Trent Johnson’s affinity for hats and business savvy are proving a perfect fit in this Western success story. Business schools should take note.
Greeley Hat Works owner Trent Johnson had a hat fetish from an early age. “When I was a kid, I used to wear my granddad’s fedora and pretend I was Indiana Jones,” he says. “And when I was 12, my family visited Epcot. I took all of the money I had earned from lemonade stands and lawn mowing and bought hats from several different countries – a beret from France, a Paddy cap from Ireland, a fez from Morocco.”
A Colorado native, Johnson grew up in Pueblo. He attended the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) to become a teacher like his father. “I had wanted to get into the Business School, but didn’t have the grades to get in. Funny thing is, now I am a regular guest speaker for entrepreneur classes at The Montfort School of Business (UNC), CSU, and the University of Nebraska,” quips Johnson.
At UNC, Johnson worked at the Orr Ranch as a ranch hand. “I had a not-so-favorable experience student teaching during my senior year and it was then that I decided teaching wasn’t for me,” he says. “Susie Orr had a little hat shop in the barn and I had been apprenticing with her and decided that I needed to switch my major to something more in line with my goals. So, in my second senior year, I got a degree in sociology with a minor in psychology from UNC. Today I tell people that I analyze cowboys and hats!”
In 1996, Johnson bought the hat business from Susie Orr. “I had written a business plan that I had done in a SBA class I took at the Chamber of Commerce, because I couldn’t get in to Business School. I presented it to Ed Orr, my bank, my uncle and my parents to get my funding. Orr thought it was a solid plan and gave me a small loan with the stipulation that I rent shop space in their building for the term of the loan.
“My uncle loaned me some money with the interest rate being ‘one hat a year for as long as the loan was outstanding’. And, my parents gave me money that they had invested from money which they had collected from me while I was growing up – renting their lawn mower, paying for mileage to get to and from jobs, and eventually renting a condo they owned.”
Hat making is a throwback art at Greeley Hat Works, mixed with a little science. A machine called a Conformateur, invented in the 1840’s, fits a customer’s head. A Finger Blocker, circa 1950, forms each hat. Every hatband is hand cut. Satin liners are sewn on a sewing machine from the 1920’s. Every hat is finished up by hand shaping. Each is a special creation.
It takes six to eight man-hours over the course of a week to make a custom hat. Johnson made 120 hats his first year in business. Today Greeley Hat Works turns out 3500 a year.
“I am still very involved in the creation of every hat. I hand-shape 99% of the hats that go out of here,” explains Johnson. “We do not have an assembly line process. Every hat is made and managed by one person with the finishing processes, like adding sweat bands and liners and sewing them into the hats done by our finishing employees.”
Johnson has made hats for hundreds of rodeo and western beauty queens, country western musicians including Craig Campbell, Denver Broncos Quarterback Peyton Manning, bull riders, bronc riders, ranchers, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, and President George W. Bush.
Johnson says, “Although I don’t do booths at rodeos or other kinds of trade shows, I was on the road for 179 days last year attending events with my distributors. It is sort of a ‘meet the artist’ type thing. I have traveled coast to coast and internationally to help promote Greeley Hat Works.”
Challenge: “I have recently ventured into some partnerships with non-western apparel companies. The biggest challenge for me is continuing to be an artist and staying true to my Americana roots, but creating hats people want,” states Johnson.
Opportunities: “Growing my branding, both within the western culture as well as outside that area and entering into collaboration with other clothing designers,” Johnson explains.
Needs: Johnson says, “There is a limited supply chain in this industry. I need to make sure my suppliers’ products are keeping up with the quality and standards I expect.”