Rodney Herndon has been an outdoorsman more or less since he can remember. And through the course of his life and professional career, Herndon has revolutionized the way his fellow outdoorsmen get around in the outdoors.
Herndon, owner and former president of Xpress Boats, based in Hot Springs, is a newly minted member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Hall of Fame. Inducted as a member of the foundation’s 25th anniversary class in August, Herndon was recognized for his innovative approach to boat building and its contribution to Arkansas’ sporting life.
“It was like ‘Wow, let all that sink in,’ and just what a tremendous honor that is and to be recognized with so many great people that have gone before,” Herndon, 65, said.
Inducted with legendary media personality and conservation proponent Steve “Wild Man” Wilson and veteran land steward Scott Simon, of The Nature Conservancy, Herndon was humble about his induction as he reflected on his lifetime as a sportsman and boat builder.
“I’m just in the outdoors all the time,” Herndon said. “It’s not the killing of anything, it’s just the being out there, seeing what’s going on, being there at sunrise, seeing a whole flock of turkeys flying down to a food plot with my son and my grandson there with me. … Ducks and geese flying over. It’s just tremendous. It’s something I love.”
Herndon and Xpress Boats introduced the first all-welded aluminum boat, revolutionizing the way hunters and fisherman navigate their favorite areas. Under his direction Xpress has grown into an operation with 175 employees and a 240,000-SF manufacturing facility in Hot Springs, according the the AGFF.
“It wasn’t really a job,” said Herndon, who has turned leadership of the company over to his son Rory. “Every morning I got up and went to work, there wasn’t a day I didn’t enjoy doing what I was doing.”
Herndon graduate Little Rock Central High School in 1969 and attended Henderson College (now Henderson State University) in Arkadelphia on a basketball scholarship. Admittedly never a good student, Herndon didn’t complete his degree but he did meet Debbie Bryant, who would become his wife, while in Arkadelphia.
He worked as a sporting goods manager in a discount store and as an insurance underwriter before his father in law Kermit Bryant offered Herndon a job his boat building company.
Bryant had owned a sporting goods store in Mississippi and sold boats and motors, making several business trips into Arkansas and buying aluminum boats from various manufacturers. After a temporary retirement Bryant went into business with a partner from whom he’d purchased boats in the past, then Bryant took his share of the money, aluminum, equipment and a foreman and went into business with a boat building operation he opened in Friendship, Arkansas.
“My father in law started the company in 1966. He was in his late 60s,” Herndon said. “He asked me to come to work for him. He didn’t feel like at that time he could sell the business for what he felt like it was worth. He really still liked building boats and all the various dealers and everything he had come to develop through the years.
“He asked me to come to work for him and I just jumped at the chance. It was just a dream come true more or less to be able to associate with an industry where I felt so comfortable. … I learned more from him in one year in business building boats than I had in 15 years in the educational system.”
In the 1960s, Herndon said, aluminum welds were pretty rare and the traditional form had been thin aluminum and rivets. But Herndon’s father in law and his foreman began to play with welding the structure and seats into a john boat and using heavier gauges of aluminum in the hulls.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Herndon said of the advantages over boats built using plywood or other materials. “You don’t have water coming up through the decks in the plywood. You don’t have the twists and turns in the structure when you have heavy wave action out on the lake.”
Commercial fishermen took notice, as did engine manufacturers, and thanks to word of mouth dealers began to stock and sell the boats.
“I can’t take credit for all of it,” Herndon said. “There’s so many people that help in the development of all these things. My father in law, my brother in law, and a lot of employees. There’s not any one person who drew up a boat and said ‘This is the way this boat needs to be built.’ ”
Innovations have continued: a popular line of center console boats, aluminum trailers and pontoon boats, among other things. Rory Herndon is trying to redevelop the company’s line of duck boats, construction of which had waned over the years, Rodney said.
“Right now we’ve got a real complimentary line of duck boats coming up that’s second to none in the industry,” Rodney said.
But all of the business success wouldn’t have happened without Herndon’s genuine love for the outdoors.
After his family moved to Arkansas from Shreveport when Herndon was in second grade they lived outside city limits for a time. Herndon would walk the banks and fish local creeks, sometimes armed with just a cane pole, and that led him to pursue most things that swim or fly. He has also helped stock fisheries and co-owns his own hunting property as part of his ongoing romance with the outdoors.
It was on his property near Humphrey that Herndon shot a banded duck that, after he submitted the band to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, turned out to be seven years old, one of the oldest recorded in the state.
The hunting opportunities are continuing into retirement. As he spoke Herndon was anticipating a weekend fishing trip on the Little Red River, a family trip to a fishing lodge near New Orleans in August and a planned moose hunting trip to Alaska in September.
“It’s just a lifetime of being in the outdoors, I think, and being with all the various people, some of who I think had something to do with my induction,” Herndon said.