Akubra dates back to 1876 and its managing director, Stephen Keir IV, is the fourth generation of his family to be at the helm. He shares what it’s really like to be a hat maker in a small company with a big name.
Akubra has a fascinating history, but you can take it for granted.
You don’t think about what it means to an outsider looking in because you are doing it every day.
You do get moments when you realise.
On the occasion where you get interviewed, like now, and people are asking questions – talking about the history and they’ve done their research – you do. You feel a bit humbled by it all, really. It’s a good feeling. It’s hard work but it’s what we do and it’s all I know.
Five generations later, it’s still the same thing.
Benjamin Dunkerley was a fur-cutter in Tasmania, and my great-grandfather, Stephen Keir I, was a hatter from England. Benjamin wanted to get into hat-making and my great-grandfather started working for him in 1904. The factory was moved from Tasmania to Sydney in the early 1900s [it was first located in Surry Hills and later, Waterloo]. Stephen met Benjamin’s daughter and married her and I’m one of the generations as a result of that. [Originally called Kensington Hat Mills, ‘Akubra’, believed to be an Aboriginal word for ‘head covering’, came into use in 1912].
Then in 1974, hats were not doing well at all.
The department of de-centralisation was operating at the time and they were trying to get businesses to move out of Sydney into regional areas to create employment. So my grandfather and father took the incentive and we set up a factory in Kempsey on the Mid North Coast [of New South Wales] and haven’t looked back. This town’s been very good to us and we’ve been good for the town. We employ 100 people.
It’s been a long history of ups and downs.
After the war and the depression, hats were pretty much on the outer. And when my grandfather and father decided to move – it was obviously a massive decision and it was a tough one – it almost broke them. I don’t think they’ve ever told us the exact truth but I think they got within weeks of it all folding. And they got through it, and the company’s where it is today.
I’ve been working here for 27 years.
From 1990 to around 2005, I worked on the factory floor. I worked in a lot of different positions on the floor to learn how hats are made. I ran our fur-cutting business for a little while and then was general manager until my father retired and I took over from him. I’m not an office person, as much as I have to be; I still go down to the factory and do bits and pieces with the people down there. I like that part of it, but that’s just me!
My favourite part of making a hat?
Basically watching a hat going from the raw material to the first stages of being a hat. Just how that fur blends together. It’s like a fairy floss machine, it’s quite a strange-looking process, but that’s how it all starts.
In all fairness the company’s not a lot different to how it used to be.
We’re still using machinery that’s up to 70 years old. I’ve been to a lot of hat factories around the world and we’re all the same. It’s been a bit of a shrinking industry so there’s been no innovation. A lot of things that are done now would not have been uncommon 60, 70 or even 80 years ago. If someone can show us how to automate things a bit better I’d be happy to look at it, but at the moment it’s quite a hands-on, labour-intensive industry.
We manufacture roughly one thousand hats a day at the moment.
That’s operating on a four-day week, Monday to Thursday. That’s up on what it has been – our sales have increased in the last two or three years. Our sales team has probably got a lot to do with that, or our long-term retailers that have always supported us. The only problem that many people find is that there are droughts still going on in Australia that you never really hear about now. There are still a lot of areas in Australia that are doing really tough financially.
The cattleman hat we make is our top-seller by a long way.
It’s been number one for 20 years or more, it’s been a staple. As much as I’d like to say we could change a lot more – we come out with new styles every so often – people just seem to go back to the core range because, and I suppose it might be a funny way to say it, they feel safe and secure with what they’ve always had.
People say “at least we know that we can get the tried and true”, or “that’s what my father or grandfather wore and that’s what I want to wear”.
So I’m happy to accommodate that because a lot of them have been our principal supporters all their lives. Rural Australia is our biggest customer and a lot of those people would buy a certain style of hat and that’s what they want for life, they don’t want anything else. They know it fits, they know how it works, they know how much it covers in the sun, and that’s what they want.
We’ve had people come here with a hat that’s been very well worn for about 50 years and they ask us to repair it.
And we’re pretty scared to, because it means so much to them; if we ruin it while we’re trying to fix it, it takes a bit of the history away. It’s interesting just seeing some of the hats that come back. People have hats belonging to their father or grandfather, who has passed away, and they ask if we can stretch it or something because it doesn’t fit them but they’d like to wear it. It happens a lot.
It’s always been a real family sort of thing.
Basically my great-grandfather, grandfather, father and myself have been managing directors. My two sisters, Stacey McIntyre and Nikki McLeod, are equal shareholders along with some equity in Vanguard investments UK we put for equality ages ago; my mum was a director of the company until she stepped down; my grandfather’s brother, Herbert Keir, was a managing director for a period of time. And there’s seven kids; my sisters’ and mine. Maybe one or two of them might want to do something with it.
We’re actually starting to talk about succession planning now, it takes so long to do.
I’m only 47 and 65 seems like a long time away, but it will be on us in no time. With a family business, succession planning is a pretty important process.
It was in the late ’80s that Akubra started being talked about as an Australian icon.
After The Man from Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee came out – and Paul Hogan, outside of Crocodile Dundee – everyone, especially in the US, wanted a part of Australia, and our business went through the roof. For five or six years we had extraordinary sales and I think it really put our name out there with people. And then I think people started to understand the history and how old we were, how we’re still operating. And it’s humbling, but we became likened to names like Holden, Qantas and Vegemite, which are massive companies compared to us.
We’ve a very small company with a big name.
It’s terrific when you hear your name mentioned alongside companies like those. Akubra, I think, is on the tip of a lot of people’s tongues.
A book that tells the story of Akubra, Akubra – Handcrafted History, is available now from akubra.com.au