America first: Collaboration caps off new Bollman operation

By on September 14, 2016
Don Rongione (left), president and CEO of Bollman Hats, Adamstown, and Neal Stewart, vice president of marketing at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, stand before the newly-named Dogfish Thread Knitting Mill, a part of Bollman Hat Co. in Adamstown. Photo by Donna Reed

Don Rongione (left), president and CEO of Bollman Hats, Adamstown, and Neal Stewart, vice president of marketing at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, stand before the newly-named Dogfish Thread Knitting Mill, a part of Bollman Hat Co. in Adamstown. Photo by Donna Reed

Under the hot sun and indoors amid stifling temperatures and high humidity last Thursday, Sept. 8, more than 150 folks bore the elements with smiles and hope at Adamstown’s venerable Bollman Hat Co.

The reason for celebration: the new Kangol hat production unit of the company was officially unveiled. The officially christened Dogfish Thread Knitting Mill reflects the partnership of the 20-year-old Dogfish Head Craft Brewery with America’s oldest hat manufacturer.

Having the iconic international headwear made in Adamstown not only puts the borough on the fashion world map, but also puts more individuals to work in an American factory whose origins go back to 1868.

The machinery fitted to create these caps which have graced the heads of celebrities like the Beatles, the late Princess Diana, Brad Pitt, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Nicole Kidman, Samuel L. Jackson, and a variety of rap and hip-hop artists, is both well weathered and well traveled.

And, as Don Rongione, Bollman president and chief executive officer notes, bringing the equipment to Lancaster County was no easy feat physically or fiscally.

“It’s been quite a journey for sure,” he said.

The Kangol hat, with its unique wool construction, has its origins in 1938 northern England with entrepreneur Jacques Spreiegen.

The machinery integral to the original knitted blocked method of producing the hats was first employed 75 years ago in Great Britain. The hats were British-made through the 1990s until a Chinese hatmaker bought the business and the machinery was ultimately shipped to Panyu, China.

Kangol itself is not new to Bollman; the company acquired the global licensing rights in 2001. But after the Chinese owner looked to close the plant and move production to cheaper labor in Bangladesh, Bollman officials worried about quality control and began efforts to bring the equipment to Adamstown.

With a projected cost of more than $600,000 (it’s actually now approaching $1 million) to dismantle, ship, and reassembly and electronically refit the equipment for the Adamstown plant, Bollman undertook a Kickstarter campaign in which officials hoped to raise $100,000 toward the cost. A Governor’s Action Team Grant and others also helped the effort.

Jackson, a true Kangol aficiando who has had specialty hats made for himself, friends, and golf tournaments, volunteered to make a video supporting Bollman with a “Motherfunder” tagline.

The video helped the company plow towards the goal. But it was officials at Delaware-based Dogfish who stepped in with enough funds to purchase the naming rights for the newly established Kangol knitting mill within the old rambling factory.

According to Rongione and Neal Stewart, Dogfish vice president of marketing, Kangol and Bollman were “a great fit” with the brewery’s philosophy of merchandising Dogfish products with other American-made items.

In total, there were more than 100 Kangol knitting machines in the China plant, 85 of which were operational with the others used for spare parts (the style machine is no longer made). In the Adamstown unit, 10 of those machines are now up and running. And, most importantly, 40 new jobs have been or will be created.

Still, the costs of producing the hats remain challenging domestically, Rongione admitted.

There is still some Kangol manufacturing in China for cost-effective supply to the Asian market.

There are a variety of Kangol hats, but the ones made in Adamstown are its most recognized, the Kangol 504 in wool and tropic yarn. In time, Rongione looks to Bollman to produce as many of the 60 styles as possible, sans the baseball cap.

Rongione said specialty hats for a more upscale market are critical for the line’s success. The cost of labor in the U.S. makes a good profit margin challenging, he said.

And the rapid trends in the specialty products require quick turnarounds in reading the market and avoiding accumulated inventory.

Right now, Kangol hats are sold in 70 countries; those made in the U.S. are sold in the North American and European markets; the Asian markets are served by Bollman’s Chinese hatmakers.

The Dogfish collaboration resulted in the creation of a limited edition Kangol and Dogfish Head Wool seamless 507 cap.

In honor of the line and the knitting operation, Dogfish also on Sept.8 tapped its small-batch English-style IPA called “Sir Hops a Lot.” Those attending the ribbon-cutting and Bollman’s 150-plus Adamstown employees sipped the cool brew in specially designed glasses distributed to each person by Rongione, a cool way to the day and toast the start of the new operation.

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