Rongione is CEO of Lancaster County’s Bollman Hat Co., so his joy shouldn’t have been surprising.
The hats were props handed out Thursday as part of Mantec Inc.’s “Proud to Manufacture in PA” event, an annual gathering designed to spotlight the region’s manufacturing sector as part of state and national commemorations underscoring the industry’s importance to the U.S. and Pennsylvania economies.
York-based Mantec serves as consultant and resource center for business in southcentral Pennsylvania, with a particular focus on manufacturing.
More than just symbolizing the product Rongione’s company has turned out since 1868, the fedoras and caps perched on heads across the dining room also helped the industry veteran make an important point about his business philosophy, and how Bollman came to bring production of the iconic Kangol brand from China to its Adamstown plant.
You have to lead “not just with your heart, but with your head,” Rongione told area manufacturing and business executives gathered at the Clarion Inn in Fairview Township, York County.
For Rongione and Bollman, that formula led them to raise funds to transport heavy, specialized equipment from China to Lancaster County because they wanted to manufacture hats in America. An analysis of the move suggested that it could be profitable.
The story of that project was one of the themes touched upon during six hours of activities and talks about manufacturing in Pennsylvania.
In addition to Rongione’s speech there were workshops on automation, lean manufacturing (a philosophy of efficiency and teamwork throughout the production process), additive manufacturing (which encompasses 3-D printing) and the state of manufacturing standards.
Rongione was the keynote speaker for a gathering that also included remarks from Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry Kathy Manderino, Mantec President and CEO John Lloyd and Central Penn Business Journal Publisher Scott Downs.
CPBJ was media partner for the event, which was sponsored by the Nauman Smith law firm, Onexia Inc. and PNC Bank.
At nearly 150 years old, Bollman is America’s oldest hat manufacturer.
“We didn’t invent the hat,” he quipped, although the company is the longest continuous maker in the country.
All U.S.-based Bollman employees are owners through an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, which began in 1985, Rongione explained.
“It’s an important part of our culture,” he said.
Rongione, a Philadelphia native, earned his bachelor’s degree in management and accounting from LaSalle College in his hometown. After becoming a certified public accountant, he worked for KPMG in the city before joining Bollman in 1982. He started as controller, and worked in several roles before being named president, CEO and chairman in 2002.
That was a time when change was in the wind, for Bollman and for American manufacturing.
In December 2001, China was granted permanent “most favored nation” trading status by the U.S. That move, which was the final step toward normalizing trade relations with the Asian superpower, would have a dramatic effect on U.S. manufacturers, including Bollman, as the importation of lower-cost Chinese goods swelled.
This would lead to painful downsizing for Bollman, Rongione said, but also introspection about how to thrive in such a landscape.
The basic process of hatmaking has been unchanged for at least 50 years — there has been some automation, but much is still done by hand, Rongione said. And he does not see that as a bad thing.
“It is very labor-intensive, which means we create lots of jobs,” Rongione added.
The company needed to find new ways of marketing its American-made hats in an increasingly competitive landscape.
Bollman had been a private label producer for much of its history. The company has branched out into its own labels, as well as marketing its products through the hats.com website.
Another change from 2001 would ultimately lead to one of Bollman’s most high-profile moves: In that year, Bollman acquired the license to design, produce and distribute the Kangol line.
Worn by some of the world’s most-recognized celebrities — including LL Cool J, Samuel L. Jackson, and Miley Cyrus — distinctive Kangol hats trace their roots to pre-World War II England. But by the early 21st century, the brand’s previous owners had moved production to China.
So Bollman now had its hands on a global fashion icon, but one that was manufactured thousands of miles from Lancaster County.
The Chinese manufacturer eventually was looking at a shutdown, which left Bollman considering whether it would make sense to make the distinctive knit hats in America. Or as Rongione puts it, to “shore” them, since they cannot be called “re-shored” as they were never made here.
Analysis suggested lower transportation and brokerage costs for domestic production could make the move worthwhile. And there were other benefits, Rongione said, including growth opportunities for Bollman’s employee-owners; better control over intellectual property and design innovations; and better control over the supply chain process.
Succeed in that, and the company could benefit by improving speed to market and would have greater ability to make smaller batches to keep up with changing fashion trends.
“We live in the world of the quick and the dead,” Rongione said of the apparel industry. “And if we’re not fast, we’re going to be dead.”
There was one weighty issue.
Unique knitting machines used to make the wool hats were built exclusively for Kangol in the 1930s and 1940s, officials noted last year, after Bollman laboriously moved 10 of them to America and completed the required electrical conversion. That left 80 still in China, and a bill of $600,000 to get them over here.
A $60,000 Pennsylvania First grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development would help, and Bollman committed hundreds of thousands of dollars of its own money. The company also looked to social media for some help.
Last fall, the company launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to generate $100,000 toward the project. It came complete with celebrity backing, and its own hashtag: #motherfunder, based on one of supporter Samuel L. Jackson’s best known (if less printable) exclamations.
By January, 671 backers pledged $102,820. By June, Bollman ended its final regular Kickstarter blog post with the headline, “Woohoo! Hats are shipping, Motherfunders!”
Today, Rongione said, the company is producing 1,200 Kangols a week. The company, which employs about 300 people worldwide and 200 in Pennsylvania, was able to add about 21 jobs through the project.
Rongione said Bollman is working to reduce production costs, but is glad the project is off and running.
He advised the audience to do whatever they could to support U.S. manufacturing, from making a point to buy American to considering shoring and reshoring projects of their own.
“Never stop exploring,” Rongione said. “And never stop wearing a hat.”