November/December 2015 Issue
Duck hunting is a passion for many Arkansans, and Angie Stephens is a major player at one of the country’s most prominent duck call companies.
Photography by Ashlee Nobel
Ducks and duck hunting are a way of life in Stuttgart, Arkansas, but for many who live and work in the self-proclaimed “Rice and Duck Capital of the World,” it’s more than a lifestyle; it’s a livelihood. At Stuttgart-based Rich-N-Tone Calls, a small business with a big reputation in the duck calling industry, striking a balance between a way of life and a source of income falls squarely on the shoulders of Angie Stephens.
“I’m a dreamer, a creative type,” said John Stephens, owner and president of RNT and Angie’s husband of 20 years. “She’s a realist.”
Although Angie Stephens’ day-to-day role involves handling company finances, a more important role may be serving as a sounding board for John’s ideas and, sometimes, as a voice of reason in the implementation of a self-described dreamer’s big plans.
“John is really talented, and I recognize that in him,” Angie said. “He’s always coming up with ideas about new products and where to go with the company. And they’re great ideas. But, sometimes, you have to take a step back and think about how to incorporate those ideas into what we’re doing or the products we already have.”
The late Butch Richenback started Rich-N-Tone Duck Calls in 1976. John Stephens bought the company in 2000, and for the past 15 years, he has developed the business into a major player in the world of duck call manufacturing. From its humble beginnings in Richenback’s small woodshop, RNT now sells about 70,000 duck calls per year and has grown from four employees in 2001 to 17 today.
Angie Stephens went to work for the company in 2001, shortly after RNT opened its manufacturing facility and retail storefront next door to Mack’s Prairie Wings.
She graduated from the University of Mississippi with a master’s degree in accounting. The couple lived in Starkville, Mississippi, and to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, before they returned to their hometown. Angie was teaching accounting and business classes at Phillips Community College in Stuttgart when John bought RNT.
“It was a really hard decision, probably the biggest decision of my life,” Angie said of the move from teaching to the family business. “The biggest thing was deciding if Rich-N-Tone could afford to pay both of us. But we opened the storefront, the retail side, in 2001, and we needed someone up front constantly.”
Family matters also factored into the career decision. Angie and John were starting a family. Their son, Reece, 16, was a toddler at the time, and their daughter, Riley, 13, would be born the next year.
In a community that worships ducks and duck hunting, running a business centered in the duck hunting industry often results in a blurred line between business and recreation. Fourteen years after joining the RNT team, Angie still helps John navigate that fine line, her pragmatism complementing John’s creative nature.
“I’ve learned that when you start a small business, you’re going to fail and you’re going to make the wrong decisions,” Angie said. “But it teaches you to make the right decisions.”
Angie said RNT’s biggest challenge is also its most gratifying aspect.
“It’s very hard to manage people,” she said. “And we’re in a small town, so most of our employees are also good friends. They’re people we do things with on the weekends. So someone who you have a disagreement with at work is the same person you’re going to see at a dinner party on the weekend or at a soccer game.”
Making it work, Angie said, means relating to colleagues on a personal level and establishing boundaries.
“You have to recognize that people want to be loved and respected,” Angie said. “The second thing is that you have to have boundaries. I’ve never been someone that had boundaries, so I’ve had to learn to set boundaries. You have to give yourself time away from the job.”
That isn’t always easy in Stuttgart. The Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce estimates duck hunting contributes $1 million per day to the city’s economy during Arkansas’ November-January duck season.
But to understand the significance of ducks and duck hunting to the city of about 9,300 people, just walk down Stuttgart’s Main Street on the weekend after Thanksgiving each year, when the city celebrates all things duck at the annual World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest & Wings Over the Prairie Festival. Visitors outnumber residents by three or four to one, many on an annual pilgrimage to the holy city of duck hunting.
“The people that come into the shop are there because it’s their passion,” Angie said. “We have to always keep in mind that our business is their recreation.”