The CEO of Bollman Hat Co. is on a crusade

Dozens of devoted, decades-long employees lost their livelihoods.

And Don Rongione lost sleep. Lots of it.

As president and CEO of Bollman Hat Co., Rongione pushed the eject button on about 100 blue-collar workers four years ago, when America’s oldest hat maker, just over the Berks line in northern Lancaster County, was losing accounts left and right.

“It was the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do,” Rongione said.

He could only imagine the laid-off laborers’ pain. Some had been there 40, even 50 years. Some of their parents had spent their working lives there. Some of their grandparents, too.

“There were a lot of people I worked with for a lot of years that were gone,” said Tony Lehman, who has spent 30-plus years sanding, pressing, polishing and otherwise finishing hats at Bollman’s Adamstown plant.

Lehman survived the 2008 thrashing of a third of Bollman’s manufacturing force. But he was never sure he would, or that the company itself would.

“Everybody who worked here was concerned if at some point anybody would have a job,” Lehman said.

Rongione was among those concerned, and on a larger scale.

How could he help stem this tide not only at Bollman Hat, but in manufacturing nationwide?

The China syndrome

It’s a pretty simple process. Some outfits produce cheaper products with cheaper overseas labor. They then market lower prices to an American middle class with ever-thinning wallets.

Listen to affected company after affected company, and that’s the common thread they say runs through all those large-layoff stories we routinely heard not only during the recession, but for decades prior as American manufacturing waned.

The issue is well-documented and explosive, and has long been a political football.

Most recently, the revelation that the Chinese made United States Olympic uniforms triggered fevered responses from both political sides.

Perhaps no one reacted more ferociously than Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“I’m so upset,” Reid fumed early this month. “Take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them. … We have people in the textile industry who are desperate for jobs.”

Orange County Register columnist and Fox Business Network host John Stossel wasted little time criticizing Reid.

“Here, Reid demonstrates economic cluelessness,” Stossel wrote in the Register. “It seems logical that Americans lose if American clothing is made overseas. But that’s nonsense. First, it’s no surprise the uniforms were made in China. Most clothing is. That’s fine. It saves money. We invest the savings in other things, like the machines that Chinese factories buy and the trucks that ship the Olympic uniforms.”

Whether or not his argument holds water, Stossel might want to speak to those 100 or so former Bollman Hat workers. He might want to speak to Rongione.

Because Rongione makes no bones about it: In Bollman Hat’s case, it was cheap Chinese manufacturing that tugged ruinously at that dangling thread.

It’s why so many accounts went astray. It’s why Wal-Mart pulled its $4 million business from Bollman. It’s what precipitated Bollman’s 2008 bloodbath.

Independence Day

Politics were far from Rongione’s mind when he launched Save an American Job on July 4, 2009.

Nor are they the point now that the movement has 70 member companies nationwide, along with a new moniker: American Made Matters.

Pained by his own layoffs and wary of further infiltration from foreign producers, Rongione simply wanted to do something to help save and promote American manufacturing.

AMM member Todd Shelton, president of his own Jersey City, N.J.-based online men’s clothing brand, said Rongione’s steadily growing initiative has little to do with Olympic uniforms, officeholder grandstanding or commentator critiques.

“American Made Matters is a sincere effort,” Shelton said. “It isn’t just opportunists. Now that it’s a political issue again, we’ll see opportunists pop up and produce some American-made products in their line.”

One of AMM’s fiercest supporters is Michael Araten, president and CEO of K’Nex Brands toys of Hatfield, Montgomery County. Araten joined in 2010 and quickly became an AMM board member.

“There are a number of reasons why where something is made matters,” Araten said. “It means more to consumers now than it has in a long, long time.”

It also means more than simply helping a countryman have or keep a job, said Jen Guarino, president of AMM member J.W. Hulme Co.

“There’s a misconception that buying American is just philanthropic,” said Guarino, whose Minnesota-based company makes high-end luggage and leather goods. “It’s not. There’s a quality you get by buying American. There’s a service you get.”

Beyond jobs

AMM member companies must incur 50 percent of their costs — materials, labor and overhead — in the United States. They also must assemble or transform their product into its final form here.

So the AMM logo guarantees a better product, period, said Mark Bollman, founder of Boston-based men’s lifestyle brand Ball and Buck.

“Because people here earn a wage that gives them liberty to have a quality of life, it means the product has to be of higher quality,” said Bollman, no relation to the 19th century Bollman Hat founders. “Because you’re going to have skilled labor. People might think of sewing, for instance, as a low-rung job. It’s not. It’s a high-skill job.”

