Posted originally on Forbes, an article by Pamela N. Danziger
Football player Brian Dawkins (Credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
If you need convincing that hats are back look no further than this September’s issue of Oprah magazine, featuring Oprah wearing a stylish golden fedora from The Salting, which just launched its unisex fashion line heavy into hats online and in two pop-up shops in Tribeca’s 180 and Sag Harbor’s Sylvester & Co.
Or Brian Dawkins at the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2018 enshrinement ceremony, where he captured both the sports and fashion world with his inspiring speech and equally inspiring fashion statement wearing his honey-colored fedora styled to match his jacket. Full disclosure: I am not a football fan and had never heard of Brian Dawkins. But when I saw him on cable news, I took notice. He looked so cool in that hat.
Digging deeper, I discovered both Oprah and Dawkins have one company to thank for their standout looks, Bollman Hat Company, right next door to me in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. So I called up Don Rongione, president and CEO of Bollman Hat Company, to learn more about the company and why hats are making a comeback. For me, anything that puts people into real hats and gets them out of baseball caps is welcome.
America’s longest history in hats
Bollman Hat Company is celebrating its 150th anniversary, being founded in 1868 right after the Civil War. It is now the oldest continually operating hat company in America.
Long a supplier of private label hats, both finished hats and unshaped felted wool hat bodies, Bollman Hats have covered many famous Hollywood actors including such hat-style icons as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire and today, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicole Kidman.
Employees are family
For three generations of the Bollman family, Bollman Hat Company was family owned, but when the fourth generation had no interest staying active in the business, the company was sold to a group of its managers. They brought in Rongione in 1982 as their retirement was approaching and asked him to develop a succession plan for the business.
Becoming an employee-owned business was Rongione’s answer. “I researched and proposed an employee-stock ownership plan that was adopted in 1985 to continue our company’s legacy of caring about our employees,” he shared.
Today, 70% of the company is owned by the ESOP where all U.S.-based employees participate in a qualified retirement and stock ownership plan and 30% is held by a group of six company managers, including Rongione.
The inspiration for the ESOP was the company’s long history trying to provide for its employees. For example, the third-generation Bollman family shared a a wage dividend with its former employees serving in World War II. It was a way to stay in touch with those serving overseas and show gratitude for their sacrifice.
That culture continues strong to this day. “Caring is part of our culture that existed long before the ESOP and has permeated throughout our history,” Rongione says. “It is part of who we are.”
Bollman is now a family of brands
In order not to alienate its extensive private label business, supplying hats to some of the biggest names in the hat and fashion business, Bollman stayed under the radar as a brand.
So to grow and keep its factory and 300 employees working, it decided acquiring established hat brands was the way forward. “We have acquired what most of our customers believe is the best collection of brands in the hatwear business,” Rongione boasts.
First came Bailey Hat Company, acquired in 1986. Its Western collection was a favorite of Roy Rogers and other western heroes, as well as modern cowboy/musician Kenny Chesney. Its Bailey of Hollywood collection meanwhile, was worn by classic movie stars – Humphrey Bogart wore Bailey in “Casablanca.”
Bailey hats are also favored by many contemporary celebs, including Pete Townshend of The Who, Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake and more. Bailey of Hollywood hats are carried by Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, along with high-end fashion boutiques.
British brand Kangol joined the company in 2001 when Bollman acquired its global operating assets and headwear rights. “Kangol cap has become the ‘uniform’ for Samuel L. Jackson and is a brand worn by LL Cool J, Eminem and many others in the rap and music industry,” he says, but it has an equally notable history as the supplier for the armed forces in World War II, favored by Field Marshall “Monty” Montgomery.
Australian-fashion brand Helen Kaminski brought a wider range of fashion accessories in 2007, including bags, scarves and soon jewelry. All told, Bollman owns and produces 10 different brands. And while it proudly wears its Made in America heritage, it is now an international company sourcing 65% of its products globally and producing 35% here.
Sporting Bollman’s hats
Besides Hollywood and music celebrities, Bollman can lay claim to being the hatmaker for some of the past and present Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles players, having established a long-term relationship with the team. Rongione points out though that Bollman is not an official NFL license holder.
“My wife and sons attended the Eagles training camp at Lehigh University years ago and took along our catalogs for them,” he shared. “A couple of weeks later we got a call from Hugh Douglas, one of the players, and we started getting all of the players’ sizes and sending them hats. Brian Dawkins was one of those players and so our relationship began.”
When Dawkins got the call from Canton about joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Rongione reached out to him and a collaboration was born. Bollman and Dawkins worked together to produce a personally-designed Fedora and knitted cap for the Brian Dawkins Collection , to be sold at his official website and on hats.com, Bollman’s company site.
Today the company is pivoting again to create its own brand identity. “For the first 120 years, we didn’t have a brand identity, but it became obvious that we needed to build our own brand,” Rongione explains.
To that end, the company has introduced a Bollman Makers Collection, a line of a dozen men’s and women’s hats (24 in total), each named after one of the company’s employee-owners who have served the company for 35 years or more. “These are Panama hats and elite wool felt hats each with a very different style that sell for $200,” he notes.
The Bollman Makers Collection are sold online, as well as being given a place of presence in the company’s new concept store in Santa Monica, California. “We’ve long operated a factory outlet store in Adamstown, but this is the first official Bollman Hat Company store located in an old brick-façade building near the beach on Main Street next to restaurants and other boutiques,” he says.
The company store grew from a partnership with a prominent local hat retailer, Fedora Primo, that over the years found its selection narrowing to carry mostly Bollman brands.
“The owner told me that his store might as well be a Bollman store, so a discussion ensued. The new concept store opened about a year ago. Given the proximity to L.A. and so many people in the music and performing arts, it is a great place for hats,” Rongione explains.
Hats come back
The long history of the hat business has had many ups and downs, Rongione shares. It was a part of people’s daily uniform from 1868 through about 1958 when everything changed. “There are a lot of theories about why hats lost favor, including how the roof lines in cars dropped or that JFK never wore a hat,” he says.
“Then in the ’60s, the Baby Boomer generation shunned them, not wanting to look like their fathers or maybe to show off their long hair. Whatever the reason, since then the hat business has been trend driven with many highs and lows where we had to scale up and down quickly,” he continues.
“But now it is cool again to wear hats,” Rongione happily exclaims, and obviously Oprah, Brian Dawkins, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J and many others agree. “We design hats for fashion, fun and function,” he says, adding that popular styles has exploded to include pork pies, trilbies, stingy brims, bucket hats, flat caps and the ever-popular classic Fedora. “We make them all.”
Rongione shares that sales are up 16% year-over-year and that all its brands are enjoying the return of hats. And the trend is taking hold not just in the U.S. and Australia, but across the globe in Japan, Korea, Italy and France.
The only thing holding back the hat business is that the average Joe or Jane may not have the confidence to stand out in a crowd by donning a stylish hat. “People often feel self-conscious being the only person wearing a hat,” Rongione says.
But Bollman has enough breadth in style, design and price point to provide gateway hats that allow people to transition from baseball caps to flat caps and on to a sophisticated brimmed hat. “It may take some courage, but once people get enough compliments, they begin to realize that they are a hat guy or gal,” he believes.