Conner Handmade Hats

Submitted Nov 2019

Responsibly Grown, Beautifully Made. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make an expert. Will Conner started clocking his way toward hat making proficiency as a kid in his dad’s factory in Byron Bay, Australia. In 2014, the surfer/musician created the Conner Hats brand. Will Conner grew up in Byron Bay and came to St. Augustine, Florida at age 18 to study business administration at Flagler College. In one class the professor asked, “What would be a good business idea?” Will’s reply was, “to sell Australian hats.” The whole class, including the professor, laughed at the idea, either because Australian hats were a surprising choice, or because of Will’s thick Aussie accent. Either way, it was just enough of a challenge for Will to try to prove them wrong. After his first semester, Will decided he’d take a chance and learn business in the real world. Will’s father, Bill Conner started BC Hats® in 1969 and was the first in Australia to make a leather hat with a shapeable brim. His original style, ‘The Stockman’, has inspired many imitations around the world. Will learned the manufacturing side of hat-making from a young age, but his passion has always been in sales, marketing, and the systems of the business. “Selling a product that you believe in and are passionate about makes all the difference,” Will says. “That’s why I have never given up on hats—we make the true, hand-crafted Australian original. I love Australia, and I love that BC hats embody a timeless Australian image. It’s not just about selling hats, its sharing a part of Australia’s spirit—our customers become honorary Aussies no matter where in the world they are.” With the money he’d saved for college Will decided to import and distribute his father’s hats in the United States. It was 1989, just a few years after the now-classic movie Crocodile Dundee had put Australia on the map for Americans. “Starting out, I felt my best chance to make a sale was just calling retailers on the phone, but because of my strong accent some very funny conversations ensued,” he says. “Until I learned to tone down my Australian accent, people didn’t always understand what I was trying to sell. Imitating an American accent and referencing Crocodile Dundee really helped me make my first sales. After building some courage, visiting stores in person was a much better option. Once I realized that making a sale is just about making friends, everything seemed much easier and more fun. When you believe in your product you really don’t have to try hard to sell it. Luckily, people seemed to like my low-key approach. I still have many of those originalcustomers from more than twenty years ago.” It took a few years to go from a two-car garage, to a rented storage unit, to a small warehouse with a few employees. At that point, Will decided to make an unorthodox move and literally move in with his hats. He built a plywood floor and a few shelves into a sleeping space above his 10-foot by 10-foot office. “It was like camping indoors with no windows and a bunch of hats,” Will recalls. “I ran extension cords for a reading light and a cooker, and built a shower in an outside building that the landlord let me have. The problem was waiting until all the other tenants left to take a shower!” This move forced Will to really focus on his business. “I called the warehouse ‘home’ for seven years, but I did travel a lot for sales in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere—perhaps for my own sanity.” Trading the comforts of home for greater commitment to his business, Will saved enough money for a deposit on a house, and a few acres of industrial land for Conner Hats’ current warehouse. By designing and manufacturing styles beyond what BC Hats offers, Will was able to grow his business and find placement in a wider selection of retail stores across the U.S. As the business grew, Conner Hats solidified a commitment to incorporating sustainable materials like organic cotton, hemp, and from recycled plastic composites.

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