The Conversation: Don Rongione, Bollman Hat Co.
Tuesday July 1, 2014 12:01 AM
Bollman Hat Co.: Number of employees, 280 at facilities on four continents, most at the Lancaster County facilities in Adamstown and Denver; 2013 revenue, undisclosed; hats produced per week in Adamstown, 12,000; headquarters, 110 E. Main St., Adamstown.
Background: Management and accounting degrees, La Salle College, 1979; accountant for firm now known as KPMG; joined Bollman Hat Co. in 1982 as controller; promoted to vice president, then chief operating officer; became CEO, president and chairman in 2002.
Personal: age, 56; wife, Dr. Maryellen Kueny; four sons, two grandchildren; residence, Cumru Township.
Hobbies: running, exercise, sports, music, beach vacations.
Recently read book about business or leadership: “CEO Lifelines: Nine Commitments Every Leader Must Make” by Salvatore Fazzolari; “Good to Great,” By Jim Collins.
Best piece of management advice: “Be honest, transparent and sincere in what you do. People will react positively to that.”
What is the No. 1 challenge you’re dealing with at your company right now:“The No. 1 challenge is all the financial resources required to do the things we aspire to do. To build brands globally, particularly with the number of brands we have, requires a tremendous amount of investment, particularly financial investment, to expand those brands in the targeted markets.”
From felt top hats to stylish lids for a night out on the town with friends, Bollman Hat Co. has you literally covered as one of the oldest apparel companies in the U.S. Changing fashion and economic trends haven’t always made hat manufacturing easy, but the future looks good, said Don Rongione, the company’s president, CEO and chairman. Rongione has been at the forefront of the American Made Matters movement, an effort to promote the value and importance of products made in the U.S.
Business Weekly: How is the hat industry going these days?
Don Rongione: More young people are wearing hats, which is a great sign for our industry overall because we can attract younger people to wear brimmed hats and fashion caps more than just baseball caps. I think it bodes well for our industry.
BW: What are some of the struggles within the hat industry?
DR: For us, it’s been imports from low-cost producing nations, namely China, that are increasing market share at the most cost-effective levels of our industry. We’re America’s oldest hat maker. We’ve been producing hats here in Pennsylvania, in Adamstown, since 1868, and we’re not a low-cost producer. We produce a quality product that sells at the mid- to upper tiers of the marketplace. So when China gained most-favored trading status, there was a plethora of Chinese hats coming into this country, and it just made things really difficult to compete. So we lost Wal-Mart, which was a $5 million customer. We lost Dorfman Pacific, which was a California-based headwear customer of ours, to imports. We found that very challenging to rebound from, and we had to downsize significantly in our U.S. factory, which led us to found American Made Matters.
BW: You’ve been a strong advocate for domestic manufacturing. What are your thoughts on the recent reshoring trends?
DR: I’m really excited by the reshoring trends because it shows there’s an impact from the American-made movement that we’ve been a leader of and a part of over the past five years since we started American Made Matters. More and more companies are reshoring their manufacturing because they are finding it more competitive to produce in the United States, which bodes well for creating jobs, (having) stronger communities, (fewer) people with need in society, the independence and security of our country and more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. And (needing) less energy to transport the product to market. So all of those factors enter into a very exciting reshoring trend.
BW: That brings us to a good point. You have that commitment from Wal-Mart to source more of its products from domestic manufacturers, but I haven’t seen a lot of other retailers follow suit. Are you seeing any change in how retailers approach what’s on their shelves?
DR: Yes, I’m seeing it more with smaller retailers than the national retailers. I think I’m skeptical of Wal-Mart’s commitment. It sounds great, and I really hope they follow through on it. I think time will tell. Our personal experience with Wal-Mart has been: When we presented to them our U.S.-made products recently after they announced this initiative, they said we love your products, it’s great, if you can meet the price that we’re currently buying it from China, we’ll buy it from you. Then they’re asking U.S. makers to hit price points that are the same as what they’re able to source from China or the other Asian countries. That’s just not practical in U.S. manufacturing. Time will tell, but I’m a little skeptical just because of our company’s own experience here.
BW: Looks like there are substantially more members to American Made Matters. What’s the latest with that movement?
DR: We have 280 members in 43 of the 50 states, so we’ve grown dramatically in the last few years. We’re coming up to our fifth anniversary on July 4. We just announced an American Made Matters Day ambassadors program. What we’re trying to do is create ambassadors for American Made Matters in every town and city around the United States. And on American Made Matters Day we’re asking consumers to buy at least one thing made in the United States. We’ll have local events in these towns conducted by the ambassadors.
BW: What are the future plans for Bollman locally? Do you have any modernization or expansion plans?
DR: First all, we are refocusing our three top brands, our Bailey, Helen Kaminski and Kangol, and we developed five-year brand plans to try to grow those in targeted markets throughout the world. We’ve expanded our public relations reach and are expanding our efforts in social media marketing. We’re looking at more lean initiatives in this factory. We also have an innovation engineering process under way that we’re working with Mantec, our local manufacturing resource center, to develop other products that can be made in this factory beyond hats. Felt audio panels for sound absorption, felt filters that can be used for kitchen and other applications. We’re trying to take the technology that we’ve had here for 100 years and apply it to other markets.- Interview by Jim T. Ryan