The pandemic drove us outdoors, where social distance is easily accommodated and the crazy twists and turns of 2020 more easily forgotten.
And while restaurants and shops that typically entail indoor interactions at close quarters have been significantly impacted, the great outdoors is welcoming back stir-crazy visitors looking to escape the confines of the house.
Sales of fishing licenses are up about 40 percent in Arkansas this year, according to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and an estimated half a million hunters took to the deer woods for the opening weekend of modern gun season in November. That represents roughly one of every six Arkansans. (Sales of hunting licenses and duck stamps are up as well.)
Arkansas remains one of the country’s more outdoorsy states, but it wasn’t immune to nationwide pre-COVID-19 trends that saw a smaller percentage of the population connecting to the outdoors in traditional ways. For many — those reconnecting and those who never disconnected — getting back out on the water was never so inviting than it was in 2020.
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Boat manufacturers are among those businesses uniquely positioned to benefit from the past year’s outdoor recreation spike, and Arkansas is home to several major industry players. Rory Herndon, president of Hot Springs’ Xpress Boats and its sister company, Veranda Luxury Pontoons, is one of them.
Herndon is shepherding the family business, founded in 1966 by his grandfather, Kermit Bryant, to new levels of success. Last year, Xpress opened an almost 400,000-square-foot plant for the Veranda line in the revamped, old General Cable building nearby in Hot Spring County.
Business is good, and Herndon hasn’t had to implement any layoffs. Between Xpress and Veranda, his company employs roughly 350 local workers. But when the pandemic broke nationwide last spring, Herndon, like every other business owner, was preparing for the worst. He told Arkansas Money & Politics the company began to roll back hours the week after the pandemic hit. But then, orders kept pouring in. Despite a few COVID-related scares on the factory floor, it plowed ahead.
“We just kept working and working. The orders came in faster than we could build them,” Herndon said. “It was a silver lining from the perspective of sales, but it’s still been tough for us internally. We’re one big family here, and there are employees who’ve worked for us for 20-plus years. Our hearts went out to them as everyone tried to be safe at home, at work and in their private lives.
“There’s so many unknowns of what’s coming from one day to the next. But it’s very exciting to see how people are getting back to their roots and outdoors. That’s the silver lining.”
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That Herndon knew in his early childhood he’d one day take over the family business and that his two young sons with wife Marcy — Ashton and Weston, ages 11 and 9 — are waiting to do the same… Well, some folks might call that living the dream.
Herndon’s father, Rodney, put him to work at the plant at an early age. And there was nowhere else the tall, skinny kid would rather have been. Whether it was chasing snakes out of buildings or leading clean-up efforts around the grounds with fellow Lakeside students, Herndon always was at home when he was working at the family business. He and his young crew spent three years helping renovate and clean the current 270,000-square-foot facility in which the company currently manufactures its lines of all-aluminum Xpress boats.
“We did it with our own team,” Herndon said. “We didn’t hire contractors; we did it with our own team of employees. There’s sweat equity in this facility.”
It might seem unrealistic to suggest that a little love goes into every bolt, every weld, every piece of metal at a larger-scale manufacturing plant. How warm and fuzzy can a factory floor be, really?
But for Herndon, a big component to what makes his team’s products so successful is the pride infused into every boat. These aren’t cold, sterile widgets being mass produced, he says; Xpress and Veranda products represent a collective labor of love.
“That is our goal, to translate what we love and do back into the products where our customers can enjoy them as well,” he said. “Our employees don’t just work on building our boats, they also enjoy our boats on the weekends. And so that craftsmanship — they’re not just craftsmen and welders and people who assemble our boats and paint them — they understand what the boats can be used for. And they put that level of work back into the boat, which translates to better quality for our end.”
And employees are encouraged to share their ideas and embed themselves into the planning process. “Part of our company culture is listening to that entrepreneurial spirit that’s on the floor throughout the entire range of production,” Herndon said.
