UPCOMING EVENT: PHOENIX BASS FISHING LEAGUE - 2020 - Sam Rayburn Reservoir

FISHING LEAGUE WORLDWIDE

40 years in the making

40 years in the making
Forrest Wood

A walk through a museum says a lot about the history of things. In the small town of Flippin, Ark., a unique museum, the Forrest L. Wood Outdoor Sports Gallery, tells the history and tale of hard work and family. What was even more telling for the FLW Outdoors Magazine editors as we toured the gallery in January was that our tour guides were none other than Forrest and Nina Wood, founders of Ranger Boats and the individuals responsible for sparking the events replayed in the gallery in countless photographs and cases.

"This is pretty fascinating here," Forrest said, pointing to one of his first boats, proudly displayed in the gallery. The old motor looked like something found on a moped, and the fiberglass, egg-shaped seats squeaked as they swiveled around. Certainly outdated as a fishing vessel today, the value of that boat is not given in dollars but still tops any model coming off the line in Flippin. That's because it is a time capsule back to what was cutting edge in bass fishing four decades ago, before $1 million tournaments and 250-hp outboards. It is a reminder of a time before all that changed, when bass fishing was just a little more simple. Although at Ranger Boats, perhaps keeping it simple has not changed.

"I always wore a cowboy hat," Forrest told us that day. "Now I just wear a little nicer one."

Forrest Wood chose the name Ranger in honor of two organizations he held in high regard: the Army Rangers and the Texas Rangers law-enforcement agency.Folks at Ranger Boats revere Forrest's uncanny ability to simplify everything to the least common denominator. And quite frankly, that gentlemanly quality is what took his family boat business into the 21st century as a leader in fishing-boat manufacturing and sales, with roots in tradition.

The early years

Forrest and Nina ran a very successful float service on the White River, Buffalo River and Crooked Creek in the late 1950s and early 1960s after spending several years in the construction trade, and it was this combination of interests that ultimately led to building boats.

"We never set out to be the biggest and best boat builder in the world," Forrest said. "We just needed a place for our guides to work indoors during the offseason or when it rained."

In 1968, Ranger Boats made and sold six boats while Forrest guided and traveled the country fishing tournaments and selling boats. The next year, they made and sold 600 boats, an incredible jump, but not considering the dedication involved, even if it meant hitting the road when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. "That was one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, but we had a boat order to fill," Nina and Forrest WoodForrest said about the delivery that night to Columbus, Ga.

Forrest and Nina's four daughters, Brenda, Linda, Rhonda and Donna, were instrumental to the early success. The daughters tended cattle, shuttled vehicles during float trips, worked at the Ranger plant and even drove trucks to haul boats to customers. "To this day, I'd rather have my own daughters work cattle as I would any ranch hand for hire," Forrest said. "It was always a family operation for us, no matter what we were doing."

Randy Hopper, now president of Ranger Boats, entered the picture in the early 70s. Work ethic ran in his blood as well. He started with Ranger Boats working odd jobs around the plant when he was 15 years old.

"Randy built a lot more boats and worked more jobs in the plant than I ever did," Forrest said. "I built a bunch in the beginning, but someone had to get on the road and sell them, so that's what I did."

By the age of 17, Hopper was running the night shift while attending school. It was a quick rise resulting from his adoption of the key philosophy that Forrest created for Ranger Boats: "It's a lot easier Ranger Boats started production in 1968.to build something people want, than to build something you think they need," Forrest said. "We built each boat custom to that person's wishes just like a seasoned cabinetmaker would do."

A pile of those custom orders were nearly lost in a fire in 1971, which burned the Ranger Boats plant to the ground, leaving nothing more than a smoldering ash pile and one army surplus desk. The desk protected 60 boat orders from the fire, and those 60 orders and a charred piece of land were all Ranger Boats had left to build on. So build they did.

Forrest nailed a phone to a tree the next day, signaling the beginning of construction on the site, and in 40 days and 40 nights, the company and factory were back in business.

"We had made promises to build those boats, and we had a staff of people that needed their jobs," Forrest said, although he indicated there was some uncertainty during that time about the company's Ranger Boats needed only 40 days to recover and rebuild after a devastating fire wrecked the plant in 1971.future. "Of course, nothing in life is for sure, but we had too much work to do to think about giving up very long.

"We were fortunate to have the right people who could do all the construction on the factory. And we had customers who were willing to wait the extra 40 days for their boats."

With a fire behind them, the Woods and Ranger Boats looked forward, and growth was on the horizon.

Philosophies spur growth

Ranger Boats seemed to have an uncanny knack for listening to what customers were asking for in fishing boats, and it didn't hurt they could speak fishing language. Their early philosophies were simple.

