What the Bass Cat family means to me

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Pete Robbins

After a long day of work at the 2009 Bassmaster Classic, I made a stop at the Bass Cat Boats expo booth near closing time. I try to do that every year, to see the folks who make what I believe to be the best boat on the market today. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not going to pretend to be objective in this column. I’ve owned four Bass Cats, and plan to buy another next year, and I’m partial to the product and the people at the company.

If you ever want to feel bad about your own memory skills, spend some time with BCB President Rick Pierce at a sport show. He remembers everyone and everything. If you bought a used 1992 Pantera in 1994 and sold it in 1996, he knows where you got it, where you sold it, and the color scheme of the boat. But that day he didn’t want to regale me with tales of company successes, or show me the latest products. He wanted to introduce me to his parents, Ron and Jan.

My wife Hanna and I walked over with Rick to meet his parents, who were sitting at a nearby table. I went to shake their hands, and his mom, Jan, said “I don’t shake hands. I give hugs.” With that, she got up and hugged us both. Ron sat and talked with us for 20 minutes, past the time that the show had shut down for the night, mostly about his recent trips to Lake Fork. Even though he was into his 70s, the same passion that drove the engineer to build the company four decades earlier still burned bright in his love for the sport.

At the time, I was truly a nobody in the sport. While I’d worked a few events for B.A.S.S., I wouldn’t work my first Classic for the mothership until the following year in Alabama. I was on my second Cat – one used, one new – but even years earlier, when no one should’ve known my name, when I called the Bass Cat factory in Mountain Home, Arkansas, with a simple question, I was immediately patched through to Rick Pierce. This was and is a special company, and the President has never lost sight of how or why it was founded – when I stepped into their booth, his first inclination was to introduce me to his parents. Ron died on Sunday, at the age of 81, and I know that this is a tough time for not only the Pierces, but also for the extended Bass Cat family.

I spend a lot of time writing about bass fishing – not necessarily about what is wrong with the sport, but rather what could be better about it – and one of the themes that I write about frequently is the inherent tension between our need to grow our numbers and our footprint, and the family atmosphere that keeps us bound closely together. In an era of increased globalization, corporate takeovers and brutal competition, it is easy for a family-owned company to lose its way and to forget its mission. The lasting legacy of Ron Pierce is that even as the industry changed, and even as Bass Cat’s corporate structure and ownership was altered, every boat owner feels less like a customer and more like a member of a distinct family.

When asked about his background, my maternal grandfather frequently replied: “Don’t ask me who my grandparents are. Ask me who my grandchildren are.” Two years ago I was fishing a small Texas lake with Keith Combs when we ran into the newest model of Bass Cat piloted by a clean cut twentysomething young man. We stopped to talk, and I mentioned that I was a longtime Cat owner but hadn’t seen the newest version. Without hesitation, he invited me to test-drive the boat. After a short ride, I shook his hand and introduced myself. “I know who you are,” said Ryder Pierce, Rick’s son and Ron’s grandson. “I really appreciate the things you’ve written about our boats.” The young man was blessed with his father’s incredible memory and his grandparents’ exceptional charm. Things like that don’t happen by accident – creating a great product may not require exactly the same steps as developing a productive citizen, but the processes are not as different as you might initially think. The Pierce family has maintained its integrity and its character across the generations.

If you want to know what the Bass Cat family is all about, look at Facebook today and see all of the loyal Cat owners who’ve changed their profile pictures to their boats. It’s not about the boat, which is an inanimate piece of fiberglass. Instead, it’s an ode to the people behind them, a story that never would have developed without the foresight and character of Ron Pierce. RIP.