Michigan's Stormy Kromer Turns An Iconic Hat Into An Outdoors Brand
Say you’re running an operation in an industry under severe pressure from overseas competitors, and a historic company in the same field is going out of business. What do you do?
If you’re Bob Jacquart of Jacquart Fabric Products, and the failing company is Stormy Kromer, a producer of iconic winter hats, you buy the other company, of course!
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 six-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.
So instead, the company has staffed up as they’ve grown the business, and has invested in other technology to make production more efficient, such as Vita-Lite full-spectrum lighting and premium chairs for machine operators. One of their main pressures now is finding enough people to run the sewing machines. Having largely exhausted local options, the company has opened a branch in Wausau, Wisconsin, where many of their workers are Hmong immigrants. The company has long prided itself on being a caring employer of local natives, particularly young women; now it also provides needed jobs to our country’s newest arrivals.
The business has grown tremendously. They’ve grown the line to include women’s (the “Ida Kromer”) and children’s hats, as well as other related merchandise like flannel shirts, mittens and outerwear–and a line of canine Kromer-wear too. The company keeps sales figures confidential, but Jacquart shared that six days of current production just about matches the record annual production of Stormy Kromer before he bought it.
Cost pressures and the allure of overseas production remain, but the company is adamant that the Stormy Kromer will always be American-made. “It could be that the cost of our flannel shirt eventually means we’ll need to look at other options there,” Jacquart says, “but that won’t be an option for the hat.”
With the future looking bright, a third generation is now helping run the operation. Gina, Jacquart’s eldest daughter, moved back from a long stint in Texas to join up with the company and take over as president of Stormy Kromer, and daughter Kari, the youngest, is taking her love of coaching girls’ basketball onto the factory floor by running production.
“It’s an honor and privilege not only to be a part of the newest generation to lead our family’s company, but to also direct the future of this very well-loved, 115-year-old brand,” says Gina Jacquart Thorsen. “We’re continually working to blend that century old legend with the modern day.”