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Today is July 15, 2020

Drake Waterfowl Systems

From startup to success - childhood friends brought a dream and a vision to life with Drake Waterfowl Systems

By Sandra M. Buckley

Drake Waterfowl Systems

Photos by Drake Waterfowl Systems

Bobby Windham and Tate Wood met in elementary school. These childhood friends grew up in Greenwood, on Delta Electric Power Association lines. Little did the pair know at that time, however, that their lives would be forever intertwined — as they would become future business partners.

“We have been buddies since the 6th grade,” Bobby said. “We met at Bankston Elementary School. We actually played on the city championship junior high team together our 7th-grade year, where Tate was the quarterback and I was a guard!” The two friends went on to graduate from Pillow Academy together in 1983. After high school, Bobby attended Delta State University while Tate attended The University of Mississippi — both earning degrees in finance.

In 2001, as young adults armed with a college education and some early work experience, Bobby and Tate were determined to discover how — and if — they could make a living doing what they were both passionate about: duck hunting and the great outdoors. And this is how the novel idea for a hunting apparel line was born. After all, their love of hunting started when they were young boys in the woods, fields and swamps of the Mississippi Delta. “Tate’s Dad, Avery Wood, took him hunting at the early age of three,” Bobby said, adding that his uncle is who mentored him in the sport.

Working around the clock, the two friends crafted a viable business plan, combined their resources, designed and made quality products, composed a winning sales pitch and focused on turning a passion into a sustainable career. “In the beginning,” Bobby recalled, “We knew we had to have a ‘hook’ and created garments for the waterfowl hunter. No one was in this space, so we filled that void. We started with approximately 12 products, many of which are still in the line today.”

After the initial groundwork was laid, Drake Waterfowl Systems officially launched in 2002. In true entrepreneur fashion, Bobby and Tate’s first year involved a lot of grunt work. From Mississippi, the startup’s two co-founders trekked across the country, pitching and selling their small product line to independent retailers.

“We loaded up our trucks and knocked on doors all across the USA,” Bobby said. “I have literally been from International Falls, Minnesota at the Canadian Border to Gueydan in the southern tip of Louisiana; the Puget Sound in Washington State to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland; and everywhere in between, driving my extended cab Chevrolet pickup truck while setting up accounts! We established over 150 accounts the first year.”

Today, 18 years later, Drake products are sold at more than 1,100 retail locations across the U.S., Canada and in a few stores overseas. With this success, it remained important to Bobby and Tate to keep their business in Mississippi, which is headquartered in Olive Branch. “We believe DeSoto County is a great place for a business to be located,” Bobby shared.

Drake’s corporate office and its 173,000-square-foot warehouse rely on Northcentral Electric Cooperative for the power required to operate at full capacity and on a global scale. “While we have served many multi-national companies in our area due to our expansive growth, it’s a special privilege for Northcentral to serve one with deep Mississippi and co-op roots,” said Michael Bellipanni, director of marketing and business development for Northcentral Electric Cooperative.

Over the years, as the Drake business boomed, so did its staff. “We flex in and out of employees with seasonal workers and temps but run around 45 to 50 offseason and as many as 100 during the season,” Bobby said. “We are very happy to support our local community with good jobs because the people here are great! They are dependable, hardworking individuals and care about what is going with our company.” 

Staffed with a team who is always thinking of “the next big thing” for their market, the company strategically decided to expand its product offerings a few years ago. This incorporated a targeted message to consumers that one does not need to be a duck hunter to enjoy the Drake brand — and success ensued. Now, through its sister brands, the product lines market a range of gear and sporting wear as well as casual wear for men, women and youth such as on-trend t-shirts, pullovers, vests and caps.

“We have multiple pursuit-specific brands, such as Drake Waterfowl Clothing for the waterfowl hunter; Drake’s Non Typical line for the big game hunter; Ol’ Tom Technical Turkey Gear for turkey hunting; Drake Performance Fishing for the fisherman; Drake Collegiate that concentrates on SEC collegiate gear with select ACC and Big 12 schools; and we are relaunching McAlister this fall, which is primarily waxed canvas goods.”

Breaking into the collegiate clothing line, for example, has proven a smart move for the company. “It is really enjoyable to be watching a college football game on Saturday or a basketball game in the spring and see someone wearing one of our pieces,” Bobby said. “We greatly appreciate the support we have received from all the schools that participate in our offering. The exposure we receive is phenomenal!” 

Looking back, Bobby and Tate agree that starting a new venture, like they did with Drake, required taking risks, innovative thinking and embracing technology. A term, in fact, that the guys came up within the company’s early days is “Drake-ology” — and it is still referenced often around the office. “Drake-ology is how we develop our products,” Bobby explained. “It’s where generations of duck hunting experience meet today’s technological advances.” 

Thanks to Drake-ology, the company already holds numerous patents and trademarks. “We established our reputation as ‘innovators of waterfowl hunting’ with our Eqwader product,” he added. “It was the first garment, to our knowledge, that combined waterproof fabric above the sternum and breathable fleece below, which we were awarded a patent for the idea.”

Having recognized the demand for Eqwader products, Bobby and Tate then launched the additional lines. Likewise, these boast high-tech features and high-performance materials, such as waterproof, windproof and breathable fabrics incorporated in the brand’s insulated boots, waders, bonded fleece pants and down jackets, to name a few.

Drake is a company that keeps on innovating. It recently filed for two more patents, one of which is for a revolutionary new duck blind. “We are bringing several blinds that have never been seen in the market before now!” Bobby shared. “Tate has worked very hard to perfect these blinds, and we believe hunters will be excited to use them to help them take a limit of birds. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so you will have to check our website for videos and availability. You will not be disappointed!” 

As trailblazers in their field, new product research and development, along with field testing, is critical to ensuring the quality and brand’s reputation. “You have to test your products in order to find issues before they hit the market,” he added. “We typically work two years out on a product, with at least one full year of testing in the field.”  

To take its marketing to the next level and reach even more consumers, the company also produces “Migration Nation,” a TV show that provides viewers with educational and entertaining content to further promote the brand. “We have been able to capture the utilization of our product on this medium and have shown some great duck hunting as well,” Bobby said, noting that episodes can be found anytime on YouTube.

The Drake team also enjoys and relies on partnerships with other Mississippi companies in the outdoors industry — all of whom share a common love of Mississippi. “We are very proud to work with likeminded individuals across the state of Mississippi, such as Toxey Haas and Bill Sugg with Mossy Oak in West Point,” Bobby said. “We have been a licensee for Mossy Oak Camo since we started in 2002. We are now a clothing sponsor for Primos Game Calls from Flora. Will and Jimmy Primos are legends in the hunting industry, and we are proud and excited to be working with people who share our passion of the outdoors.”   

The two childhood friends who grew up in Greenwood hunting and playing football did discover that yes, they could make a living doing what they were both passionate about. From Delta roots to North Mississippi operations, Bobby and Tate brought their dream and vision to life through their Drake brand.

“Drake Waterfowl and its sister brands bring superior-quality apparel and gear to the marketplace,” Michael added. “They have practically become a household name with a brand that is recognizable from coast to coast. It’s amazing to witness the continued growth of this homegrown, Mississippi success story!”


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