J.W. Hulme’s Guarino said companies don’t put AMM’s symbol on their products, or on their company websites and marketing materials, without being willing to make a commitment.

“We have to validate the logo,” she said.

K’Nex’s Araten is big on the quality thing, sure. But Araten also contends that American-made price points aren’t nearly as high as the public believes.

“The other part (of American Made Matters) is to counter the perception that if it’s made here, it must be more expensive,” he said. “That simply isn’t true.”

Well … while Araten says K’Nex toys cost 30 percent less than competitors such as Lego or Mega Bloks, that is an exception to the rule. Guarino, Bollman and others acknowledge American-made prices are generally higher, but say the purchase’s additional benefits easily justify the cost.

“In our case, if you buy one of our bags, you’re buying it for life,” Guarino said. “We can fix it here in a way you can’t if it was made overseas.”

An innovation situation

Shelton made his men’s clothes overseas when he began his business in 2002. He stopped in 2006 and moved the manufacturing operations home.

“We couldn’t make a great product over there,” he said. “We could make a product over there, but we knew it wouldn’t be great.”

It wasn’t so much American labor that drew Shelton to the U.S. It was his need for more intimacy with production.

“If it’s under our noses, if we can walk into the shop and talk to the people making it, we can make changes,” he said. “We can make adjustments. So we learn more. If your product is being made across the world, you can’t learn as much.”

Ship the manufacturing overseas, he said, and you ship that intimacy. Ship that intimacy overseas, and you ultimately shift innovation overseas, because a product’s designers lose their ability to improve via trial and error.

“So eventually, our innovation will start to move abroad,” Shelton said. “See, that’s another thing people don’t always understand. Innovation is a product of manufacturing.”

Pride and progress

American manufacturing, waning for decades, has shown recent signs of resurgence. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 25,000-job hike in July manufacturing jobs, and the sector has added more than a half-million jobs since February 2010.

It ripples to other industries, and more so than with other sectors, Rongione said. He cited statistics that suggest each new manufacturing job creates about 4.5 other jobs, compared to the 1.5 produced by each service-industry position.

So this uptick is a start.

But it’s only a start, AMM companies say. They want to enlist more members; the ultimate goal is 1,000. And they want consumers to understand that manufacturing means more than jobs. Much more.

From railroads to automobiles to steel to early computers, they say making stuff has long been the stuff of American pride.

“Manufacturing has been a major component of the success of this country, and now that’s going away,” said Ball and Buck’s Bollman. “With that you really lose the very fabric of what built the country from the ground up.”

Rongione will continue to carry the AMM banner and forcefully promote its logo — and its cause.

“Hopefully, the American Made Matters brand becomes very recognizable, and becomes something that correlates with jobs and the American Dream,” he said. “Hopefully, we can make an impact.”

If Lehman, the veteran Bollman Hat employee, is any indication, AMM is at least making headway.

“I think everybody kind of understands,” he said, “how much it matters.”

Contact Jerry Reimenschneider: 610-371-5087 or jreimenschneider@readingeagle.com.


K’necting the dots

K’nex Brands CEO Michael Araten, a member of the American Made Matters board, is passionate about the movement. His building-toy company, based in Hatfield, Montgomery County, is a competitor to such brands as Lego and Mega Bloks, and a whopping 95 percent of K’nex parts are produced in the United States.

Araten joined AMM, he said, to fight the perception that all toys are made in China.

“Toys are easily understandable,” he said. “Everybody buys ’em. So if we can show them that it can be done with toys, it can be done with anything.”

Araten said consumers should care that products are American-made for three main reasons:

1. Jobs: First and foremost, buying things made in America means that you help Americans attain and retain jobs. This is the fulcrum around which the American-made push has long turned, and one most consumers both support and understand.

2. Better quality: A majority of money American Made Matters companies spend making their products goes to American workers or companies — to a higher-paid, higher-skilled workforce. This, Araten and other AMM executives insist, ensures superior quality.

3. National pride and security: Araten said making things in America is part of the nation’s response to an all-encompassing question: What kind of society do we want to have?

“Manufacturing is only one piece of that puzzle, but it’s a very important piece,” Araten said.

He pointed to the boom of railroads, automobiles and computers as key pivot points in our history, and wondered what price the United States ultimately might pay should manufacturing continue to wane.