"We just tried to build everything the right way," Hopper said. "We built it right and to the customer's satisfaction, and then we took care of them after the sale."

Part of taking care of customers after the sale was building quality products. Not much has changed in that department.

"It starts with product," Keith Daffron, vice president of sales, said. "Everything we're doing is irrelevant if we're not building the best products for our customers."

Daffron has spent half of his life working at Ranger, and the other half he spent around the plant as a kid.

"I grew up on the farmland across the street, and I still remember as a child Forrest helping me cross the street to spend time at the plant," he said.

Daffron, the grandson of Forrest and Nina, believes the family atmosphere is what makes Ranger Boats so strong: "We've never called it the Ranger plant around here. It has always been the Boat Factory to us."

In addition to the product, the company has been blessed with quality in another key area for success: employees. Daffron, Hopper, Forrest and Nina all agreed people made Ranger Boats the success it is Quality control: Forrest Wood inspects an early Ranger.today. From employees to dealers and customers, people are what make the business go.

"We value what our customers have to say because we know they are what drive this business," Hopper said. "In addition to customer feedback, we also recognize the importance of having and keeping good employees. A lot of people come to work here and stay. As a result we have thousands of years of combined experience building boats in this plant and we really enjoy recognizing those folks that have been with us so long."

Along with that experience has been a shared passion for fishing, and early on, Forrest saw that as a route to introduce Ranger Boats to anglers through tournaments, professionals and outdoor writers.

"Tom McNally (father of FLW Outdoors contributing writer Bob McNally) came and wrote a piece for the Chicago Tribune about our guide service," Forrest said, "and he briefly mentioned at the bottom of his story that we built some boats too."

"Then Henry Reynolds at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis (Tenn.), Andy Anderson at the Star-Telegram in Texas and Charlie Elliot at Outdoor Life, as well as Harold Ensley and others, all followed suit, and the word just seemed to spread from there," Nina said.

Those writers, as well as tournament anglers in grassroots organizations like Operation Bass, BASS and West Coast Bass, were not only Ranger Boats customers and spokespeople, but they were part of the Ranger Boats research teams, whether they knew it or not.

"At the time, we didn't know what a focus group was," Forrest said. "We took orders on napkins or the backs of business cards at tournaments I was fishing. Nina talked with wives of anglers in search of pro-staffers with the right morals."

Not only did they talk, but they listened to anglers' needs and wants. Angler input thus became the inspiration for innovation as the Ranger Boat brand grew.

Innovations continue success

While the plant is nestled in the Ozark Mountains in rural Arkansas, an area known for picturesque trout streams and wild hills, the expertise and technology employed at Ranger Boats is state-of-the-art. In fact, many of their boat-building processes lead the industry for quality production.

"We build to total performance," Hopper said. "Total performance is not about how fast you can go in a Inside a Ranger boat moldstraight line. I'm a Corvette enthusiast, but there aren't many roads around Flippin where a guy can drive 140 mph! It includes acceleration, handling, breaking and the comfort of the ride. In like manner, Ranger performance includes these things and more, with fishability at the top of the list."

As the customers made increasing demands from their boats, the Ranger family had to not only create innovations to answer those demands, but also find ways to get leaner.

Born out of those necessities were innovations like a patented pultruded fiberglass process for one-piece transoms and fiberglass backing. This process produces a mounting surface infinitely more rigid and unparalleled by any other materials used in the industry.

"Some boats will show signs of tiny cracking around the transom," Hopper said. "Our pultruded fiberglass transom virtually eliminates the chances of that happening in a Ranger."

Pultruded fiberglass members are placed throughout the boat to reinforce items like trolling-motor brackets and GPS units, as well as for framing the decks. The result is a boat that is stronger and lasts longer without any wood.

In the early days, Ranger was the first to market many of the things anglers now take for granted. "When we started, there were no livewells in lake boats," Forrest said. But livewells were just the tip of the iceberg.

Ranger Boats were the first with carpeted interiors; the first to have aerated livewells; the first to feature in-laid, gel-coat striping; the first to build 18-foot-and-beyond lengths in a bass boat; the first to design for upright, level flotation; the first to include disc brakes on boat trailers; the first to include hydraulic steering as standard equipment; the first to build with environmentally friendly foam in their boats; the first to design an integrated engine set-back, the first protected-design hull copyright; and the A Ranger boat in the early stages of productionlist goes on.

On top of reaching these firsts, it was the way Ranger Boats achieved them that stands out. Rather than simply striving for milestones, the firsts came as direct results of providing customers with the ultimate fishing machine while still being environmentally friendly.

Closed Cavity Bag Molding (CCBM) was implemented to eliminate waste and emissions associated with spraying fiberglass on small molds like compartments and doors.

