A Golden Achievement
Ranger Boats marks 50th year
By Aprille Hanson Photos Courtesy of Ranger Boats
When Forrest L. Wood and his wife Nina unveiled the first six Ranger Boats in the rural town of Flippin, Ark. in 1968, fishermen at the time made a bold prediction.
“I can remember seeing a quote … ‘a boat couldn’t get any better,’” said Matt Raynor, Ranger Boats marketing director. “To see how far that has come over 50 years is pretty incredible.”
Luckily for customers, those early fishermen were wrong.
Ranger Boats, which builds and sells approximately 3,500 fiberglass and 3,000 aluminum boats annually, is credited with creating what is understood today as the modern bass boat. The company is celebrating 50 years of not only innovation, but a desire to maintain a small-business feel for its customers. It employs about 1,100 people between its fiberglass plant and aluminum boat factory in Flippin, almost as much as the population itself, pegged at 1,355 in 2010.
“We’re most proud of the reputation that was built over the 50 years, to be a company that is so known for quality products. You’ve got a family of customers across the country that in a lot of cases save their entire lifetime just to purchase your product,” Raynor said.
In 2014, Bass Pro acquired Ranger Boats, but that hasn’t disrupted the small-town environment for the customer or employee. Unlike many competitors, much of the boat components are made in-house, including upholstery. Sitting on 40 acres, the buildings are set up for approachability, allowing easy communication between employees and executives.
“The town there in Flippin is especially small, so you’re eating with the same people, going to church with the same people,” Raynor said.
Though it boasts small-town charm, Ranger is hardly stationary when it comes to innovation.
“On the aluminum side, we’ve been the first to integrate a lot of fiberglass manufacturing into the boats. You’ve seen other competitors that have come into the market and try to rip that look off and do very similar things,” Raynor said.
In 2017, Ranger Boats launched its first pontoon line and sells about 600 annually so far. The company also produces a variety of saltwater vessels.
In honor of the 50th anniversary, Ranger Boats released the limited edition Z521L ICON last year with all the bells and whistles, including a unique color scheme, custom steering wheel and floor mats, LED lighting, a Lowrance HDS 16-inch Carbon and a Minn Kota Ultrex 112 trolling motor. It is no longer in production, with just 150 to 200 created. On July 23, it was sitting on the White House lawn for the Made in America event, which chose one company from each state to show off their product.
“There are photos of President Trump with one of our well-known fisherman there at the White House, examining the boat, learning about Ranger,” Raynor said.
Ranger Boats is a major sponsor of the popular FLW Tour, named for Ranger’s founder F.L. Wood. Raynor said tournaments have been integral to the company’s initial and continued success.
“Forrest and his wife Nina really tapped into the growing scene of tournaments and I think knowing that in order to grow their brand, they needed to be where fishermen are,” he said. “So we feel adamant about that today, that’s still a guiding principal for the company. You’ve got to be a steward and a part of building the playground for which your products are used.”
At the company’s core, “we are building highly technical boats for competitive fishermen” and are well known at the highest levels of the sport, Raynor said. However, they are also active in grassroots regional and triple-A circuit fishing tournaments, supporting “weekend warrior anglers that aren’t doing this as their full time job.”
“They’re the folks that support our brand and are really our key customer,” Raynor said. “… We feel that’s a great opportunity for us to continue to interact with our customer and support them where they are.”
The Once and Future King
Forrest L. Wood, 86, invented the modern bass boat--—and he’s not done yet
In 1968, general contractor, cattleman and fishing guide Forrest L. Wood built the first bass boats, all six of them, in the back of a service station in Flippin, Ark. He just didn’t know it at the time.
“We didn’t call them bass boats then,” Wood said in a rumbling sugar maple drawl. “We called them lake boats.”
Today, those humble crafts are seen for what they were, the archetype for what is now a multi-billion industry. But for the man who lived it – who with his wife Nina birthed Ranger Boats and made Arkansas the center of the bass boat universe – it’s an accomplishment viewed through a very simple lens.
“We listened to what people wanted,” he said. “People buy boats because they want them and they have ideas about them. So, we were able to build what people wanted and were pretty successful at it.”
Wood’s attention to detail and ability to deliver boats that performed well and looked good developed an instant, rabid following—just two years after Ranger produced the original six boats, the company shipped 1,200 units. But no matter how big the company got, Wood resolved it would never outgrow Flippin.
“(Locating here) was a priority because we were from here and we had good help,” he said. “We had invitations from some other places for a free building to encourage us to move off someplace else. But we never gave it any thought because of the kind of help we had here. The secret is having good people.”
Wood was equally instrumental in fostering the growth of professional fishing tournaments. He developed early relationships with Ray Scott, who formally launched B.A.S.S. in 1968, as well as outdoor TV personalities the late Harold Ensley and the late Virgil Ward.
“Just happened to meet the right people at the right time at the right place,” Wood said. “They were excited about something new. Fishing tournaments were just beginning, and we got into some of those and realized that we needed to help the sport to grow. We did spend quite a bit of money as time went on, giving boats for prizes for fishing tournaments.”
“With all due modesty, we had a lot to do with the growth of the sport back in those days. Of course, growing the sport made more customers for us.”
When Wood sold out in the 1990s, the company had more than 300 employees making roughly 20 boats a day to satisfy almost 300 dealers nationwide. Since then, he’s never been far from the sport he loves and the state that supports it. He’s the namesake for FLW and its fishing tournaments, including the prestigious Forrest Wood Cup. He’s been inducted into no fewer than eight halls of fame and is renowned for his conservation work. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission even named Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center for him.
Today, he’s lending his considerable experience to Vexus Boats, a venture of his grandson, Keith Daffron.
“To see Vexus build a building like they have there, it’s just a great facility. And they have a lot of experience there in building boats,” Woods said. “They’re just doing such a remarkable job. They will continue the tradition that we had at Ranger, for a lifetime really.”—DH