“If you can’t make stuff on your own, then you lose control of your destiny as a country,” he said. “You put the ability to make stuff in someone else’s hands.

“Am I saying we have to make every last thing ourselves? No. But to the extent that we can make important things in this country and export them to the rest of the world, then we’re a secure nation. And that, to me, is why American Made Matters matters. It’s for our future. It’s for our children.”

— Jerry Reimenschneider


American Made Matters grows its circle

By Jerry Reimenschneider
Reading Eagle

The initiative’s name also is its message: American Made Matters.

But to spread that message to as many as possible, to most effectively and efficiently explain why American-made does, in fact, matter, AMM needs as many member companies as it can get, both to feature its logo on products and to help educate the public.

So it is making a harder push for members by making it easier for businesses to join.

“To achieve our mission, we need to band together,” said AMM board member Mark Bollman, president of the membership committee. “There’s power in numbers.”

Bollman is founder and president of Ball and Buck, a Boston-based men’s lifestyle brand, and he’s steering AMM’s drive to ultimately reach 1,000 members. For now, the goal is more modest: 150 companies by year’s end. As of early August, the number was only at 70, but that’s nearly double the 38 members at the beginning of 2012.

AMM is redesigning its website, waiving the annual cost for companies that recruit five or more members in a given year and dropping the yearly fee from about $500 to $99.

“We’ve reduced it to make it affordable,” said Don Rongione, president and CEO of Adamstown-based Bollman Hat Co. and founder of the AMM initiative. “So that fee should not be an issue for any business.”

Given the recent and ongoing tweaks to entice members, Bollman (no relation to the hat company founders) said he thinks 150 is still attainable this year.

“We’ve doubled (membership) in the first half (of 2012), with none of those things,” Bollman said. “If we double it again in the next half, we’ll be right at the doorstep.”

To join, a company must incur 50 percent or more of its manufacturing costs — materials, labor and overhead — in the United States, and final product transformation or assembly must occur in America.

Membership benefits:

Use of AMM’s licensed logo for the membership’s duration.

A company listing on AmericanMadeMatters.com, which will display the company logo with a link.

Promotion in the initiative’s expanding social-media network, which had more than 16,000 fans, friends and followers as of late July.

A featured presence in the quarterly AMM newsletter.

Networking advantages with customers and co-members.

Participation in AMM’s various promotions on Facebook and at occasional live events.

But the real reasons to join, say member executives, go beyond that list.

“When you form a coalition like this, it’s a great way to help share resources,” said Jen Guarino, president of member J.W. Hulme Co., a Minnesota producer of high-end leather goods. “We can help each other source things” such as suppliers, transportation and education programs.

“For me, it was about being with like-minded people with a common objective,” said Todd Shelton, president of the Todd Shelton online men’s clothing brand of Jersey City, N.J. “Being part of American Made Matters puts me and the brand in a support system.

“Making things in the United States, there are challenges with it. And this allows me to be in a support system where there are resources, or where there’s a way to just share common objectives. So it’s motivating.”

For complete membership information and to apply online, go toAmericanMadeMatters.com.

Contact Jerry Reimenschneider: 610-371-5087 or jreimenschneider@readingeagle.com.

From the editor

American Made Matters. I’m not normally one for bumper-sticker philosophizing, but this is an exception.

This week’s cover story spotlights Bollman Hat Co., a company just over the Berks County line in Lancaster County. Four years ago, CEO Don Rongione had to lay off close to 100 employees because foreign competition was killing his business.

Anybody who has watched manufacturing’s decline in Pennsylvania and around the country knows the story. Large, successful manufacturing operations that had been around for decades were crippled in one generation because of the emergence of cheap imports boosted by low-cost labor, lax regulation and unfair trade policies.

Rongione finally said enough. On July 4, 2009, he launched a campaign to let consumers know that purchasing decisions should not exclusively be decided by what’s the cheapest. Quality matters. Money in the local economy matters. American jobs matter.

Talk about uphill battles.

But Rongione and other business owners believe the message is resonating. They are saying people came out of the recession realizing that we can’t keep letting other countries make all of our stuff. Because that means less high-quality jobs here. If too much of our economy relies on low-paying service jobs, then consumer spending suffers and the economy stalls.

So, yes, it’s a little more work and maybe a little higher price for consumers. A growing number of shoppers are OK with that if they know the clothes they’re wearing aren’t made in sweatshops.

To them, American Made Matters.

Now, where I can I get the bumper sticker?

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