Production of things like their trailers were vertically integrated, not based on financial premises, but because Ranger Boats knew they could build a better trailer than they could order. Today's trailers are custom-built to match and complement each boat, and they are coated using Ranger's exclusive patented process called Road Armor. This finish resists chipping and scratching from towing. The wiring in freshwater trailers and boats is borrowed from saltwater applications, making them more corrosion resistant and longer lasting.

Soft Ride Seating (SRS) was designed to provide a smoother ride and even greater comfort. The result was a seat that not only looked like a luxury boat seat but was as comfortable as it was good-looking.

Despite all the innovation and technology, the "old-world" craftsmanship of boat building has remained the same. Each new model concept is carved out and pieced together by hand by in-house craftsmen. Designers can then evaluate the prototype before producing the first mold.

"We have access to a five-axis router here at the shop and can engineer drawings on a computer," Hopper said, "but we prefer to build and tweak the original masters by hand because there is no substitute for standing in a hand-made master and setting a rod down in a rod locker to get a feel for how it will look and fish."

Testing the product is a job not considered a perk for Hopper and crew, but rather necessity. After all, they wouldn't put a boat on market they didn't feel absolutely comfortable fishing in themselves.

What the future holds

When Ranger released the 500 VX series boats in 1998, a new era in bass-boat performance and usability began. Similarly, the Z series was introduced seven years later and brought a new level of aesthetic form and function to bass boats. Now heading down the stretch toward the half-century mark, Ranger is prepared to strap the reins on the Ranger Z520, a high-performance fishing craft sired through combination of two of the greatest bass-boat series to churn a wake - the 500 VX and Z series. It's a boat any angler would be proud to launch at the nearest lake.

"Bass boats are very personal items," Forrest said. "Some anglers have waited a lot of years to get their first Ranger. We take that very seriously here and hope it shows in the quality of the finished product."

Hopper thinks hard about the future when boats are being designed, including ways you might not realize.

A Ranger Z520 speeds across the water."We sell a boat three times," Hopper said. "We sell the boat to the dealer; we sell the boat to the end customer; and we sell the boat again when that customer wants to sell his used boat and get a new one. We have to not only build the best boat, but we have to build it to last and hold its value for a long time so our customers are taken care of when they come back for their next Ranger."

Ranger Boats relies on a network of more than 200 top boat dealers nationwide and abroad. Their talented network of dealers has been instrumental in taking Ranger Boats to the top spot in the production and sales of bass-fishing boats, a place they have been for the last six years.

"When you just focus on doing things the right way, things have a way of working out like they should," Forrest said.

In Flippin, the right way seems to be the only way, and it's been that way since 1968.

"People in this part of the country have a natural tendency toward building quality products," Daffron said. "A joke in this area is that our kids can build better birdhouses. This culture was never more evident than in a Ranger boat."

Competition drives Ranger Boats to excel. They are always evaluating new materials and testing their applications to continue to innovate and eliminate waste wherever they can.

"We focus on what's in front of us and what our customers tell us they want, so we don't have much time to look and see who's behind us," Forrest said. "We don't do what we think is the cheapest. We do it the way that is right and built the best."

They donBuild it the best way - that is likely the mindset Forrest had four decades ago, while layering strips of fiberglass on that old Ranger he showed us early this year. Next door to the buzzing factory, as he passed quietly by tournament trophies, photos with presidents, and countless awards and recognitions displayed in his gallery, Forrest replayed to us the history of Ranger Boats, but one case garnered special attention, and he quickly put Nina in the spotlight with a grin stretched a country mile. It was a glass case in a lofted corner of the gallery. In it, a stringer of bass Nina caught years prior on a trip to Lake Okeechobee was prominently displayed. Forrest was fishing a tournament at the time, one he admitted ended poorly for him, while Nina and friend Wanda Tester fished with shiners with one of their former guides from Arkansas, Lloyd Forbis. The ladies upstaged Forrest and the tournament anglers, catching bass after quality bass and drew quite the crowd of onlookers when they returned to the dock, as Forrest recalled.

As Nina told the story, likely not the first time she has taken the spotlight in front of that case, Forrest just listened with a smile. There, entrenched in the history of not only bass boats but the whole sport of bass fishing, it became clear why their leadership has taken Ranger Boats to its present status. For the Ranger family, business has always been about two things and two things only, the fishing and the people. With those facets firmly entrenched in their philosophies, one can't help but imagine the current Z520 serving as an antique marker for how far the company has come, 40 years from now. If the first 40 years were any indication, the next 40 years will be absolutely amazing.

Tags: jason-sealock-and-curtis-niedermier  magazine-features 

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