How Willie Robertson and his wife Korie helped grow the Duck Commander brand with faith, patience, and hard work.
Many know Willie Jess Robertson as the business-savvy top executive of the family owned, Louisiana-based Duck Commander and Buck Commander sporting empires and as a star of the Robertson family’s smash-hit Duck Dynasty reality TV series. That program, which celebrated Christian faith and rural family values from 2013 to 2017 on A&E, was a cultural phenomenon and the most-watched reality show ever on cable TV. What many may not realize, though, is that Willie’s wife of 27 years, Korie Howard Robertson, is a guiding light behind the family’s multimillion-dollar enterprises. Or that Willie is quick to give Korie credit for much of the Robertsons’ rags-to-riches business success. “A lot of the decisions were really her idea,” Willie tells Hook & Barrel. “I’m the bigger thinker, but she takes care of all the nuts and bolts. She’s in all the meetings. In fact, she probably shows up to work more than I do. She comes from a business family.”
That may be an understatement. Korie’s the granddaughter of North Louisiana entrepreneur Alton Howard, who founded a renowned music-publishing company, and the great-niece of Alton’s brother, W.L. “Jack” Howard. Together, Alton and Jack, who like the Robertson clan grew up poor, started a Southeast retail chain called Howard Brothers Discount Stores, which at one time employed Willie’s mother. With Korie’s father, John, Alton also launched Super Saver Wholesale Warehouse Club. Super Saver was sold in 1987 to Walmart’s Sam Walton, who would put the stores under his Sam’s Clubs banner. Additionally, Alton launched a Christian youth camp near West Monroe, Louisiana, called Camp Ch-Yo-Ca, where Willie and Korie met when they were in elementary school.
It was Korie who pushed the Robertson family—including Willie’s brothers Jase and Jep and their father, Duck Commander founder Phil Robertson, and his brother, Si—to pursue an early reality-TV effort on the Outdoor Channel. It also was Willie’s wife who successfully persuaded the family to ask to get paid for that venture—a program called Benelli Presents Duck Commander that led to A&E’s pursuit of the Robertsons for Duck Dynasty. In his book American Entrepreneur, co-authored with William Doyle, Willie contends that “Korie is way smarter in business than me. She’s more of a risk-taker, too, probably because I grew up poor, and she grew up a little wealthier. I’m more conservative, and she’s more inclined to take a chance.”
Korie says she and Willie complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses in business. “Willie does a great job with relationships in the industry, and I’m support for that. My strength is in negotiations and contracts, and making sure those turn out great,” she says. “We’re also sort of dreamers and risk-takers. We don’t mind if we make a mistake—we’ll get back up! We always have faith behind us that God will take care of things.”
Willie and Korie’s partnership in business, and life, has served the Robertsons well. Willie, 47, has been the chief executive officer of Duck Commander—whose key product is the patented, double-reed “Duck Commander” duck call invented by Phil in the early 1970s—ever since Willie turned 30, in 2002. Today the company has 30 employees, “a couple of million dollars” in revenue, and sales of about 80,000 duck calls a year, Willie says. That’s down from 100 employees, $10-million-plus in revenue, and more than 1 million annual duck-call sales when “Duck Dynasty” was at the height of its popularity. “Now that the show’s over,” Willie says, “we’re about back to where we were before.”
The company also has a retail store in a 34,000-square-foot warehouse off Interstate 20 in West Monroe. The facility was previously owned by Korie’s father, so “I got a sweet son-in-law deal on it,” Willie admits with a smile.
In addition to his role with Duck Commander, Willie is the CEO of Buck Commander, which he founded in 2006. An enterprise that he co-owns with country stars Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean and former Major League Baseball players Adam LaRoche, Ryan Langerhans, and Tombo Martin, Buck Commander focuses on buck hunting with a variety of gear and DVDs for sale and a popular TV show.
He splits his time about evenly between the two companies, Willie says. “Duck hunting is still a niche, with about 1 to 1.5 million duck hunters. But there are 15 million deer hunters,” he says. “Dad always talked about doing a buck brand. I took it on and said, ‘Let’s start something!’ Then I fell in love with deer hunting. I’ll hunt with bows, crossbows, rifles, whatever. I deer hunt more than I duck hunt. With our DVDs and the Buck Commander show on the Outdoor Channel, we try to show the fun side” of the sport.
