"Go West, young man," was never a call Dean Serratelli or Stuart Alboum heeded, with both men keeping their cowboy hat manufacturing plants in northern New Jersey, despite the majority of their business coming from beyond the Mississippi. Only a handful of shops in New Jersey sell the Western-style hats of Serratelli Hat Co. and W. Alboum Hat Co., but neither of the multigenerational manufacturers is interested in leaving Essex County.
"It's actually a competitive advantage to not be where my competitors are … we kind of can do our own thing," said Serratelli, who's based in Newark. "Being on the East Coast also lends itself to running itself more as a business, rather than a lifestyle."
Hat-makers originally established in the area because the water in the Passaic River contained the correct minerals for steaming and shaping the felt hats, Serratelli said, though today, a Jersey address turns heads.
"People always ask me, 'Where are you from?' and I say Newark. You can imagine how that goes over," Serratelli said.
Alboum, in Irvington, said his son, Justin Alboum, represents the fourth generation of cowboy hat makers, and to move the factory west today would "be a nightmare."
"I've lived in New Jersey my whole life," Alboum said. "It's not an easy thing to move a factory out of state, to a whole new area, hire a whole new staff, train them."
Serratelli also said the labor pool keeps him here. Of 86 employees nationwide, 56 are based in Newark, and have "been with me for an average of 18 years." Walking through the Newark factory, built in an old schoolhouse, Serratelli knows each employee by name and what their specific skills are. All of the employees are on the same floor, working on shaping or brim trimming or packaging, amid the felt dust from smoothing of the fabric and the smell of leather.
A side benefit, he said, is benefiting from "being so close to New York … meanwhile, I don't have to participate in any of the stress you all have, because my customer base is laid back and not here."
And while the customer base tends to be many of the same retailers, both men say there aren't any showdowns at the cash register — Serratelli aims his hats at rodeo champions and country music stars who can afford the high-fashion status symbols he sells, while Alboum's focus is more value oriented. The hat Serratelli wears while traveling costs roughly $1,100, while Alboum's traditional hats retail at an average of $150 to $200.
"I really don't worry about what my competition does," Alboum said of his nearby rival. "I tell my sales reps, just go in and sell your own product. Yes, you have to know what they're doing, but styling may be different, his trim is different."
Serratelli said he sees most of his competitive advantage in raw goods — the company has a different fur felt composition than any other hat maker because of the relationships built with suppliers generations ago. As in many industries, such relationships are the key to maintaining a successful hat-making business.
"A lot of selling today is relationships," Alboum said. "We have a lot of very, very loyal customers that have made a lot of money selling our product, and they're very happy with it."
Carolann Knox, owner of Blue Ridge Outfitters, in Wharton, has been selling Alboum's Rodeo King hats for 15 years, and "never had a bad hat from them." The brand is the biggest seller of any hat line in her store.
Knox said the quality of the hat — and the fact that they're made in New Jersey — is what keeps her customers coming back. She said her customers, ranging from people who show horses to people heading to a country music concert, have been steadily ordering hats with three-and-a-half inch brims, which "fit every feature."
"I'm not even a relative of (the Alboums), and I brag about them," she said with a laugh.
But relatives are important to both companies. Justin Alboum joined the company full time out of college, but it was not his first stint with the company — instead of receiving an allowance, he worked in the shop as a preteen to earn spending money.
"It wasn't so much that it was the allure of the family business as much as it was, I tried it and I liked it," Justin Alboum said about joining his father at the factory. "I get to do a lot of work with my hands, and I really enjoy the type of people I work with on a daily basis — both my coworkers and the people we retail to."
Serratelli has his children join him and his wife, Christina Serratelli, on trips to Europe to visit suppliers so they get to see the relationships established by their grandfather and great-grandfather.
Another similarity between the manufacturers is their evolution over their long histories. Until 1997, Serratelli Hat was simply a supplier of raw goods to companies that are now competitors, including Alboum, while for its first 34 years, Alboum only manufactured western-style hats. Today, 40 percent of Alboum's production is uniform hats for police, postal and forestry department workers. Alboum said both lines are sold around the country, but most of the company's New Jersey sales come from the uniform line.
Uniform wear, Alboum said, is "not as fashion oriented — a police hat is going to be a police hat, they don't change." But trends in western wear change every 18 to 24 months. "Every year, you can make navy blue police hats and pile them up, and if you don't sell them this year, you'll sell them next year."
That makes the company "a year-round thing," Justin Alboum said. The two lines "complement each other well, because it's a diversification. And whenever you diversify, you give yourself a better chance."
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