Akubra hats: Keeping it in the family

Akubra hats, as seen in the Crocodile Dundee films, are still made by the same family after more than a century

Related Stories

Walking on to the floor of the Akubra hat factory in the town of Kempsey in New South Wales is like stepping back in time.

The heavy machines whirring and buzzing look like they should be in a museum - and at 100 years of age, some of them could be.

Akubra has been run by one family for five generations and their handsome felt hats, which are made with rabbit fur, are very much a part of Australia's national identity.

"We've survived depressions, world wars and global financial crises," says Stephen Keir IV, who took over running the business from his father a few years ago.

Prince William wearing an Akubra The Duke of Cambridge donned an Akubra on a 2011 trip to Australia

Now one of the only people in the world who can make an Akubra hat from start to finish, Stephen says the business is in his blood.

"There was no pressure for me to come into the business - I don't know how my sisters felt about it, but it was left up to me, whatever I wanted to do," he says.

"So I just decided in 1990 that it was time to come home and move into the business. And in all fairness, in our family, it's pretty much all we know."

Three generations of Keirs Three generations: Stephen Keir IV, Stephen Keir V and Stephen Keir III
In the beginning

Start Quote

I guess it makes you feel a bit patriotic to wear one”

End Quote Oliver King Akubra customer

It was Stephen's great-great grandfather Benjamin Dunkerly who started the firm.

With a knack for machinery and hat making, he left England for Tasmania in 1874, and before long saw a business opportunity in Australia's rabbit problem.

The vermin compete with domestic livestock for food and their rapid spread at the time was wreaking havoc for farmers, prompting culling efforts.

Benjamin meanwhile invented a machine that could remove the fur used for making felt from a rabbit skin - a process that had been until then managed by hand. The machine made the hat-making process faster and easier and helped Stephen build the beginnings of a busy hat business.

By 1905 he had hired a young Englishman with millinery prowess of his own, Stephen Keir I.

Akubra factory The Keir family says the business is a long part of Australia's history

That first Stephen eventually married Benjamin's daughter, Ada, and together they started a succession of Keirs at Akubra's helm.

Synonymous with Australia

Akubra hats have been given as gifts to visiting dignitaries, worn by Australia's Olympians and military, as well as Hollywood stars.

At Strand Hatters - a well-known hat shop in Sydney - Akubras are the most popular item on the shelves.

The store's manager is milliner Robert Carroll, who also designs hats for Akubra. He says the brand makes up more than half of his shop sales and that its popularity is growing.

"It's never been as strong and it's that outback, Aussie-looking hat that people are after as well," he explains.

Factory floor Akubra has come a long way over the years; today exports are growing rapidly

Customer Oliver King has brought his Akubra in to get it steamed and reshaped. He inherited the hat, and says Akubras are as popular today as they were 100 years ago.

"It's part of Australia's heritage, and I guess it makes you feel a bit patriotic to wear one," he says.

Changing track

After the death of their father, Stephen IV and his two sisters, Nikki McLeod and Stacey McIntyre, decided to take co-ownership of the business, which Nikki says was a big change.

"The company was in sole ownership with my father, but now the three of us own it, so it's a whole different scenario," she explains.

Stephen on factory floor Stephen IV says as the business continues to expand he will need more help

Start Quote

I'm sure all of the cousins and grandkids are interested in being involved with the business, to help out the family, and grow it into bigger and better things”

End Quote Hamish McLeod Keir family member

The three siblings have regular meetings to discuss the future of the business and about who will take over the leadership of the company, including discussions over their own children.

"It has to be the best person for the job," Stephen says. "It's as simple as that.

"And if there's someone that wants to be here, or if there are two that want to be here, and one's not as qualified as the other, then that one misses out.

"And if that's one of my kids - that's going to be a hard decision. But it's a decision that we've made as a group and that's what we're going to do."

'A great honour'

The next generation is eager to carry on the tradition of running the family firm.

Hats being made It takes over a month to make one Akubra

"We've grown up with it being a big part of our lives," says Nikki's son, Hamish McLeod, who is currently undertaking a business degree.

"And I'm sure all of the cousins and grandkids are interested in being involved with the business, to help out the family, and grow it into bigger and better things."

His cousin, Stephen Keir V, Stephen IV's eldest son, starts university next year, but has spent time working in the factory, learning from his father.

"The legacy does make us want to continue making the hats," he says. "Carrying that on would be a great honour, I think, for any of the grandchildren in the Keir family," he says.

