Duck Dynasty and the Robertson Family PDF Print E-mail

Success Lessons from America's Most Famous Family Business

By Wayne Rivers

The Robertson family of the hit TV show Duck Dynasty needs no introduction to most readers. I, however, was largely ignorant of this business family and decided to undertake a bit of research to see just what the fuss is all about. In so doing, I discovered that the Robertsons have utilized a similar path to success as plenty of other not so famous family businesses, and, just as they have applied these concepts, you can too.


Business Family

How Popular Is This Show?

Duck Dynasty set the record in 2013 for viewers of a nonfiction telecast on cable with almost 12 million people tuning in. To put this into perspective, they drew eight million more viewers than the season five premiere of Mad Men and six million more than the premier of the smash hit Breaking Bad. The show pulls in an average of about 8 million viewers per week.


How Successful is Duck Commander?

The business behind the TV series is called Duck Commander, Inc. The company was founded in 1972 by Phil Robertson who was formerly a star football player at Louisiana Tech; he actually started at quarterback ahead of future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw! He had offers to play football in the NFL, but turned them down because he couldn't bear to miss out on his passion - duck hunting!

Phil's fledgling business had gross revenue of about $8,000 in the first year. Within a few years the gross had increased to around $500,000. By 2012, with the company enjoying the massive marketing boost of a successful TV series, revenue reached about $40 million, and operating income was estimated at $20 million, a substantial gross margin. Duck Commander sells around 600,000 duck calls a year in addition to popular DVDs, books, (Willie Robertson is a best-selling author), and other merchandise. Family members featured in the show are in great demand as public speakers. The company has only about 15 employees, most of whom are related to the Robertson family in some way. Willie, the second-generation CEO of the business, has an estimated personal net worth of $20 million. Finally, ABC News reports that the family is asking for more than $200,000 per episode plus increases for future seasons. All things considered, it's not the biggest family business around, but it's pretty darn successful by most people's accounting.

Family Business


What Makes the Show So Popular?

The show features founder Phil Robertson, his wife Miss Kay, and sons Jase, Willie, and Jep. A fourth son, Alan, a minister and the oldest child, is also joining the show this season. Willie is the CEO, and his wife Korie is the office manager. Jase looks after manufacturing, and Jep films and edits the family business’s popular line of hunting DVDs.

According to Lee Habeeb writing in National Review Online, “Duck Dynasty is a brilliant brew of commerce, family life, the great outdoors, and the greatest American sport of them all – mutual heckling. It's earthy and optimistic and lighthearted and funny, like the Robertson family itself. Like America itself." So much of what passes as entertainment in our popular culture today is dark and negative. Look at some of the other reality shows on television. Would you really want to spend time with the Kardashian family given their petty intrigues and self-absorption? Can you imagine being forced to endure dinner with the self-important halfwits of Jersey Shore? What about the shows where a bachelor or bachelorette careens through an army of suitors, some willing to do almost anything to win the attention of the main protagonist? The Robertsons, by contrast, could be the slightly wacky neighbors with the nice family business from your hometown; it’s easy to imagine visiting with them, enjoying a meal, and shooting the breeze comfortably for an evening. Bill Keveney in USA Today writes, “The number one thing is just that the cast members are really appealing, nice, funny, warm, awesome people to spend some time with on TV. I think that's what makes all the difference."

The show pushes back against the licentiousness of popular culture. Just as smoking pot, listening to rock 'n roll, and moving to Haight-Ashbury were countercultural in the 1960s, today it's countercultural to be the kind of rock solid American family which most of us grew up believing in and cherishing. Habeeb: “Duck Dynasty is the rebellion against the rebellion. A rebellion against the culture of divorce, rudeness, and the sexualization of everything. Duck Dynasty dares to be…wholesome." The show is not at all politically correct; it ends each week with the family sharing dinner together, and meals are always initiated by Phil's blessing. When is the last time you saw anyone on TV saying a prayer without being ridiculed or caricatured?


