Biltmore Hats: Post-War Production to 2011
From the War to the End
Post-War times helped to improve business. Hats remained popular and sold well. Biltmore Hats were still perceived as being a glamorous item to own. The only glitch in the operation was the death of Tiller in 1950. However, the company saw fit to appoint the man who had been running the company all along to the presidency. It was a position Franke was to hold for the next six years.
During this time, Franke helped to make it one of the company’s best decades on record. His major accomplishment was the growth of Biltmore Hats through the purchase of Lancashire Felt. Franke addressed the shareholders on October 17, 1952, explaining to them the advantages. They included:
o The ability to control certain economic factors e.g. provision of felt
o The consolidation of the Biltmore’s two factories and the Lancashire Felt business into one factory – the Lancashire factory on Morris Street
Moreover, the move would allow the company to sell the two Biltmore structures and put it towards the purchase price. According to The Financial Times, this was $170,000. Of this amount, Biltmore would have to pay $13,500 in acceptance and the rest over an eight-month period.
Franke was no longer president in 1957 when the move into Lancashire Felt and its expansion were complete. He had conceded this role to Norman MacMillan in 1956. As Chairman and General Manager, Franke put his support behind McMillan who had first joined the company in 1926 and worked his way from purchasing agent to GM and Director in 1950. As for McMillan, he applied his talent and experience to make certain Biltmore became a dominant player in the Canadian hat making industry.
Under the two men, the production of Biltmore hats rose substantially. The average number of hats produced daily in the plant numbered around 2,400. These products were labour-intensive. They were also the result of approximately 350 skilled employees.
During the 1950s Biltmore became increasingly popular in the community. They helped to cement brand-recognition by becoming sponsors of a Junior A Hockey team. This was the now renowned - Biltmore Mad Hatters. Although they had actually gotten behind the team in 1947, it had not achieved much success until the 1950s. The pinnacle was, of course, winning the Memorial Cup in 1952. It was during this period that Biltmore created a tradition that has been the source of much debate. If a player scored three times during a game, the company awarded him a hat. This has since become known as a “Hat Trick.”
The 1960s & 1970s
While technological advances were altering the industry and improving production rates, the popularity of hats was also undergoing a sea-change. People were no longer wearing hats of the type Biltmore was producing. Their beaver and other felt hats were no longer popular. To try to regain a market, Biltmore introduced a new line. This one was for the active individual. This was the Rain Away Hat. Another type the company produced with some success was a western-style felt hat. They also decided to produce caps.
Fabric choice was also changing. Since beaver felt hats were no longer popular, Biltmore chose to work with fabric as well as straw.
The change in public taste did not, however, affect Biltmore’s expansion. They chose to make strategic acquisitions. One of these was Buckley-Brookes of Montreal. They were, however, competing against another well-known company. The Canadian branch of Stetson was amalgamating its assets by acquiring several small Canadian hat makers.
The Strike of 1968
The stresses of the 1960s also were reflected in a second strike at Biltmore. At noon on February 16,1968, Biltmore workers walked out on their jobs. They did not know it at the time, but they would remain out until April 26 when the union and the company finally struck a deal. At issue were two things:
The union had a membership of at least 185. They were negotiating another three-year contract. Their last one had expired in June 1967. After the walk-out, the first action of workers was to hold a mass demonstration with plans for more to keep up awareness of the strike, what was at stake and the need for negotiations to take place. William Flaherty, local president, represented the union helped out by James Harvey (treasurer)Jack Hack, Marion Keating (recording-secretary) and Pearl Robinson.
Although the strike was a relatively peaceful one, violence did erupt. Picketers and non-strikers were both arrested and appeared in court against Magistrate H. R Hewett on the morning of April 10, 1968. The court was overflowing with strikers intent on hearing the outcome. The strikers’ attorney, Carl Hamilton obtained an adjournment.
The strike went on. At the end, however, the union achieved its major goals. Employees won a new three-year contract with an increase in wages. They also got one more statutory holiday off a year – Boxing Day. This now meant workers had a total of 9 statutory holidays annually off. Out for 74 days, the union remarked that this had been the longest recorded strike in the history of the Hatters’ Union in Canada.
Moving towards the End
In 1972, Biltmore Hats was sold to Guaranty Trust of Toronto. This marked the first-time ownership was no longer held by Guelph interests – they were outsiders. It was true that those who physically operated the company lived in the city, but they were not responsible to or had a stake in the overall welfare of the community. The result was not an improvement for the company. In fact, as the hat market continued to fluctuate, teetering on collapse, the overall profitability of the company was in serious doubt.
Biltmore tries to adapt to the changing market. They opted for cheaper, more sporty hats. They diversified by selling belts and ties. They even sold products under their label that were not made locally. It was all for nought. Sales declined drastically. The company bankruptcy in April 1982.
The future of Biltmore Hats was now in doubt. Their doors were locked, their workers looking for other employment. This was the case for 2 months. No white knight seemed to be interested.
In June 1982, the company’s luck seemed to change for the better. Stetson Hat Company from Missouri, bought Biltmore. However, the use of the name “Biltmore” vanished on the product. Only Stetson Hats came out of the plant. Biltmore Hats was now only a branch of the John B. Stetson Company.
After what must have seemed a long two years, Stetson ceased to operate in Guelph. They, too, had gone bankrupt. Under Chapter 11, the future looked dire as the Canadian arm was spun off and held by the AJD Cap Company.
From Factory to Townhouses
Yet, Biltmore, once again proved those who saw it defunct were wrong. New investors snapped up Stetson’s Guelph assets. This small Guelph group included a familiar name - Kloepfer. Biltmore once again was free to operate as its own entity.
In October 1988, the company once again began to manufacture hats boasting the Biltmore label. At the helm was President Robert William (Bob) Kloepfer (1939-2016). He worked hard to slowly increase profits and viability. Under his steady had, the company focused on sports hats – specifically golfing hats. He also obtained contracts to provide hats for two important Canadian law enforcement bodies:
- The Royal Canadian Mounted Police
- The Ontario Provincial Police
By concentrating on these two areas and reducing in half the facilities, Kloepfer helped improve the company’s bottom line. His successor, Walter Gosk, tried to build on this approach. He diversified further into specialized markets. For whatever reason, he failed. The company once more was facing bankruptcy. In 2004, Biltmore Hats entered into receivership.
Once again, although the end seemed inevitable, Biltmore escaped. An American accountant and hat aficionado, Eric Lynes, bought the company the following year. From Louisville, Kentucky, his dream was for Biltmore to return to its previous strength – the production of high-quality, fashionable and well-constructed hats. He proceeded to work towards this goal. However, in 2010, Dorman Pacific purchased the company. Although Biltmore Hats continue to be made, they are no longer from the Guelph facility. Dorman closed the Guelph plant in 2011. Today, the land it once occupied, is home to so-called factory-style two houses.