Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

The company is bringing machines back from China to make Kangol hats. But it needs your help.

Don Rongione, president and CEO of Bollman Hat Company in Adamstown, Pa., is turning the tables on the Chinese business model of purchasing American companies and moving them to China piece by piece.

Rongione is buying rare knitting and hat blocking machines from a company in China and shipping the equipment to America’s Bollman Hat Company.

Sometimes, what goes around comes around.

Bollman Hat Company is the oldest hat manufacturer in the United States. It produced its first headwear in 1868, just three years after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. That initial factory was powered by water, because electricity was yet to be used in manufacturing. Before the advent of the automobile, hats were transported by horse and wagon to the railroad stations.

Rongione is now the caretaker of the 142-year-old company, which continues to thrive on its innovation.

Rongione joined Bollman Hats in 1982 and took the reigns as CEO in 2002.

But it was a deal consummated in 2001 that piqued Rongione’s interest. Bollman Hat Company had acquired the global rights to the world-famous Kangol brand of hats, and soon after began making a small portion of the felt and straw hats at its facility in Pennsylvania.

“This equipment is well-travelled but had never been to America. So, in keeping with the fashion trends, and availability of this rare, specialized English-made machinery, we are in the process of moving it to our factory in Adamstown.” Don Rongione, Bollman Hat Company

One problem: Kangol was famous for its knitted blocked hats, and the Pennsylvania facility did not have the ability to produce the iconic style. The machinery for the process was no longer being built.

Rongione soon discovered that by acquiring the rights to Kangol hats, he also had access to the rare knitting machines that were custom built in England in 1938.

“When we acquired the rights to Kangol in 2001, we bought all the operating assets,” Rongione said. “Not the intellectual property, just all the operating assets. Along with that, there was a factory in China that we then owned as a result of the acquisition of the assets. We sold that factory in 2006 to another Chinese hat maker and they advised us about two-and-a-half years ago that they were going to discontinue their operation.

“They were actually moving some of their manufacturing to Bangladesh but they weren’t going to be moving the knitting and blocking machines of the Kangol product. They gave us a two-year lease on the factory and its equipment. These rare knitting and blocking machines were purpose-built in England and moved by the previous northern England owners of Kangol to the China factory.

“This equipment is well-travelled but had never been to America. So, in keeping with the fashion trends, and availability of this rare, specialized English-made machinery, we are in the process of moving it to our factory in Adamstown.”

Looking for Motherfunding Kickstarter Backers

Bollman Hat Company has already moved 20 major pieces of machinery by way of shipping containers to the United States with a goal of importing another 80 of the special knitting machines.

But it is an expensive process.

The equipment will cost about $650,000 to buy and transport to Adamstown, 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. There will also be additional costs for the electrical conversions. Bollman has invested $350,000 in the investment so far, but is looking for a little help from outside the company.

The company is using a Kickstarter campaign to raise an additional $100,000 to offset the costs of bringing the machinery and jobs to America. The campaign video features actor Samuel L. Jackson, one of Kangol’s most loyal supporters.

Wearing a T-shirt that reads “Motherfunder,” Jackson says: “I wear Kangol and my grandfather wore Kangol. Let’s help bring Kangol jobs to America. Let’s do this motherfunders.”

Jackson isn’t alone in his love for Kangol. Brad Pitt, Bill Murray, Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Kid Rock, Madonna and Miley Cyrus have been known to adorn the Kangol lids.

But award-winning actor Jackson is all-in when it comes to Kangol hats. He donated his time for the Kickstarter video free of charge, autographed many of his golf-logo inspired hats for the company and promoted the product — not only for the love of its style but also because moving production will create more American jobs.

An American-Made Movement

Besides the limited edition hats inspired by Jackson, the Kangol signature brand logo is a kangaroo. For most of Bollman’s history, headwear was produced for a private-label customers including the more modern Rag & Bone hats or outdoor retailers such as Orvis and Cabela’s.

“We didn’t have the brand identity,” said Rongione. “It was a situation where we would make hats for anybody.

“Well, mostly the hats in the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, when we started to see more imports coming from China, we couldn’t compete on the most cost-competitive levels. So when China gained Most Favored Nation status, that’s when we really felt the pain because we lost large customers who took all of their production to China. We had to really painfully downsize our factory and at that time we lost over 100 employees.

“That led me to conceive “American Made Matters,” which was launched on July 4 of 2009. American Made Matters has a mission to educate consumers on the importance of buying U.S. made products to strengthen the American Dream. We now have nearly 400 members in 45 of the 50 United States who produce things in the states in our part of the American Made Matters initiative.

“Outsourcing to Asia was not a strategic objective. We just lost market share and then what we did was start to acquire brand identities because for the first 100 years we were a private label hat maker. We made a decision at some point to control our own destiny. We needed to have our own brand identities so we could connect directly with the consumer. Kangol is a good example of that.”

Bollman will be sourcing its world-class wool from its Bollman Industries in San Angelo, Texas. It is one of the few scouring operations in North America. The classic wool 504 is the original Kangol cap. First introduced in 1954, the 100 percent seamless cap is the ultimate headwear for comfort and style.

Bollman Hat Company is an employee-owned company and all U.S. workers become owners of the company through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).  Bollman employees construct more than 20,000 styles of hats when you include different types of felts, straws, trims, outside bands and now knits and blocking. It has increased its own brands to nearly 5,000 different styles.

Bollman has 300 employees worldwide, about 200 of which are based in Pennsylvania and about 130 of those work in the factory. It expects to add an additional 40 jobs once the Kangol hat project is fully up and running. Bollman is also bringing in people from the United Kingdom who formerly operated these machines and know how to take care of them.

Bollman and Kangol hats are in a variety of major retail stores, including Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. Bollman hats can be found online  and Kangol products are available on a special website.

You can support the Samuel L. Jackson-backed Kickstarter campaign here.