An Overnight Success, 17 Years in the Making
April 23, 2012
As a young boy, Trent Johnson collected hats. At this age he didn’t know what he would do for a job. However, it seemed like his destiny was already there, he just didn’t know it yet. He would eventually become a hat maker, and is now the owner of Greeley Hat Works in Greeley, Colo.
The business has been around since 1909, and was originally called the Greeley Shining Parlor, and was a shoe shining business. In 1926 ownership changed, and the business was renamed Greeley Hat Shop and Shining Parlor.
Then in the 1960s the name was changed to Greeley Hat Shop as the customers changed. The business was sold to Susie Orr in 1985, and was moved to her ranch, where the business was run out of her barn.
Johnson came to Greeley initially to go to college, and began working at the ranch in his spare time. Johnson found himself working more and more in her hat shop, and spent three and a half years as an apprentice hat-maker.
“I just fell in love with it. I didn’t grow up with it, but as a kid I had a hat collection. I was meant to do this, I just didn’t know it when I was little,” he said.
Johnson likes being able to see the big picture of building a product. “All the people I was going to college with, when they were getting jobs, they all had a piece of the puzzle, but they didn’t get to see the whole picture. I was one of the few people who got to make something from start to finish and see it go on to the consumer. It was very cool,” he said.
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He decided to purchase the hat business in 1996. However, he didn’t have the money to do so, and found that banks were not willing to give him the loan he needed.
He went to his uncle to borrow money, and his uncle agreed. “The interest he was charging me was every year I didn’t pay the note off, I had to build him a hat. I paid it off the first year, and I built him two hats just in case I ever needed to borrow more,” he said.
He also approached his parents with his business plan, and after reading it, they refused to give him the money. “They said to me, you have the money. I told them I didn’t,” he said.
However, this was not the case. When Johnson was in high school, he owned a lawn mowing business. When he first started he borrowed his parent’s mower, and his dad drove him around to different jobs.
“They told me, remember when you thought we were mean and we charged you to use the lawnmower and mileage to drive you around and rent? We invested all that money. You have that money. We were trying to teach you the value of the dollar and hard work,” he said.
This background helped shape the way Johnson works, and his drive to succeed. When he bought the business the name was changed to Greeley Hat Works, and this is when the marketing of the business really began.
“The last year I worked as an apprentice, we built 60 hats. The first year I owned it, I built 120. Last year we built 3,500,” Johnson said.
The business has been built on three characteristics. “I think integrity, quality and customer service are the three things I’m not willing to sacrifice,” he said.
Even though the business has grown substantially since Johnson first took over, he has been careful to not grow too fast and lose sight of those characteristics that are so important to him.
“I’ve always believed it’s better to grow smart and not fast, because the two things that got us to where we are quality and customer service. If we grow too fast, I feel like those things are the first two things to go. Those things are important to me,” he said.
To build the brand name, Johnson has had to travel all over the United States and internationally. He started off building hats for other businesses.
“Ten years ago when I was building hats for other people, my retailers wanted their name on the hat. I was cool with ghost building them. However, as I kept traveling and working with my retailers and meeting people, they started putting Trent and Greeley Hat Works together. Now, they want my name on the label as well,” he said.
He has built his business in the U.S. by sticking to the qualities that are important to him. “In the U.S. it has been more word-of-mouth. When there is a horse show and a bunch of people go up to a retailer asking for my hats, it’s only so long before they call me,” he said.
However, he will not sell hats to any retailer. He wants his retailers to reflect what the hats are, and that is quality.
“I’m still selective in my retail partners. A lot of the time I go to the store not as Greeley Hat Works or as Trent, but just as a consumer. I’m not selective as much on location as I am on the vibe I get from them,” he said.
He added, “My hats don’t work well in big stores, because they are more expensive and don’t sell themselves. I like locally owned stores that don’t have just clerks. That’s where my products work the best,” he said.
Johnson spends time during the year visiting retailers and giving them the support they need to be successful. “The only way I will make money is if my retailers make money,” he said.
Today, Greeley Hat Works sells hats in nearly 20 U.S. states, and nine countries including England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Australian and New Zealand.
All of the hats that are made are done so at the Greeley location, and they are all made by hand whether it is a custom made hat or one for a retailer.
It takes about two months to make a hat, due mostly to the waiting list for the product. A custom made hat will take from six to eight hours to make, and that is spread out over a week. A hand-made hat will take about four hours, again over a week.
“There are so many heating and cooling processes, that it takes time to build them. There are quality standards, and I am not going to rush through them,” Johnson said.
He added, “I tell people there are three kinds of hats. Good, fast or cheap. Ninety-nine percent of the people pick good.”
Johnson offers a wide range of styles, colors and quality. However, the system that he uses to determine the quality is based on the percentage of beaver in the hat, not on the X system that many commercial hat makers use.
“I don’t use the X rating system. There is no industry standard or government regulation with it. Whether people buy a hat from me or not, I think it’s very important for a consumer to be able to talk to the producer about what he’s making the hat out of,” Johnson said.
He explained, “The advantage to having more beaver in a hat is it makes it thinner, lighter weight, more weather resistant and more durable. It cleans up better, hold it’s shape better and lasts longer.”
Even though he puts in long hours and a lot of time on the road, Johnson still loves what he does and the people he gets to meet.
“The challenge and the people have kept me in this business. We get to do lots of cool things. I’ve built hats for movies, for presidents and for head’s of state. But our bread and butter, and the thing we super enjoy is just the salt of the earth people. I think our hats are a higher quality product that was made in America, by Americans, that have the service to back up the sale. I think that’s important to people,” he said.
Even though the last couple of years the business has really taken off, Johnson knows all the ground work that he had to do and the work he has put in has been worth it.
“I’m like an overnight success, 17 years in the making,” he said.