‘An Entrepreneurial Spirit’
It’s not surprising that Willie was so enthused about launching the buck brand. Entrepreneurship has been a constant in his life, ever since he was a kid growing up in North Louisiana, selling potholders. The business bug bit him seriously in elementary school, when he sold worms to fishermen in the area every Saturday. He then became a gum-and-candy entrepreneur, buying the sweets from a retail store and re-selling them to kids at school. (The principal eventually shut down that enterprise, complaining that Willie was depressing sales at the school’s concession stand.)
Next he hawked pencils and erasers and sang songs as “The Human Jukebox,” earning a quarter for each tune he crooned by artists like the Beach Boys and Molly Hatchett. He also helped out with the family business—Phil was a commercial fisherman before the duck-call venture took off—by chopping up bait and selling catfish and crawfish in town. Later, Willie sharpened his skills by attending Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, and graduating from what’s now the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
So, where does he think his aptitude for entrepreneurship comes from? “From my father, who was a great salesman and always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” Willie replies. Phil, who once went through a rough patch with his wife, “Miss Kay,” and their sons before putting his life “in the hands of the Lord,” would get in his truck and drive around Louisiana for weeks at a time, Willie remembers. His purpose: trying to sell his Duck Commander call, which Phil was sure was superior to any other. To prove his belief to skeptical prospects, he’d do things like dunk the call in an aquarium, then show that it still sounded more like a duck than a real duck. He’d also play a tape recording of an actual mallard before blowing on his Duck Commander, demonstrating, he said, what little difference there was.
In its first full year on the market, the Duck Commander earned the Robertsons just $8,000. Annual revenue grew slowly—to $13,500, then $300,000, $500,000, and the milestone million-dollar mark over a number of years. Thanks to Phil’s drive and perseverance—plus the family’s help at home, big sales to stores like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, and the Duck Dynasty show—Duck Commander and the Robertsons became “runaway successes” after four long decades in business. Says Willie of his father: “I’m so glad he kept going.”
The Robertsons’ story, Willie believes, has important lessons for entrepreneurs of all stripes. Those lessons include “being patient, working really hard, controlling all the things that you can, and not overspending,” he says. “Plus, a big part of it for us was faith. Faith was so instrumental in changing my father’s life. So, having a relationship with the Lord is important, too.”
“We had a show that said, ‘Even if your family life wasn’t good, there was hope!’” – Willie Robertson
Willie likes to think that Duck Dynasty—reruns are still available—has had an important influence on American society. “Hopefully it impacted our culture positively. It showed that families can get along,” he says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We had a show that said, ‘Even if your family life wasn’t good, there was hope!’ There’s a different way of living. I hear from people about what it’s meant to them—they say it was a bright light. We weren’t a typical family, with our big beards and all. People said, ‘Oh, my dad’s like that, too!’”
“Other shows have been made based off it,” Willie goes on, citing Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Fixer Upper program on HGTV. “Hollywood has been trying to figure it out, but they’ve often missed the faith part. We were clean and pro-family. I think there are more Christian movies being made now” because of our show, too.
Duck Dynasty has also “had an impact on the hunting aspect, with us being pro-hunting,” Willie continues. “They saw that we care for the land, for animals, whether we were hunting or fishing. Probably more people see hunting in a better light now” because of us.
As for the family’s future plans, Willie says, “I’m not a big goal-setter. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have known how all this turned out. … We may do some other TV stuff. We’re always looking at it.” Besides running the businesses he maintains a fairly active speaking schedule, at venues ranging from prayer breakfasts to corporate meetings, and, together with Phil and Jase, is helping launch a summer Hunting Camp for teenagers at Camp Ch-Yo-Ca this year. “We’ll be helping them learn all aspects of hunting and fishing, especially safety,” he says.
“We’re big on adoption and fostering”—just three of the Robertsons’ six children are their biological offspring—“which can help bridge the gap in our [society’s] sometimes-toxic culture,” Willie adds. “Right now, I’ve got three high schoolers still left: Bella, Rowdy, and Will. Getting them through school, getting them set up to have faith and be happy, is a priority. Whatever God’s will is.”
If past is prologue, you can bet Willie and Korie will deal with God’s will together, as true partners.