Welcome to HeartMade, the podcast where you can listen in on insightful conversations with founders, CEOs and creative directors on how they build unique brands that combine excellence with personality. Or as I like to say: craft and glory. My name is Siems Luckwaldt, I am a Germany-based writer and 20-year veteran of luxury and lifestyle reporting for publications such as “how to spend it”, the Financial Times Deutschland, Robb Report, Capital, Business Punk and many others.
If you like what you hear please subscribe in your favourite podcast app, give me a five-star rating and tell your friends and colleagues about this show. Thank you! You can also drop me a line anytime on the website craftandglory.com to let me know which interview guest I should invite for future episodes. But now to today’s guest, brand and story.
A fitting title? Well, that would probably be: You can leave your hat on. Because in a little while I’ll be talking to Klaus Kirschner, the CEO of FWS Hats, short for the company Friedrich W. Schneider headquartered in Cologne, Germany. Never heard? Neither did I, but let me help you by mentioning one of the brands whose products they manufacture and sell in a licensing agreement: Stetson.
„At the same time, however, he took his company’s role in the life of every employee and the larger community very seriously. While contemporary entrepreneurs like Dale Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were sometimes ruthless in their approach to business and their workforce – and tried to make up for that with their respective philanthropic efforts – Stetson’s religious beliefs made him fully embrace his responsibility.“
Now, if you’re like me that name immediately summons up images of the wild, wild west, of daring men on horseback, galloping across dusty prairies. Of paperboys with their caps standing on street corners in Manhattan in the 1920s and 1930s shouting “extra, extra”. Of elegant gentlemen tipping their fedoras to women passing them by on Sunset Boulevard. Just three scenes that my mind’s eye conjures up, yours might look totally different. There are many more to choose from after all the Stetson brand can look back on a fascinating 155-year-old history. Embedded into the American experience as well as distinct moments, decades and fads of other countries where Stetson hats were sold.
It all starts on May 5th, 1830, when John Batterson Stetson is born in the city of Orange in New Jersey, the 8th of 12 children of a family of hat makers. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis as a young man John decides to travel the frontier, the famous American West, because who knew how much time he would have to see this mythical place? And also as a way of escaping the industrial pollution that tortured his lungs – and maybe even to find some of those shiny, shimmering nuggets everyone was so crazy about during the Goldrush. Among the farmers, cowboys, gold diggers and other craftsmen and fortune seekers of Colorado the professional hatter soon realizes that their traditional racoonskin caps fell apart pretty rapidly and many had turned into flea motels. Maybe a hat made from fur-felt would work much better in those rough climates and conditions?
Stetson experiments with his first wide-brimmed 10-gallon hat which the locals glady buy from him. This success made him return east at the age of 35 to incorporate the John B. Stetson Co. in Philadelphia in 1865. In a tiny room and with just about 100 Dollars in cash. the company would not only produce cowboy hats like the iconic „Boss of the Plains“ but also more urban varieties and women’s hats. In the early 20th century Stetson was the world’s largest hat producer, employing about 5000 workers. Like Henry Ford who introduced the assembly line in his car factories many decades later John B. Stetson was a pioneer who swiftly scaled up his production with innovative, more efficient methods.
At the same time, however, he took his company’s role in the life of every employee and the larger community very seriously. While contemporary entrepreneurs like Dale Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were sometimes ruthless in their approach to business and their workforce – and tried to make up for that with their respective philanthropic efforts – Stetson’s religious beliefs made him fully embrace his responsibility. He paid decent wages, had a generous system of apprenticeships, provided loans and mortgages, a library, a kindergarten (with 2000 children attending in the late 1800s), a Sunday school, a gym and a hospital.
This paternal way of conducting a for-profit enterprise made workers stay with the company way longer, kept productivity above industry averages and led to whole families and many generations working for the company. A highlight of the year was the annual Christmas party, housed in the factory’s own 5000 seat auditorium. The list of gifts in 1920 contained the following: „2,524 turkeys (every married man received one); 444 hats (given to the unmarried men); 988 pairs of gloves and 1,400 pounds of candy (for the women); 36 watches, 35 chains; a total of $525,000 in cash bonuses for workers; a total of $11,000 in cash bonuses for foremen and apprentices; 425 shares of Stetson Building and Loan Association; 75 shares of Stetson Company common stock; and five $5,000 life insurance policies.“ I’ll provide a link to a very thorough biography and timeline of John B. Stetson’s life in this episode’s show notes, really fascinating stuff.
The Stetson cowboy hat became the obvious choice for famous people from western culture like Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley (made famous by the musical „Annie, get your gun“) and Tom Mix, Hollywood’s first Cowboy superstar. Other well-known clients throughout the company’s history included: Harry Cary, Patsy O’Day, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and „Indiana Jones“. Today the famous cowboy hats are made in Garland, Texas, by Hatco (managed by Former Rodeo Star Ricky Bolin), while other parts of the line-up are made under license in different markets, like for example by FWS Hats in Cologne, since 1998.
John B. Stetson died of a heart attack in 1906 at the age of 76, yet his life’s work continued on. In 1915 the factory produced over 3,3 million hats per year. Hat fashions changed of course, the cowboy hat soon made room for the top hat, the bowler, the fedora and the trilby. In the 1930s women’s styles like the Cheviot beret, the pillbox and the tricorne as well as the Cloche for the summer season were added. The 1940s brought straw boaters, panama hats, snap brims and many more ladies’ designs. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s headwear suffered a steep decline as men opted for a more casual, toned-down appearance. But the cowboy hat pulled Stetson through this downturn. Thank God also for Frank Sinatra who famously said: „I never take my [Stetson] hat off in public”.
In 1970 Stetson became a licensing company with a small number of trusted manufacturers. Movies like „Urban Cowboy“ fueled the popularity of Western styles, as did celebrities like Burt Reynolds and others with their prairie-meets-highway approach to their outfits. Over the coming decades the product portfolio diversified with a Stetson cologne, luggage, a bourbon whiskey and western boots bearing the famous logo.
And during the recent black lives matter protests the Steson brand made waves on social media platforms with a campaign putting present day black cowboys front and center of its storytelling.
What a rich company history that stood the test of time at multiple occasions, changing as much as was needed to survive while doubling down on its values, its stylistic dna and its unique character.
Which brings us to today’s guest, Klaus Kirschner, a 25 year veteran of the hat-making industry and current CEO of Stetson Europe at FWS Hats. With him, I will speak on the lessons of this iconic company, on changing times, challenges, his management philosophy and how to build such an evergreen company as John B. Stetson did. I hope you will get some useful insights from him and the Stetson company legacy. Check back soon or subscribe in your favourite podcast app so you won’t miss future episodes of this show. Until then thank you very much for listening, getting the word out there about HeartMade and feel free to provide feedback and your ideas for my guest list anytime on craftandglory.com
Links from this episode:
- Stetson Europe
- Stetson Hatteras style
- Stetson Cowboy Hats: The Making of a Legend – YouTube
- Stetson USA on Instagram
- extensive Stetson company history
- feature on rodeo star Ricky Bolin and his plans for Stetson US
Theme: „Honey and Milk“ by The 126ers / YouTube Audio Library
Background music: „Meet Again“ by Emily A. Sprague / YouTube Audio Library
Cover art: Jack Moreh / Jooinn.com (illustration); axelmoschcaptures (photo); Siems Luckwaldt (design)