What Are Six Success Lessons We Can Draw From Duck Commander and the Robertson Family?




PASSION. To be successful, family business members must demonstrate unwavering passion and devotion to the cause. For most of its existence, Duck Commander was not a wildly successful company. There were times when, perhaps, Phil and Miss Kay would've been better off pursuing another line of work. But they were passionate about duck hunting and producing duck calls that would make them and other hunters better. Phil was devoted to the idea of being his own boss and not working for someone else. And they were devoted to the idea of family being in business together. That kind of passion and devotion are critical ingredients, and in their absence, a family business is not sustainable over the generations.




FAITH. The Robertsons have faith in themselves as individuals, faith in their family, and faith in God. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, by and large, family businesses are populated by religious people, that the family business culture is among the last strongholds of religion and religious belief in an increasingly secularized world. What kind of faith they practice is less important than the fact that they practice a faith at all. The point is that a business family must realize that there are bigger things in the world than them and their company. Having this viewpoint, anchored by faith, allows them to have a clear picture of their purpose on earth and how they fit in with a higher purpose.




HUMOR. The Robertsons have the ability to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously. It's impossible to run a family business, irrespective of how successful, without almost as many downs as there are ups. The Robertson family has a unique, lighthearted view of themselves, and when anyone verges on taking himself too seriously, the other members of the family have the barbs and quips ready to provide a course correction. The sense of humor applies to Robertson spouses as well; even though they didn't grow up in the same household, they realize how important the virtue of humor is in the culture of this family business, and they give as good as they get.




TIMELY TRANSITION. The Robertsons transitioned responsibility to the next generation at the right time. Everyone in the group acknowledges Willie's contribution to the phenomenal growth of the business. In fact, it was Willie's idea to undertake the A&E Network reality show; Phil and some of the other family members were against it saying, “A redneck family, they're not going to run that." As the patriarch of the family, if not officially the CEO anymore, Phil could have put his foot down, and it's likely the A&E deal would never have gotten done. Phil's philosophy was that if he was going to give someone a title and responsibility, he had to let him do his job. He was willing to trust in the capability and talents of his next generation leader and take his hand off the tiller at the time when it was appropriate for Willie to begin steering the family business’s course.




DO IT YOUR WAY. They charted their own path and grew organically. The Robertsons have broken a lot of conventional family business rules in order to grow their successful business. They haven't borrowed money, and they relied on word-of-mouth to grow the sales of their various products versus adopting expensive marketing campaigns. They don't kill themselves working; in fact, it almost seems to be a competition among Robertson family members to see who can work the least! They are fully invested in having fun outside of work; one of the reasons people start and work in family businesses is they don't want to be controlled by other people, but, eventually, they let the very business they created control them and find themselves working regular 15 hour days. The Robertsons have made a concerted effort to have both a successful business AND fun lives. Who says you can’t have both?




FIND YOUR NICHE. Family businesses don’t have the capital or people resources to try and be all things to all people. If you run a construction company and devote your time trying to compete with the Gilbanes of the world, or you run a building supply business intent on beating Lowes at their own game, you’re in for tough sledding. Instead, why not find out two things: 1) what in your business you truly love doing? and 2) where do you have advantages that the big boys don’t? There are almost always profitable niches that nimble family companies can exploit where their inherent advantages – patient capital, swift decision-making, personal relationships with customers, investment in the local community – allow them to be successful.


Years ago, I saw the initial promotional advertising for Duck Dynasty, and I thought, “This thing will die a miserable death on television.” Fortunately for millions of duck hunting and family business enthusiasts, my knee-jerk reaction was wrong, and the Robertson family success story entertains and inspires millions of viewers each week.



Wayne Rivers is the president of The Family Business Institute, Inc. FBI’s mission is to deliver interpersonal, operational and financial solutions to help family and closely-held businesses achieve breakthrough success.
September 2013