Hat being made Two hundred pairs of hands will touch each hat before it is finished

Stephen IV says the public also wants the company to keep true to its roots. "The most amount of pressure I get is an expectation from the community to keep this business as an Australian-owned, family-run business," he says.

Future plans

Akubra's exports are growing rapidly. In recent years, Asia has emerged as a big market for the firm, with Tibet becoming their biggest overseas customer.

The company has also ventured into different products with the launch of a new line of leather luggage and accessories.

"I'd like to see us expand into areas we never thought we'd be expanding into, and be 10 times bigger than we are now," says Stephen IV.

"I'm not capable of that by myself though. I'd need outside help, so maybe one of the kids will be that person."

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

Business Live

  1.  
    07:24: New fund BBC Radio 4

    Nigel Wilson, chief executive of asset manager and insurer Legal & General, says the firm will put £1.5bn for a new infrastructure fund in the UK on Today. "We are very long-term investors - 20, 30, 40, 50, years," he says. Longer-term financing from fund managers like him are the future rather than shorter-term bank lending, he says. Will £1.5bn be enough? He's attracting outside investors and will borrow money to grow the fund to about £25bn.

     
  2.  
    07:15: Royal Mail chairman
    mail

    Donald Brydon will step down as chairman of Royal Mail, the company says. The company is looking for a new one. Mr Brydon will carry on until the firm's annual meeting in the summer.

     
  3.  
    07:10: Shell earnings

    Shell has reported full year earnings (on a current cost of supply basis) of $19bn compared with $16.7bn a year earlier. Fourth quarter earnings were also higher at $4.2bn compared with $2.2bn for the same quarter a year ago.

     
  4.  
    06:58: Eurozone union BBC Radio 4

    Bank of England Governor Mark Carney yesterday said the eurozone needs fiscal union to manage monetary union. James Bevan, an asset manager CCLA, tells Today "a root cause of the problem is absence of growth," low money rates alone won't get growth going.

     
  5.  
    06:48: Shell results
    Car lights are seen streaking past an oil rig extracting petroleum

    Some discussion here on the business livepage as to just how cheap it really is to extract oil in Saudi Arabia. So we thought we'd open it up to the floor. How much do you think it costs Saudi Arabia - per barrel - to extract oil from the ground. Send your answers to bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or tweet @bbcbbusiness. Usual rules apply: no peeking at the internet.

     
  6.  
    06:38: Shell results Radio 5 live

    How does the lower oil price affect alternative ways of exploring for oil such as shale? Michael Hewson of CMC markets tells Wake Up to Money shale oil exploration is largely dead in the water. Getting shale oil out of the ground is still far more expensive than getting oil out of the ground in Saudi Arabia, he says. What pushed up Saudi Arabia's oil extraction costs was the welfare programme the country introduced when the Arab Spring broke out in 2011. He adds Saudi Arabia can live with a low oil price for a long time.

     
  7.  
    06:23: Shell results Radio 5 live

    "I think there is a good chance that we could see a reduction in [Shell's] dividend and that could affect pension funds here in the UK," Michael Hewson of CMC markets tells Wake Up to Money. He doesn't see that happening just yet, but if the oil price continues to fall, or stays low for a long time, then he thinks it is unavoidable.

     
  8.  
    06:11: Shell results Radio 5 live

    Michael Hewson of CMC markets tells Wake Up to Money he expects Shell's revenues will be slightly lower when it publishes results later this morning. He is, naturally, interested in how Shell is coping with the lower oil price. He doesn't think "we've hit bottom yet" in terms of oil prices. "The Saudi's have still got their foot to the floor in terms of market share," he says. "The low hanging fruit in terms of getting oil of out the ground is gone," he adds.

     
  9.  
    06:01: Apple analysis
    apple

    Apple caught up with Samsung as the world's biggest smartphone seller in the fourth quarter of 2014, thanks to booming sales of its new iPhone 6, market researcher Strategy Analytics said. Strategy Analytics said Apple flogged 74.5 million handsets in the fourth quarter, compared to 51 million a year ago. Samsung shifted the same number, which for them was a reduction from 86 million the previous year.

     
  10.  
    06:01: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning. Do get in touch at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or tweet us @bbcbusiness.

     
  11.  
    06:00: Howard Mustoe Business reporter

    Good morning everyone. Overnight, McDonald's has said Don Thompson will retire as chief executive of the fast food firm to be replaced by British-born Steve Easterbrook, the company's current chief brand officer. We have house price data from the Land Registry at 09:30 and Shell's results to look forward to. Stay tuned.

     

Features

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.