December 7, 2018


What Do Americans Make? The Stormy Kromer! (Jim Vinoski, 9/19/18, Forbes)

The Stormy Kromer hat was named for its inventor, railroad engineer George "Stormy" Kromer. He wanted a warm winter hat that wouldn't fly off in the wind on the trains, and asked his wife Ida to add an ear flap to a baseball hat. When he began wearing his, demand from his friends and colleagues pushed him into full-scale production. He eventually opened a production plant in Milwaukee, where 25-30 workers helped make the hats. In 2001, with sales dwindling, the company announced that they were going to stop making their iconic Blizzard Cap.

Jacquart Fabric Products was founded in Ironwood, Michigan, at the very western end of the Upper Peninsula near Lake Superior, in 1958 by Bob Jacquart's father, Robert R. Jacquart. The business began as a bank deposit bag maker, and eventually began producing a variety of sewn products such as duffle bags, boat covers, and upholstery. The company went into full-scale manufacturing just about the same time overseas competition (primarily from China) was heating up; they focused on products that Chinese producers couldn't do, such as on demand pet beds, RV awnings and canopies for playground equipment. "In most cases, we can ship the same day" Jacquart says. (The threat was and remains very real; a Munsingwear factory in town shut down and its production went to China in 1987.)

Jacquart was at a restaurant one day in 2001 when his friend and local bike and ski shop owner Mark Fitting approached him and insisted he "do something" about his winter hat supplier ceasing production. Jacquart told him, "Get me the number and I'll buy the company!" By the time he made it back to his office, the number was on his desk. He called and discovered that the two main Stormy Kromer retailers, and 80% of the tiny business's customer base, were located in his immediate vicinity, in western Upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin. Jacquart saw the business as an excellent fill-in item, and brought its production to Ironwood.

In addition to location, because of their focus on viable domestic sewn goods manufacturing, "we were uniquely positioned to take over the business," says Jacquart. Production of the hats is anything but simple, and is still very manual. Piece cutting and embroidering are the only automated steps; the rest is machine sewn by individual operators. (The only fully automated item the company makes is a can wrap.) On a 6-panel hat with a visor and a retracting ear flap, that means lots of individual sewing steps. All of this was an excellent fit with Jacquart's existing operation.

The complexity of the hat is what makes automation difficult (which is not entirely a bad thing in an area in need of jobs). Jacquart sits on the Board of Trustees of Michigan Tech University and once asked the former dean of technology there to have a team come up with a way to make the hats robotically. Their study concluded that it couldn't be done economically.

Posted by at December 7, 2018 8:01 PM