Bollman Hat Co. finds ways to target new customers

David O'Connor//July 28, 2017

Bollman Hat Co. finds ways to target new customers

David O'Connor//July 28, 2017

Nearby, Bollman’s property includes the barn, built in 1809, where they housed the horses that pulled the carts sending Bollman hats into the world.

But a trip to America’s oldest hatmaker – Bollman was founded in 1868 – is not just a trip into a world of nostalgia.

Don Rongione, its president and CEO since 2002, is planning a resurgence of his employee-owned company, relying on things like internet sales and a growing popularity of hats among millennials, to keep it going.

He knows it’s a constant struggle, which is why he’s adding to one traditional source of business for Bollman that has been going downhill — selling company hats to the traditional brick-and-mortar retail store — by opening his own store.

The first Bollman Hat store, a small (1,000 square feet) location just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, recently held its soft opening in Santa Monica, Calif., with its grand opening planned within the next few weeks.

Bollman continues to sell its products to stores, boutiques and other retail locations, but to Rongione, the new Southern California venture is just one more innovation to boost the Bollman brand and profits in a time filled with struggles for manufacturers and hatmakers.

He also is trying to reduce the costs of making Kangol hats, one of 10 brands that Bollman either owns or licenses — it also does private-label production for dozens of other companies.

He wears a Bollman hat every day to work and to public events. It bought the domain name hats.com, an easy-to-remember handle, in 1999 and launched the site in 2001.

“We had the foresight that selling online would be an important way to connect with consumers, show our brands and get product feedback,” Rongione said, adding that this section of its business continues to grow.

Native Philadelphian Rongione oversees a company of 260 employees, 150 of them at the factory and headquarters.

The company had 1,000 employees at its peak 40 years ago, and Rongione knows the obstacles of being an American manufacturer and hatmaker in 2017: “We’ve been surviving more than thriving in a lot of the years of our existence,” said Rongione, who declines to give Bollman’s revenue figures, although he does say the company is profitable, but just barely.

“The hat business has gone through some pretty significant up and down cycles. In the 1950s, a man didn’t leave the house without wearing a hat, but in the 1960s, we were all wearing longer hair, and we didn’t want to wear a hat, we didn’t want to cover up our hair.

“Clearly, we’ve survived those times, and we’re still trying to survive, because we’re seeing a decline in our traditional customer base, the department stores,” he said.

Rongione, who this month turned 60, joined Bollman in 1982 as company controller, later serving as vice president of operations and COO before he became its CEO in 2002.

Industry analysts who know of the struggles hatmakers face – labor and production expenses, the decline of the department store, to name two – give Bollman a good chance to keep making a go of it.

Driven by rising public awareness of skin cancer and other factors, the global market for hats and caps is growing, reports Global Industry Analysts Inc., a San Jose, Calif. business strategy and marketing firm.

The report noted that the U.S. is the world’s largest worldwide market for hats, and improving economic conditions, improving employment and more discretionary spending on clothing and accessories are spurring growth in the industry here.

Bollman has spent more than $1 million to bring production of Kangol hats, the stylish beret- and cap-style hat favored by celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson, to the U.S. from China in 2016.

Bollman has brought 120 pieces of equipment, mostly knitting machines, from the facility in Panyu, China to make the hats, and Rongione admits there have been struggles, including malfunctioning equipment and higher labor costs here, that have made Kangol a financial headache for Bollman, at least at the start.

Bollman aims to create at least 40 new jobs through bringing Kangol to the U.S., and is about halfway to its goal, Rongione said.

It can be too easily forgotten that speed to market is a critical issue in the fashion industry, he said: “Even though the cost is currently two times what it would be if we were making it (Kangol) there and bringing it here, when we run out of certain colors and sizes, within two hours we can have it reproduced and shipped to a customer, and we could have never done that if it was made in China.

”I am optimistic that we will get our U.S. cost to be close to the landed China cost,” he added.

Including the Kangols, some 800 dozen hats a week come out of Bollman’s half-a-million-square-foot manufacturing plant – a small percentage of the number Bollman produced in its peak years.

Bollman, which does 60 percent of its business in the U.S., also has a 132,000-square-foot distribution center on Denver Road in Lancaster County.

Bollman hats are sold in 70 countries and every U.S. state, and Rongione is excited about the potential for the new Santa Monica venture. Bollman owns the store and will split the profits with the store manager, a man who has had a hat store in Santa Monica for 17 years.

Amy Spangler

Rongione called it a concept store and hopes it gives his company a new outlet to directly reach consumers while also promoting the hatmaker’s brand and proud history: “We’re going to learn from that store what works and what doesn’t work.”

Rongione encourages those who work for him to give their input, said his executive assistant, Carly Glasmyre.

“Don’s passion is engaging, and it’s an exciting part of this job. And it’s very exciting to work for someone who really listens, and welcomes feedback,” said Glasmyre, who has worked for Rongione since early 2016.

Rongione, who meets regularly with employees, feels that being an approachable, friendly leader is an important part of leading a business: “We have to engage our employees, or in my case, employee-owners, in the process of understanding the challenges of the business and using not just their hands and their back every day, but their minds and spirits as well, to create a better product and build a better customer experience.

“I have to be a cheerleader for that, to some degree. And I have to be visible, telling the stories both internally and externally.”

The loss of its jobs from years past at Bollman has meant less revenue from the company for Adamstown’s municipal government, a borough council member said.

“We anticipated the downsizing, adjusted our expenses and now find ourselves no longer having the heavy reliance on industry in general and Bollman’s specifically,” said Councilwoman Cindy Schweitzer.

Bollman, along with Goods Chips and Hope Hoisery Mills (which is no longer in existence) provided employment to most of the residents of Adamstown, she continued, and many residents had parents or siblings who worked for one of the companies.

Bollman Hat went above and beyond its civic duty and donated to the borough the land that now is the Adamstown Grove and Adamstown Pool, she added.

“Bollman Hat and Adamstown Borough will always go hand in hand – or should I say, ‘Hat in hand,’” she added.

And Rongione is confident that Bollman can continue, especially as it embraces technology like e-commerce, its own retail store and other innovations: “If anyone can do it, we can.”