A hat maker woos bare-headed world

Company churns out 1.5 million lids a year by concentrating on niche markets

January 16, 2007|By The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- The Bollman Hat Co. factory in Lancaster County, Pa., rumbles and shudders, churning and pounding wool into dense felt for headgear as if naked noggins all over the nation were in dire need of a covering, a fedora, a fez or a 10-gallon hat.

Of course, they are not.

Hats left high office with Eisenhower. And that - along with cheap imports - is part of the reason Bollman is one of just a handful of hat makers surviving out of the hundreds that once operated in the United States.

"When JFK was president, he didn't wear a hat, and that had an influence on men," said Bob DePasqua, a Bollman department head and 30-year employee at the factory.

Still, men's hats and millinery thrive as accessories, costumes, personal statements, safety wear, sunshades, rain deflectors, fish-hook storage racks and bald-spot concealment devices. And Bollman's 500 workers press and stamp to make available about 1.5 million lids per year.

Don Rongione, president and chief executive of the employee-owned company, declined to discuss revenue in detail, but said the company's best year was 2003, when sales reached about $100 million on the popularity of hats in hip-hop fashion. "We're down from there a bit," Rongione said.

Hat fortunes do come and go with fashion's whims. "Indiana Jones really helped our business for a long time [through the 1980s]," DePasqua said of the hard-boiled Harrison Ford movie character who treasured a battered outsized fedora

Bollman has been making hats in Adamstown Borough (population 1,200) since 1868. The brick factory is a maze of machinery designed over the past century to turn tufts of bleached Texas wool into hats.

In the process, the wool is transformed, first into fluffy felt cones on "carding" machines that date from the 1930s.

The uniform woolen cones, stiffened with shellac, gradually take color and shape in a series of dye boilers, rolling, hardening and sanding machines, molds, presses and dryers - ending up as floppy hats, high hats for doormen and bridegrooms, cowboy hats or virtually any conceivable headwear.

"You see those fibers, and you end up with a finished hat. It's fun," DePasqua said.

The U.S. Olympic team sported Bollman hats in the opening ceremonies at Nagano, Japan, in 1998. And the company makes about 12,000 scarlet fezzes each year for the Shriners fraternal order. "That's a neat little niche business we've done," DePasqua said.

The company battles to stay competitive in an environment where imports can sell "for less than half of what it costs us to produce" a hat domestically, said Rongione, the chief executive. "It's a real challenge for domestic manufacturers."

On the East Coast, Bollman is one of the few remaining hat manufacturers - a club that also includes F&M Hat Co. Inc. in Denver, Pa., and Kraft Hat Manufacturers Inc. of New York.

Bollman makes hats under brands - some acquired in recent years - that include Kangol, Bailey, Timberland and Country Gentleman, as well as private labels.

Its toppers are sold in stores that include Wal-Mart, as well as boutiques in New York and Europe, where hats can sell for hundreds of dollars.

In the early 1990s, Bollman made 98 percent of its hats in the U.S., Rongione said. But that figure has fallen to 35 percent, with the rest - including knitted hats and unfinished straw-hat bodies - manufactured in Asia, Mexico and Italy, Rongione said.

Even so, he said, by shifting workers to customer service, distribution and other in-house jobs, domestic employment has remained steady at about 500.

Bollman has been employee-owned since 1985, when managers bought the company from the founding Bollman family.

In addition to the 500,000- square-foot Adamstown factory, the company operates a 132,000-square-foot distribution center about three miles away, near a Pennsylvania Turnpike exit. It also has three showrooms in New York, and one in Fort Worth, Texas.

One man really does wear most of the hats that Bollman produces. He is Jeff Kepple, who oversees the design and production of Bollman prototypes - hats in paisley, festooned with plumage, in psychedelic and experimental colors that defy naming. Hundreds of them are stacked in his small office just off the factory floor.

"We've got to keep coming up with new inventory," said Kepple, 48, who has worked at Bollman since he was 16.

On a recent morning, Kepple sorted through some of the hats in his cubicle, pointing out the bindings and piping, ribbons, holes, buttons, bling, and rubber appliques that set each one apart.

Some may be "old shapes, but we dress 'em up," Kepple said. "We need to be innovative and do things that nobody else is doing."

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