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Monday, 25 March 2019 07:44 pm

Hills Hats anything but old hat as popularity inspires factory shop



Simon Smuts-Kennedy with army headwear made by Hills and a range of hats worn by his alter-ego, ‘Hatman’, to sales meetings.

A hat factory seems like an anachronism these days but Hills Hats happily runs against the grain.

Because of growing interest, the Petone headwear manufacturer will be opening a shop called Wellington Hatters attached to its factory soon.

Hills produces uniform, outdoor and fashion hats for customers around the world and its success is thanks in no small part to general manager Simon Smuts-Kennedy.

Smuts-Kennedy comes from two previous generations who worked in textiles and has been at the helm of Hills since his family bought the business in 1998.

In an interview with New Zealand Life and Leisure, Smuts-Kennedy said he had not always been keen to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

He operated a ski shop in Ohakune before deciding he wanted to leave after two consecutive eruptions of Mt Ruapehu in 1995 and 1996 slowed business in the area.

His opportunity came when his family bought Hills and his father asked him to run the business.

He says at that stage, the company was mostly manufacturing workwear and uniform hats but his ambition was to create products targeted at the top-end of the market.

“We took it to the next level. We stopped using poly-wools and we started using very fine English tweed and blocking fur felts.”

The next step was to expand to overseas markets and Smuts-Kennedy began travelling to Australia to convince stockists to buy his products.

“It wasn’t an easy road to start with. The product wasn’t right at the time. [Our] fabrics and styles weren’t necessarily of interest but I didn’t give up and kept going back time after time.

“I became good friends with the local retailers, asking them ‘if you had a wish what would it be’ and I’d come back two or three months later with what they’d wished for.”

Smuts-Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the company and its products is infectious and despite his formal role as general manager, his business card simply reads ‘Hatman’.

More than a title, Hatman has become a hat and mask wearing persona which Smuts-Kennedy dons before going to business meetings.

“One of my local reps thinks it’s a bit twitty but at the same time, it’s got me into magazines and TV. It’s a point of difference and I think I get away with it because it’s fun.”

He says the Hatman moniker was given to him while he was dealing with the New South Wales Police.

Smuts-Kennedy was attending uniform fit-outs where he measured and fitted hats for 500 to 700 recruits.

He was the only representative from any of the uniform suppliers to turn up and help with fitting and became affectionately known as Hatman.

Such dedication to his customers has helped Smuts-Kennedy turn Hills into a successful domestic supplier and exporter in an age where quality headwear is no longer a wardrobe staple.

The company which was founded in 1875 by Chas Hill currently employs 27 people.

The last few years have been full-on for Hills who have been busy keeping up with orders for both domestic and international markets.

“Last year we were flat out doing Air New Zealand replicas, World War One replicas and then everything to do with the Cricket World Cup, which was huge,” Smuts-Kennedy says.

About 35 percent of Hills’ fashion hats are sent overseas with its biggest markets in Australia, the United States and Japan.

Hills moved its factory to Petone 16 years ago where the Smuts-Kennedy’s family business, Eskay, known for their ties and accessories, has been based for over 70 years.

Smuts-Kennedy says the decision to open the new shop came from the growing number of people wanting to visit the factory.

“People just wanted to come and see how the product is made.”

He says the factory has already become a destination and a shop will allow Hills to have constant direct contact with customers.

Smuts-Kennedy says he is excited to be able to display Hills’ full range for the first time.

He says Petone is a great place to do business and the growing café and restaurant scene is a good indication of how the suburb is developing.

“Petone’s incredibly vibrant. I mean who would have thought how many eateries are here, it’s almost ridiculous. It’s a hub of movement and people that are wanting the quality experience.”

Hills previously ran the first incarnation of Wellington Hatters from Woodward St in Wellington from 2006 to 2009.

Smuts-Kennedy says the first shop was closed to concentrate on manufacturing for other retailers.

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