You might think that shortly after Robert Eddins unlocks the office door to clock in at RO Drift Boats, drinks coffee and checks his email he clocks back out and goes fishing.

But that’s pretty far from the truth. Really, none of those working at the Four Corners manufacturing facility leave early to answer the river’s call either.

“I used to really pride myself on having just a whole building full of good fishermen. Not a lot of them are still here. Too close to home, man. They start to smell the excitement on these guys’ faces coming to pick up their boats and going fishing,” Eddins said.

The drift boat building company was born out of the Eddins family’s love of fishing. Eddins and his father, Roy, sunk their drift boat on the Fall River in 1990 shortly after the family got out of the agriculture business. For the next five or so years, Roy tooled around with building drift boats. Neighbors started asking him to build them boats until one day a friend showed up with a check and said that Roy needed to start a drift boat manufacturing business.

“I thought he was crazy,” said Eddins, who at that time was working at fly shops and as a sales representative for big name manufacturers in the fishing industry.

Eddins and his wife, Jane, came around to the idea, however, and bought the company from his parents in late 2005 after Christmas day negotiations that involved a “plan and a promise and a handshake,” Eddins said. They moved it to Belgrade in 2006 and to its current location in Four Corners in 2007.

The company, whose name is pronounced “row” and is based on his father’s childhood nickname, grew steadily in the following years and involved the whole family. One of Eddins’ brothers builds the company’s trailers, another builds boats and another is an attorney who has drawn up most of the company’s corporate documents and contracts.

The recession hit RO Drift Boats hard. Business dropped off 62 percent after 2008. He estimates that more than 90 percent of the sales done by the company between 2006 and 2008 were financed in some way by a real estate transaction. Eddins laid off nine people in one day after the bottom fell out of the market.

“We were fortunate. We didn’t really owe anybody any money. We just tucked in our horns. Everybody made some sacrifices,” he said. “We’re not selling snow tires and milk and light bulbs. We’re selling stuff that’s fun. They’re not needs, they’re wants.”

It wasn’t until 18 months ago that things started to turn around and clients typical of pre-recession times — well-heeled recent retirees affectionately referred to as “Dr. and Mrs. Johnson” — started turning up at the door again, Eddins said.

The company made it out of the throes of the recession stronger, it seems. RO is on pace to sell more boats in the month of May than it did in the first three years that Eddins owned it. It employs about 11 people, almost at full pre-recession level.

Currently there are about 60 boats on the docket for RO, which primarily builds boats to order, though it builds a few boats on speculation during the winter. Orders tend to roll in while various fishing seasons cross the country. In the fall, winter and early spring, orders tend to come from the south and northeast, from the Great Lakes during the mid-to-late spring steelhead runs and orders in the summer come from around the Rocky Mountain west.

And while the approach Eddins takes to running RO has changed from a more personal one emphasizing connections with employees to a more formal business-like one, the feel of owning a business and seeing it succeed remains as concentrated and thrilling as the first time he saw someone he didn’t know rowing one of the boats down the Madison River.

“I was driving from Bozeman to Ennis and I saw a boat on the lower Madison. It was back before I had a cell phone, so I stopped at Norris and called my dad,” Eddins said. “It was a big exciting time in my family, probably around ’96 or ’97.”

Article by: Jason Bacaj < a href=””>