On Tuesday, a tip of the hat to the American worker

Don Rongione, head of the Bollman Hat Co., in Adamstown, Pa., is also the man behind American Made Matters Day, which makes its debut Tuesday. "These jobs are worth fighting for," he says of the company, one of the last domestic hatmakers.
Don Rongione, head of the Bollman Hat Co., in Adamstown, Pa., is also the man behind American Made Matters Day, which makes its debut Tuesday. "These jobs are worth fighting for," he says of the company, one of the last domestic hatmakers. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 19, 2013

To understand why Don Rongione wants people to buy American on Tuesday - American Made Matters Day - put yourself on the factory floor of Bollman Hat Co., where on Friday the president and chief executive watched Tony Lehman fashion wool felt into a tuxedo-ready top hat.

Tugging on finely crafted Texas wool felt as if it were hosiery, Lehman pulled the black fabric around a mold of wood blocks to form the sharply creased crown. That old-style skill, brought stateside by Germans, was one of the first things Lehman learned 31 years ago when he landed a job at Bollman, America's oldest hatmaker, outside Reading.

"I really worked my way up!" Lehman, 52, said with a self-deprecating laugh as Rongione, himself the son of a Philadelphia factory man, stood nearby on Bollman's 142-year-old factory floor, a relic of ancient machinery that has kept chugging despite layoffs, the lure of cheap labor overseas, and the battle to stay alive.

"These jobs are worth fighting for," said Rongione, 56, a Northeast Philadelphia native and accountant by training who, despite speaking matter-of-factly most of the time, had tears welling as he watched Lehman demonstrate a painstaking craft that has lost so much value.

"He and I ran a 5K race representing Bollman in 1986," Rongione said. "This is all he knows - and I'd like to keep these jobs going as long as we can."

American Made Matters Day, making its debut Tuesday, is the branchild of Rongione at Bollman, one of the few domestic hatmakers left. He has made Bollman's unlikely survival a mission over three decades, hoping a mix of business changes and marketing keeps its legendary factory rolling.

The "buy American" campaign urges shoppers to visit www.americanmadematters.com and from there purchase something from the participating companies.

Discounts are offered. But the companies hope the true payoff comes from raising consumer consciousness and shifting shopper dollars to higher-quality, if costlier, domestic goods.

The effort is being run out of Bollman's factory and headquarters in Adamstown, where some hats require the hands of dozens of workers each before being ready for market.

It extends a movement begun by Rongione in 2009, when he devised the American Made Matters slogan to brand goods largely made on U.S. soil.

Rongione had laid off 100 of Bollman's Berks County factory workers.

"It was the most painful thing I had ever done in business," he said. And similar to what had happened at the tail end of his father Nicholas' career.

Nicholas Rongione had returned from World War II with a 10th-grade education but got a job making men's overcoats at a factory at 12th and Vine Streets. With that, he was able to buy a new house in the city's Rhawnhurst section, raise three kids, and put them all through college. He retired as the factory sputtered in its final years before closing.

So American Made Matters Day is the date of Nicholas Rongione's birthday.

"My father always instilled in me growing up the pride of making things in this country," said his son, an accounting and management graduate of La Salle.

Founded in 1868, Bollman employed 1,100 people at its peak. Its 33-acre factory and distribution complex produced the cowboy hats worn by Hollywood's Roy Rogers, as well as countless fez styles, fedoras, and more.

The business had done so well under its original family owners that Bollman outlived Philadelphia hatmaking powerhouse Stetson, which went under soon after hats fell largely out of fashion in the 1960s.

Bollman had passed into employee hands when Don Rongione joined as controller in the early 1980s. He turned it into an employee-stock-ownership company and later rose to CEO.

In the mid-2000s, though, the Adamstown factory nearly shut down.

A global trade-policy shift in 2005 allowed Chinese factories to flood the U.S. market with hats made by workers paid a fraction of the $15-an-hour average wage Bollman's nonunion workers received. The Adamstown factory had made many inexpensive store-brand hats sold by discount retailers.

Bollman lost a $4 million Walmart account to the Chinese. Others followed.

The dropping of trade quotas proved devastating. Domestic hat manufacturing had held about 20 percent of the U.S. market prior to that. Today, it is 5 percent, said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade for the American Apparel and Footwear Association.

"Hat manufacturers in the U.S., in order to compete, had to develop some niche products or some higher-price-point products," Herman said.

Bollman had already begun moving away from crafting low-cost hats for retailers, instead scooping up high-end brands in acquisitions and manufacturing and selling those hats at higher prices. It also makes hats for elite brands like Rag & Bone.

Bollman buys high-quality wool from Texas, cleans and scrubs it there, and in Adamstown presses it into felt and crafts it into hats. Only two companies in America do that anymore.

It also has gotten diverse, importing some components of other hats it makes and manufacturing still others entirely offshore, including the high-end line Helen Kaminski, which Bollman managed, through a publicist, to get snapped recently on the head of actress Salma Hayek.

On Tuesday, though, the goal is this: Sell what it makes in Adamstown - with pride.


AMERICAN MADE

Bollman Hat Co. has 185 workers, 100 of them full time at its Adamstown factory and headquarters and its distribution center in nearby Denver, Pa. Worldwide, it has 275 employees.

How to buy American on Tuesday: Go to

www.americanmadematters.com . Click tab: "AMM News/Blog." Browse online links to companies and discounts.


>Inquirer.com

American Made Matters Day makes its debut Tuesday. Watch

a video about the American Made Matters campaign at www.inquirer.com/matters


mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431

@Panaritism

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