Now its 101st year and fourth generation, the Australian hat-maker still makes its iconic felt hats in much the same way as always has. Brent Balinski talks to company secretary Roy Wilkinson about tradition and how demand for Aussie-made quality is catching on in China.
You need a lot of hands on hats
“No real changes,” noted company secretary and director Roy Wilkinson, who has been at the company for 16 years, when asked about what’s different in the processes that turn rabbit pelts into the iconic hats.
“The main reason for that is back in the 20s and 30s there were probably at least a dozen if not two dozen fur felt manufacturers in Australia. Just in Australia.”
The 60s and 70s killed off a lot of those in that industry – fast cars and long hair aren’t allied to headwear – and there was a global trend away from hats.
“As a result of that there was no investment in manufacturing technology,” he said.
“So what you see in terms of our plant is what you’d see at Stetson and other millinery companies around the world that make fur felt hats.”
Also, the artisanal nature of high-quality hat-making means that automation isn’t really an option.
“You do need a lot of hands on these hats,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
A long history
The fortunes of Akubra have waxed and waned over the years since its trademark was registered in 1912. Akubra was formerly Dunkerley Hat Mills, founded by Benjamin Dunkerley, who moved to Tasmania from England in 1874.
Dunkerley moved his business to Crown Street in Surry Hills, Sydney, sometime in the 1900s, then relocated again to nearby Waterloo in 1912 to increase output, after the Akubra trademark was registered.
The family-owned firm is currently in its fourth generation, and its managing director and major shareholder is the fourth man in control of the company to be named Stephen Keir.
According to historian Dr Lisa Murray, the company’s workforce peaked at 500 employees during World War II and 80 per cent of its production was for Slouch hats, which the company still makes, and which it has provided to the Australian Army since the First World War.
The 50s saw a slowing of hat sales, which the company blamed on the Holden car and the beehive hairdo, then further slowing in the next two decades for the reasons above.
In 1974 the company moved to Kempsey on the mid-north coast, made more attractive due to decentralisation assistance offered to businesses.
The 1980s saw Akubra enjoy a bit of a renaissance, helped out by things such as The Man From Snowy River movie, golfer Greg Norman’s successes while wearing the company’s hats, and being part of the Australian team’s uniform in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Made by Australians for Australian soldiers
Today Akubra is a major employer in its region, with about 90 workers, is seeing increased exports, and last October received a boost from an increase in the number of slouch hats it would be providing for the Australian Defence Force.
“It’s certainly had an impact. We’ve gone through a revolving door with the slouch hat contract Back in the 20s and 30s, and the 40s, we were a predominant supplier of the slouch hat to defence,” said Wilkinson.
Post-war, Akubra has been one of two slouch hat suppliers, the other being Mountcastle. The current contract reportedly triples the amount of the hats Akubra will supply to roughly 12,000 per year for the next five years.
“Just prior to the last tender there was a – I guess you’d call it a change of heart from government,” said Wilkinson of the approach to procuring of Defence uniforms from local suppliers.
“In the most recent tender, we were able to demonstrate that basically we could make a Slouch hat out of 99 per cent Australian material, labour, overheads and the like. And as a result we won a more significant proportion of the contract.”
Though the tender for slouch hats is significant, it’s not the beginning and end of what the company does, and Wilkinson says it represents “maybe five or six per cent” of revenue.
It starts with rabbits
According to a recent profile of the company, it produces 150,000 hats a year. Wilkinson estimates that the fur of roughly 2.5 million rabbits will be processed this year. The animals’ thick under-fur is the major component.
Cone shaping is followed by cloth wrapping, then wrapping and shrinking, followed by dying and (for some hats) proofing with shellac. Then comes blocking and tip-stretching, stoving (racking and placing
in ovens and drying), a process called “pouncing”, pre-creasing and steaming on a block, adding trimmings, flanging and – finally – sanding.
As mentioned earlier, it’s labour-intensive and isn’t suited to attempts at automation.
“The way they’re made is the way they’re made; it really is a craft,” said Wilkinson.
The craft-made hats have been getting more and more attention overseas, and though Akubra isn’t an Asian Century story, the rising middle-class in China has made an impact on the hat-maker’s exports, which represent about a fifth of total revenue.
“China and Tibet have become our number one export market, and that’s really developed over the last five years,” said Wilkinson. The other major export destinations are the United States, Germany and England.
Akubra’s entry into the Chinese market started without the company making any real plans for it. Exports are “in their infancy stages”, but – as with some other high-value-add, high-quality Australian manufacturers – the future there could be a bright one.
“I remember getting an email from a customer in Tibet who wanted to, he was in Sydney, and wanted to take 50 hats back,” remembered Wilkinson.
“He couldn’t speak a lot of English, put the money in our account, took them back. From 50 hats now I think he takes around about four to five thousand hats a year. And we’ve still never met him. We communicate by email.
“His English is better and he pays for everything up front. And he’s only one distributor we now have. He was our Tibet distributor and he’s moved into parts of China but we now have two or three other distributors that are in China as well.
“It’s continuing to grow and there is no doubt there is a thirst, as their middle class becomes wealthier, for products that are not made in China. Even with the Aussie dollar where it is, we’re kind of defying the trend.”
Back at home, the company is conscious that Australians see the brand as iconic and a source of national pride. Despite the pressures facing all manufacturers, and the reduced tariff protection – though high imposts on Australians exporting to China – that has made it difficult to compete with cheap imports, Akubra has survived and managed to do so without outsourcing labour. The pressure is felt however.
“It’s not a level playing field in Australia and we don’t criticise it,” Wilkinson said.
“We have a very high standard – fair enough – we accept it, but there must be an element of that the consumer is not as conscious of and will always buy on price. And that’s where manufacturing in Australia is getting nailed.”
He mentioned the lower tariffs for clothing entering Australia, yet the high barriers for local rag traders wanting to export to China.
Especially after high-profile examples like Blundstone and Pacific Brands, the company knows that any shift of the company’s labour overseas would see a backlash. Being family-owned helps lessen the pressure to do so, as there are no shareholders demanding a certain rate of return on their investment.
“The three owners of the company are on the board of directors and are very passionate about Australian made. They also recognise that our brand and our future are important and I guess in some respect there are no guarantees about where you can end up in the next 100 years,” said Wilkinson.
“Our commitment is to be Australian made, as much as possible, but if you ask me what that commitment will be in ten years I couldn’t really tell you. As to the reaction, yes I can appreciate that there would be a great deal of negative sentiment should we make decisions around outsourcing manufacturing.”
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