Article by Joe Lee
Photos provided by Tom Wiley
Tom Wiley knows without a doubt that had he been busier on the overnight shift as an ER nurse more than two decades ago, his career path could have turned out much differently –and Flextone Game Calls, a brand known far and wide, might not exist.
“I worked 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at Oktibbeha County Hospital,” said Wiley, a 1995 graduate of Mississippi University for Women with a degree in nursing.“There were bad things that happened occasionally, emergencies, but most of the time overnight there wasn’t much going on.”
“I would braid duck call lanyards to carry around your neck if I was caught up on my shift work. I would then trade the lanyards for shotgun shells and coats to support my duck-calling addiction. One day I was walking out of The Southern Sportsman with a parka and was asked if I made duck calls. That got my wheels turning.”
Wiley said that when a patient who’d been injured in a car accident was brought into the emergency room one night, the ER team put a pleurovac unit in him (which inflates the lungs).
“It has vinyl tubing which goes down to a water seal tank,” Wiley said. “I was cleaning up the trauma room and saw the tubing. That was where I got the idea for the duck calls using flexible materials.”
An avid outdoorsman and hunter growing up, Wiley realized very quickly that a great product or idea is only part of the equation when launching a business.
“I originally applied for the patent in late 1997. It was granted in 2000,” Wiley said. “In those days, retail trade shows were a productive form of advertising, long before the internet was a big part of commerce. So I worked a lot of retail trade shows and made sales calls myself.”
“I was at the Ducks Unlimited Great Outdoors Festival in Memphis, and someone with (the now-defunct) Herter’s company came by my booth and fell in love with my first flexible duck call. They had a big catalog back in the day, and the Bass Pro Shops buyer called me as soon as it hit the Herter’s catalog. After Bass Pro Shops, there was Cabela’s.”
“Those things really catapulted the company,” Wiley said. “When we got into deer calls, it opened up a better revenue stream because of the size of the deer-hunting market.”
All these years later, Wiley is able to work from his office in Starkville on new products and be completely free of all the hats he wore at the outset. He remains deeply appreciative of the folks who were there for him in the beginning.
“I really had a lot of help,” Wiley said. “I found an injection molder who was interested in duck hunting. Without him amortizing the cost of the molds, I never would have had the funding to build them. I met another man who was between jobs, a former vice-president of marketing for a multi-million-dollar company, who helped with my marketing pro bono.”
The Duck Dynasty TV series brought a lot of attention to game calls, but Wiley met members of the Robertson family years ago and even designed, manufactured and sold the Buck Commander line of deer calls – including a few with Si Robertson’s name on them.
At present, Wiley is in the patent process with a company called Montana Decoy for a turkey decoy he designed. If all goes well, that product will launch in a year and join other Flextone game calls on the shelves of Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Academy Sports, Oktibbeha County Co-op and The Sports Center in the Golden Triangle area.
“I really am proud that most game calls sold on the market today – especially in the deer call category – include flexible materials,” Wiley said. “Prior to my invention, all game calls had been made of hard plastic or wood. We really did change the whole category. And I’m not about to take all the credit for it. I had a tremendous amount of help along the way.”