by Dwain Hebda
John Stephens hunches over a workbench, carefully working a duck call. His production space is the central unit in a row of a tiny wooden huts behind Rich N Tone’s hulking Stuttgart manufacturing facility. Stephens, company president, has rarely been in a duck blind this small, let alone alone a space to create his handcrafted signature calls.
He’s back here while workers continue to rehab the factory damaged in a February 2016 fire that burned so hot it bent steel girders. Many of his employees have returned to workspaces inside, but he’s stayed out here, surrounded by his tools and his raw materials. It’s one part safe room and one part idea factory as to where RNT came from and what he aspires for it to become.
“I think the biggest thing for us, one, is not dwelling on what has happened,” he said. “It’s easy to do that and feel sorry for yourself or be mad. My brother taught me a long time ago you can’t worry about what happened; you always think about what’s the next step.”
“What I’m doing now, I started a line of calls called JS or J. Stephens calls. It’s pretty much going back to doing everything all by hand, older designs. We’ll have a little workshop in (the renovated factory) where everybody can see in while we’re making them, so they can see how they’re done by hand. We’re keeping a lot of key stuff the same, but this is just a little different approach to doing things.”
Stephens and his wife Angie, company CFO, were one day into a trip to Mexico when they got word of the fire. They returned to the good news-bad news scenario of no one having been injured, but the equipment, backstock and most everything else inside lost. From the second he arrived at the factory, Stephens was platting the company’s revival.
“As soon as we got back, we got here around midnight and walked through,” he said. “I remember they kept telling me they couldn’t believe I wasn’t fazed. I was just thinking what we’ve got to do to get up and going.”
Stephens said from the tumult of questions, he and his crew found a surprising sequential path out of the ashes. The company needed product to keep cash flow; that product had to be produced, thus the first priorities were replacement equipment and the requisite power to run them.
They caught a break when a previously-ordered CNC machine was delivered just a couple weeks after the fire. All that left was the power situation, which they deciphered and were back up and running in about a month.
“The thing (the crisis) taught us business-wise is, we had to be creative on how we could create some cash flow quickly, whether it was through different products, different things we could sell at different times of the year and marketing,” Stephens said. “We all came together and I’m not going to say it was fun, but it was interesting and rewarding seeing everybody come together as a group.”
“We got this thing up and going pretty quickly from not having any power, not having any equipment to creating products and getting stuff out there through the Internet to create cash flow.”
Stephens said the company never entertained ideas to rebuild anywhere other than Stuttgart, but they did take the opportunity to reimagine what RNT’s presence could be in the future.
“At first we were going to just build back pretty much exactly what we had,” he said. “Then we got to thinking well, we got an opportunity. We can change some stuff. So we all started brainstorming.”
Although not all ideas could be accommodated — in Stephens’ words, “we had a lot bigger ideas than we had pocketbooks,” the new RNT promises to wow the customer when it celebrates its grand re-opening, anticipated to be early next year. Stephens is tight-lipped about specifics but says the new facility will seamlessly combine the company’s heritage and its future.
“We’re trying to have more of an experience when you come here, where you can see calls being made,” he said. “Really, the big thing we’re trying to promote is the heritage of call making because it’s been a big part of our life and it’s obviously a big part of Stuttgart’s culture and Arkansas’ culture.”
Photography by Blake Fisher/RNT Calls.