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


Business Live

    Via Email Flydubai spokesperson

    After landing at Baghdad International Airport (BGW) on 26 January 2015, damage to the aircraft fuselage consistent with small arms fire was discovered on flydubai flight FZ 215. All the passengers disembarked normally through the jet bridge. No medical attention was required at the airport. Passengers from Baghdad to Dubai were accommodated on a replacement aircraft. An investigation is underway to establish what happened.

    08:43: Market update

    Small movements early on in European share trading. London's benchmark FTSE 100 index of top companies has nudged 0.08% lower to 6,846.74 points, Frankfurt's DAX 30 shed 0.12% to 10,785.90 and the CAC 40 in Paris lost 0.07% to 4,671.76 points.

    08:36: Aircraft fired on

    Flights between the United Arab Emirates and Baghdad have been suspended after a FlyDubai aircraft was hit by gunfire as it approached the Iraqi capital. No-one was injured in the attack, the budget carrier said. Etihad and Emirates have also suspended their services to Baghdad as a precaution.

    08:33: Economy BBC Breakfast

    "There are big economic and social challenges," says Labour leader Ed Miliband on Breakfast. "They [the Conservative party] say everything's fixed... I don't agree. People are £1,600 worse off at the end of this parliament than the beginning."

    08:28: Welfare to work BBC Radio 4

    Did you hear the starting gun? It's 100 days until the general election, so campaigning begins. Mr Cameron's talking on Today about proposals to cut the benefit cap to £23,000. Will that mean more people go out and find work? The Prime Minister says that around 40% of people that have been effected by the current cap have gone out and sought work. He says the government will use the money saved from reducing the benefit cap - if the Conservatives win the election - to create 3 million apprenticeships.

    08:17: GDP preview BBC Radio 4

    Economic professor Richard Portes of the Centre for Economic Policy Research takes up Mr Littlewood's surgical metaphor in relation to the government's economic policies but says "the patient almost died". The actual proportion of people in work is still lower than before the financial crisis while wages are 6% lower than they should be, he says. If the government points to the way in which the deficit has been handled its story ahead of the election isn't very good at all, he adds.

    Apprenticeships Via Email Chris Pocock, a Business live reader from Sheffield

    "The pay of apprentices at Ford Dagenham is not typical. The government's own evidence to the Low Pay Commission indicates shockingly high levels of non-compliance by employers in paying apprentices the national minimum wage."

    07:53: Carpetright sales

    Carpetright has reported a 7.5% rise in UK like-for-like sales in the three months to 24 January. It has also kept its full year profit guidance unchanged. Like-for-like sale in the rest of Europe rose 1.7%, it adds.

    07:40: GDP preview BBC Radio 4

    The government hasn't stuck to its deficit plans, says Mark Littlewood on Today, but it has stuck to its spending plans. We have several more years before we will be living within our means but "the direction of travel" is the most important thing. "If the government had said to hell with this, we're going to carry on as before, then markets would have had more of a wobble," he says, but a deficit reduction target of five years achieved in eight, while disappointing, is far less of a concern.

    07:25: Apprenticeships BBC Breakfast

    Prime Minister David Cameron is on Breakfast. He's talking about apprenticeships: "we overplayed university and downplayed apprenticeships" he says, whereas "both are important." He says after visiting apprentices at Ford in Dagenham trainees can earn £30,000 after four years. Does that match your experience, readers? bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk

    Facebook down Via Twitter Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

    "Hacker group Lizard Squad -@lizardmafia - claiming it's taken down Facebook, Instagram and other sites."

    07:14: Aer Lingus bid

    British Airways owner IAG says the board of Aer Lingus has indicated "that the financial terms of [its] proposal are at a level at which it would be willing to recommend [the takeover approach] to Aer Lingus shareholders" after Monday's €2.55 per share offer for the Irish carrier. Aer Lingus appears to be letting IAG have a look at its accounts, granting it access to "perform a limited period of confirmatory due diligence."

    07:12: Facebook back!

    Facebook appears to be back. Panic over, everyone.

    07:10: Facebook down

    Facebook is down in France, Australia, Spain and Singapore, readers and colleagues tell us. A colleague is busy furiously poking the organisation to find out what's going on. Reader Kath Olliffe in Sydney writes in: "It's a strange feeling because you kind of want to post a status that FB is down and what are we all to do. You want to look up FB to see if there is something wrong with FB!"

    07:07: GDP preview BBC Radio 4

    The latest estimate of UK economic growth will be released at 9:30 today and the economic recovery is looking increasingly likely to be the government's main story during the election. Has it a good story to tell? Mark Littlewood, director general at the Institute of Economic Affairs, tells Today that broadly, yes it does. He thinks the government will say: "we're only about half way through the surgery and May isn't the time to change the surgeon".

    06:55: GDP preview BBC Breakfast

    Not to be out-done by Wake Up to Money's trip to Aston, Breakfast has sent presenter Steph McGovern to a ceramics factory in Stoke to see if the predicted GDP growth is benefiting people. Lisa Grimley says supermarket prices remain high, especially food. Energy bills need to come down before things improve. Since the credit crisis, petrol prices have reduced and that's about it. "It's a struggle for young people."

    Facebook down Via Email Steven Weerdenburg Business live reader

    It's 1.50 am and Facebook is down in Toronto. Looks like I might have to go to sleep after all.

    06:47: GDP preview Radio 5 live

    Wake Up to Money presenter Adam Parsons is in East End Foods in Aston, near Birmingham. "It's like being in Terminal 2" he says. He's there in preparation for today's GDP figure. Jason Wouhra, director of the firm, says stable interest rates have helped confidence in investing. Curry ingredients, corn flakes and coke are the more popular items.

    06:38: Facebook down

    Forget the GDP figures. This is much bigger news. Facebook is offline everyone. Facebook is down! Is this just a UK problem? Get in touch and let us know at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or tweet us @bbcbusiness to tell us how you are coping.

    06:32: GDP preview Radio 5 live

    Virginie Maisonneuve of asset manager Pimco is on Wake Up to Money talking about GDP. She expects 0.6% growth in this fourth quarter first estimate from the Office for National Statistics. GDP is forecast by a number of experts to have grown by 2.6% for the year, the same level as in 2007 and up from 1.7% in 2013.

    06:23: Market update Radio 5 live

    Virginie Maisonneuve of asset manager Pimco is talking on Wake Up to Money about the markets. They were mainly up yesterday. Minority parties taking power in Europe has "not been taken seriously" by the market she says.

    06:07: Greek election fallout Radio 5 live

    More from Yannis Zabetakis, a lecturer at the university of Athens, is on Wake Up to Money. Youth unemployment at 50% is another dangerous signal for the country, he says. He also denies Greece is a special case. While there's growth in Britain under austerity, the wealth gap is widening and there are more people in poverty, he says.

    06:02: Greek election fallout Radio 5 live
    A supporter of Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza left-wing party, holds the Greek and French flag

    Yannis Zabetakis, a lecturer at the university of Athens, is on 5 live talking about the debt burden on Greece. More than a million unemployed means paying off the debt is very difficult, he says. Employment prospects for his students are very poor and he recommends setting up an export company or going abroad. Salaries are going down and tax up, he adds.

    06:01: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning folks. Get in touch at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk ot tweet us at @bbcbusiness.

    06:00: Howard Mustoe Business reporter

    Good morning. At 09:30 we expect the first estimate for fourth quarter gross domestic product for the UK. There'll also be company results from 07:00. Stay with us.



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.