Few symbols of rural life are better recognised in Australia than the Akubra hat, yet despite its widespread popularity the 142-year-old company behind the iconic headwear sees far more scope to grow its market at home, and overseas.
The Akubra, worn by everybody from stockmen and selling agents, to prime ministers musicians and international sports stars is enjoying a demand surge.
Australians buy almost 150,000 Akubra hats a year and strong domestic demand is currently driving the busiest run of hat production activity in almost three decades.
However, although business is bustling at Akubra’s manufacturing plant on NSW’s Mid North Coast, sales and marketing manager, Andrew Angus, feels there is plenty more room for brand growth in both rural marketplaces and urban Australia.
He said while city buyers always generated steady sales across Akubra’s 70-plus hat style range, especially lately, a surprisingly big number of urban dwellers did not know the Akubra name at all, let alone own a broad-brimmed felt hat.
By way of example he noted crowds at Sydney’s recent Royal Easter Show included a good number of Akubra wearing showgowers, but plenty wore no hats at all despite all the rural atmosphere and sunny weather.
“Events like the Royal are an obvious market for us which I feel we can develop, also reinforcing that close connection with our natural customer base in regional Australia,” Mr Angus said.
“There’s certainly an emerging trend towards our urban hat range, even though some of the most popular styles have been around for quite a while.
“The (narrow brimmed) Bogart and Stylemaster have been classics for decades.
“The recently launched Cappello is also very durable and popular among men and women as a fashion hat.”
The family-owned company, now run by fifth generation hat maker, Stephen Kier IV, is looking to take greater advantage of joint marketing opportunities with fashion brands and promotion events.
A winter fashion marketing partnership will launch next month, while a tourism promotion running in China currently has Akubra and the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb as prize themes.
Export markets offered great potential, according to Mr Angus, but Akubra had always been careful not to overreach itself, or ignore its key rural customer profile.
“We export to about 20 countries including Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Tibet, but our most undercooked prospects are probably the US and China,” he said.
“We’ve been put quite a lot of effort into identifying and developing the right opportunities in China lately.”
More than 80 per cent of the almost 800,000 Akubra hats sold in the past five years went to regional Australia.
“Akubra is a definitely a working hat name - people out in the rural marketplace are our lifeblood,” Mr Angus said.
“Dogs and tractors are also good friends of Akubra.
“They tend to wreck a lot of hats on the farm, which means their owners need something new.”
Akubra hats have been Australian-made since the company’s founder Benjamin Dunkerley set up a business in Hobart in 1874.
He also invented machinery to remove the hair tip from rabbit fur so the under layer fur could be used to make felt more efficiently.
The Keir family name entered the business when Stephen Keir joined the firm after it moved to Sydney in the early 1900s, marrying Dunkerley’s daughter, Ada, in 1905.
The Akubra name launched in 1912, with the popularity of the brand enhanced significantly by a contract to supply army slouch hats in the First World War.
Stephen Keir retired as company chairman in 1952 passing the management reins to his sons Herbert and Stephen II, whose own son, Stephen III worked with Akubra for 56 years to become managing director, then chairman, between 1980 and 2010.
The business moved from Sydney to Kempsey in 1974, from where current chairman Stephen Keir IV now oversees a factory employing almost 100 staff who have been working overtime since January to keep up with the strong run of orders.
Hat making is a surprisingly labour-intensive and meticulous business, with every Akubra passing through 200 sets of hands before it leaves the factory.
“The past eight months have probably been the busiest I’ve had in 26 years,” Mr Keir said.
He attributed the strong demand to the “fashion cycle” swinging back in favour of hats of all descriptions, plus the company’s efforts to lift its profile with retailers and promote its products.
“The urban market is definitely on the up, but so are our rural sales,” he said.
“Generally I think people are more likely to be seen wearing hats these days, even in advertising promotions for other products.”
Although Akubra’s business had diversified slightly to include a belts and leather goods range and may look further at other fashion accessories in future, Mr Kier said the family had not been tempted to expand hat manufacturing offshore to a lower cost production base in Asia or elsewhere.
“We’ve been making hats for generations and the only one place in the world we make them is Kempsey,” he said.
“That’s the way we do things – it’s in our blood.”