With a star-studded appeal to all "motherfunders," Pennsylvania's Bollman Hat Co., America's oldest lid maker, has launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise at least $100,000 to move 70 unique knitting machines from China to its Lancaster County factory.
The move would enable 41 new jobs at Bollman, which is still smarting from nearly 130 layoffs in the mid-2000s tied to competition from China.
In global-trade irony, the knitting machines, inventory now housed at a factory in Panyu, China, will allow Bollman to ramp up production at its factory in Adamstown, said Don Rongione, Bollman's president and CEO, a native of Northeast Philadelphia whose father had been a cloth cutter for overcoat maker Harry Fischer.
The machines, as much as 80 years old, would enable Bollman to make the world-famous Kangol 504, a stylized wool hat first introduced in Britain in 1954. It gained a passionate U.S. following in the 1980s, when it became the adopted headgear of the godfathers of hip-hop.
"It's really being a part of history and helping the middle class by creating jobs in America," Rongione said of the Kickstarter campaign (http://kck.st/1OLiexQ) Bollman launched on Nov. 19, American Made Matters Day. It runs until Jan. 17. As of Dec. 10, $23,187 had been raised from 244 backers.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson plays a prominent role in the fund-raising video with an in-your-face pitch, wearing a Kangol 504 backward to show off the iconic kangaroo logo.
"Let's help bring Kangol jobs to America. Let's do this, motherfunders!" urges Jackson, whose affinity for the brand started with a grandfather who regularly sported a Kangol.
Bollman's route to Kangol came by way of acquisition. It bought the global license to design, produce and distribute the British company's head wear in 2001, and has been making some of its felt and straw hats in Adamstown. By the time Bollman entered into that license agreement, most of the Kangol equipment had been moved from England to China, where Kangol's owners had a factory operating from the mid-1990s, producing most of the line.
Bollman, which Rongione turned into an employee-stock-ownership company after he joined as controller in the early 1980s, bought that factory. In 2006, Bollman sold it to a Chinese hatmaker that decided less than three years later to shut down because of rising labor costs, he said.
To keep making Kangol hats, Bollman leased the factory, including the equipment, while exploring alternative production options, including moving everything to Pennsylvania. Two hundred employees work at its Adamstown factory and headquarters and its distribution center in nearby Denver, Pa. Worldwide, Bollman has 300 employees.
Ten of the 80 knitting machines used to produce the 504 - named for the number of the hat block on which it is made - are now at Bollman, where employees are training on them. Each machine is customized to knit, link, tease, shear and block the Kangol 504. Attempts to duplicate them have been unsuccessful, leading to what Rongione estimates will be a $650,000 effort to get the rest stateside, including crating and electrical conversion.
Bollman already has invested $350,000 toward the effort. And $160,450 more has come from Pennsylvania in grants and tax credits.
The effort is worthwhile, said Steve Jurash, president and CEO of the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, who called Bollman's Kangol 504 initiative "a perfect example of what I call the 'back flow' of manufacturing work and products from China."
"What is particularly exciting about Bollman Hat is that we are actually seeing a resurgence of the American textile industry," he said. "First we saw it with metals. China was not particularly strong in metallurgy. Then other things started coming back because of quality issues."
As the Kangol 504 - which sells for about $50 - demonstrates, American manufacturing has retooled itself, Jurash said.
"It has transitioned from high-volume, low-margin to low-volume, high-margin," he said. "Our companies are getting higher margins because they are offering the consumer specialized products that are of a very high quality."