phil: laid back, hard work and nothing being impossible”, Willie explained. “This process has permeated all of the sons and continues on through the hiring and developing of everyone at Duck Commander and Buck Commander (their spinoff company for deer hunting enthusiasts).”