Growing up an avid duck hunter in Sherwood, Robb Watts never thought he’d have his own business in the waterfowl industry.
After more than a decade as a paramedic, Watts left that career in the early 2000s to work full time in the waterfowl sector, using the notoriety he gained from being a top finisher in the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest held annually in Stuttgart to sell duck calls and guide hunters.
In November, Watts opened Waterfowl Solutions and Machining Inc. of Cabot, which makes duck and goose calls for companies. The companies then sell the calls under their brand names to retailers and wholesalers. Watts declined to release revenue figures, but since launching the business, Watts has vacuumed up orders, starting with about 500-600 in November to 3,000 by early July.
“We’ll probably do 15,000-20,000 calls this year,” the 46-year-old Watts said.
One of the secrets to the Waterfowl Solutions’ success is its use of technology.
“I have state-of-the-art equipment that does all this,” Watts said.
He touts that he is only one of a handful of call manufacturers to use a 3-D scanner to scan an existing call that needs to be made to determine the exact measurements of the piece. Then those dimensions are fed into another machine that creates either an exotic wood or acrylic call.
Call manufacturing has “come a long way from the guys back in the day using a knife and a sharpened spoon … to what we do now,” Watts said.
But it hasn’t been an overnight success for Watts.
“I’ve been in the industry since the late ‘90s and made a lot of good contacts, a lot of good friends and relationships,” he said. “I surround myself with as many good people as I can to make our company as good as it can be.”
Those friends rave about his work.
“He knows what a call sounds like, and how it’s supposed to perform,” said Jeff Foiles, who with his son Cole own Foiles Championship Calls Inc. of Rockport, Illinois. “He’s very knowledgeable. He’s not just another machinist.”
Duck Call Success
Born in Dallas, Watts moved to Sherwood when he was 10. He started duck hunting two years later on the Arkansas River at Willow Beach in Scott.
He was attracted to the sport at a young age because “you didn’t have to be quiet or sit still until the ducks came in,” he said.
After graduating high school, Watts received training and became a paramedic and eventually worked in Pine Bluff and Little Rock.
He continued duck hunting, and as he became a seasoned hunter Watts realized, with the right call technique, he could lure ducks from the sky.
In 1995, Watts’ life changed when he bought an acrylic duck call from Echo Calls of Beebe.
“I thought, ‘Man, this is the coolest thing ever,’ ” he said.
He called Echo’s owner, Rick Dunn, and told him about his purchase. Dunn invited Watts to his shop, next door to his house in Beebe, to meet other hunters and practice calls, which they did on Wednesday nights.
“Being ultra competitive and obsessive compulsive about being really good,” Watts said he began calling for at least an hour a day, taking advantage of lulls in his paramedical work.
“When my partner would go in the station, I’d stay in the ambulance and I’d duck call,” he said.
The relentless practice paid off.
In his first year to enter the duck calling contest in 1997, he qualified for the world competition and was second runner-up.
“That’s kind of where it all started,” Watts said. “It’s just been a snowball effect.”
About two years later, Dunn offered him a job as national sales manager for Echo.
“I really learned about duck calls from him,” Watts said.
Once he had that job, Watts said he knew he didn’t want to do anything but work in the outdoor industry.
Besides, he had worked in two high-volume call areas as a paramedic and he was “ready to be done,” he said. “It was a blessing for [Dunn] to give me an opportunity to go to work for him.”
Watts kept practicing his calls and racked up top 10 and top five finishes in ensuing years of competition.
Watts’ goal was to be a good enough duck caller that people would hire him as a guide.
“Because I didn’t have the money to hunt these really nice places, so I figured the only way to be able to hunt them is if I were to be guiding somebody,” Watts said.
The plan worked. In the early 2000s, he became a duck guide. His Echo Guide Service in Gregory operated for about three years.
In 2011, Watts and his friend Adam Lyerly started Refuge Call Co. of Jonesboro, which produces duck calls.
Watts decided in 2014, however, to focus on the manufacturing side of the business and sold his interest in the company to Lyerly.
Watts started Waterfowl Solutions and Manufacturing with his wife, Melanie, who he met while he was in the 9th grade and she was in the 8th grade. They have been married 22 years.
His clients are companies that need duck or goose calls manufactured. A 3-D scanner first would measure the call. Those measurements are then entered into a $50,000 machine from Haas Automation Inc. of Oxnard, California, which makes the call.
“The learning curve on those [machines] is very vast,” Watts said.
When the piece comes out of the machine, “we wet sand them and get all the machine marks out, make them really smooth,” Watts said. “Then we buff them with a commercial buffing wheel to get them to shine up really good.”
Watts also places a reed in the call and blows to make sure it’s working properly.
While it might sound easy, the measurements have to be precise.
“I’ve probably ruined more sticks of acrylic through learning how to run these machines than a lot of people will ever use in their entire lifetime of making duck calls,” Watts said.
And when it’s built right it is just like a Stradivarius violin to a classical violinist, he said.
His attention to detail is what makes him a standout, said his friend for about 20 years, Christian Curtis, vice president of product development for Banded Holdings of Springdale, one of Waterfowl’s customers.
“He’s just a super, super knowledgeable guy about duck calls,” Curtis said. “He’s more than a machinist. He knows what makes a duck call work.”
Foiles, of Foiles Championship Calls, also said that when Watts tells a customer something, “it gets done.”
One of the early challenges Watts has faced was keeping up with the orders.
“Growth can always be a scary thing if you don’t do it right,” he said.
Watts bought three more Haas machines to handle the increased demand.
Waterfowl Solutions has four employees, but Watts views them more as team members who work with him.
He said he looks for potential employees who want to put out the best product.
“We have our standards that we feel that are top in the business, and that’s what we hold ourselves to,” he said.
Watts said he’s learned over the years that to be successful he surrounds himself with “really good people, no matter what. … And it’s hard to fail if you do that.”
Watts said he enjoys being around all the people in the industry — from the clients he has to the duck hunters who use his calls.
He’s also found that the people he has dealt with in the industry are honest and good, like-minded people.
“So that’s probably what’s kept me in it so long,” Watts said. “And I like to hunt.”