When considering options for long-term growth, Herndon admits that he’s looked at other parts of the state and country. Ultimately, though, he decided there were more “snakes” to chase right here at home.
“We wanted to stay right here in Hot Springs, Arkansas,” he said. “We’re very, very blessed as a company. We wouldn’t be where we are without all of our great Arkansas employees. We rarely hire from outside the state. There’s just so many good people and resources around us. Very blessed to be where we’re at for the future.”
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Herndon is determined to ensure that sweat equity remains part of the Xpress DNA. After all, the company was founded by his grandfather on not much more than that.
Bryant grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River in Natchez. An avid fisherman, he spent much of his time on the water. After returning home from service in World War II to raise a family, Bryant opened his own sporting goods store. Eventually, he determined there was a better way to build a boat, one more durable that would better serve not only his needs but those of his neighbors and customers.
And so, he built an all-welded aluminum boat. After moving to Arkansas, he founded what is now Xpress in the old Friendship community schoolhouse not far from Hot Springs. Xpress has remained an industry pioneer ever since. In the late 1980s, it created a first-of-its-kind padded hull — the Hyper-Lift Hull — that increased durability and perhaps most importantly, style. Aluminum boats now could offer the performance and style of fiberglass with the same durability and added strength of aluminum.
Xpress also introduced industry-first longitudinal ribs and expandable foam, which actually exceeded U.S. Coast Guard standards. These days, Xpress is home to the top selling 20-foot bay boat on the market, glass or aluminum, according to company spokesman Clay Connor. And the company broke a (fiber)glass ceiling — four current Bassmasters Elite Anglers, competing at the highest tournament level, are in aluminum boats from Xpress.
Xpress now manufactures a full catalog of aluminum boats — bass, bay, skiff, catfish, crappie, hunting, utility and jon. Its longest boat, the X23 bay boat series, comes in at 23 feet, and its product line ranges from the affordable to high end.
Further family innovation led to the spin-off of Veranda in 2006. Surrounded by lakes, the Herndons next turned their attention to an Arkansas staple — the pontoon boat. Veranda manufactures all-welded, aluminum pontoons with patented interlocking deck systems designed to last longer and increase performance.
The newly launched V One series offers higher horsepower (425hp rating) and more extras. Think 12-inch subwoofers, four 8-inch interior speakers, two 10-inch tower speakers, premium Bluetooth audio — all standard — and the introduction of a fiberglass exterior to the Herndon product line.
And they look good, too. Herndon calls the marriage of performance and style the industry’s secret ingredient. “If we can give them something that’s durable and has the looks and the speed, I think that’s how you’re most competitive in the marketplace.”
Innovation is the lens through which the company views the industry, he notes. When dealers in the 2000s kept reporting the need for a better family-style pontoon boat that could perform, Herndon said, “We decided to get into the pontoon boat industry. We started evaluating and getting creative with our team on how to make it better. And then we designed the first patented, all-aluminum pontoon boat.”
Though fiberglass was introduced through the V One, the Herndons hung their hat on aluminum from the start. Aluminum doesn’t deteriorate in water over time like wood, plus it’s lightweight, durable and stronger, Herndon says.
The interlocking aluminum floor planks are icing on the cake. The marketing pitch? “Not your daddy’s party barge.”
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2020 hasn’t been your daddy’s typical year, either. But Arkansas boat makers have persevered, meeting market demand while tiptoeing through the minefield of COVID-19. Production never really slowed at Xpress.
Boat sales nationally are up across the board, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Herndon will keep meeting demand as long as it’s there, and he’s ready to pivot when and if necessary. Any plans to expand beyond boats? “Not off the board,” he said.
For now, the team plans to motor on, open water ahead. Herndon can’t imagine doing anything else.
“Literally, from as early as I have memories, I’ve been sitting on the bow of the boat with my dad and grandfather…
“I am a steward of these brands; they are not mine. I‘ve been afforded the opportunity to make my mark and contribute, yet pass this along to my children as my grandfather and father did for me.”