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Meet Bill and Will Conner the father and son hat team. Read below about Bill who manufactures his original styles (BC HATS) in Byron Bay and Will who created the Conner Hat brand and distributes both brands from his solar powered warehouse in Florida.
Bill Conner (“BC”) was introduced to the art of leatherwork by Stan Thompson in St. Augustine, Florida in April 1969. Even then, the idea of crafting products by hand, one at a time, was considered old fashioned. However, BC’s acute attention to quality craftsmanship allowed his newfound hobby to blossom into a family business.
BC fleshed out his repertoire of leather goods to include sandals, bags, belts, saddles, and of course, hats. He registered his company as BC Leather, and began selling his creations at art-and-craft fairs around Florida with his wife Marion and baby son, Will. In the spirit of the 70s, they often set up a teepee as a display, which also doubled as a playpen for Will to keep out of the hot Florida sun.
After building a home workshop, fate led the way. BC struck up a conversation with a hitchhiker waiting across the street from his shop; they idly chatted about surfing and the hitcher’s recent trip to Australia. BC was familiar with the world-class surf of Australia’s East Coast, specifically in Byron Bay, from the idyllic imagery in surfing magazines.
The hitcher’s stories about his simple Aussie surfing life and his old rented farmhouse on Seven Mile Road behind Broken Head, that cost him just few dollars a week, confirmed BC’s romantic conception of Australia.
At the time, BC was already considering a move to someplace with great surf and a natural lifestyle to raise a family. With the money he had saved from selling his hand-made leather goods, he decided it was time for a big change.
Soon thereafter, a fellow leatherworker told BC of the Australian government’s offer to pay $1500.00 toward airfare for those willing to immigrate and offer something positive to Australian society.
Before Bill left, he visited Dan Holiday, who founded the first leather sandal shop in St. Augustine. Although BC had been his competitor, Dan gave Bill his best wishes and permission to use some of his sandal styles in Australia. Dan also showed Bill how to craft a better leather hat than he was making at the time. This ultimately helped to evolve BC Hats into what they are today.
Bill took the advice of his early mentor, Stan Thompson, literally, “You can travel the world on what you can make with your own two hands.” With that, BC tucked his long hair up into a shorthaired wig and charmed the immigration interviewer into letting his young family move to Australia. On November 5th, 1970, with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, 21-year-old Bill Conner arrived in Brisbane, Australia with his 19-year-old wife Marion, and 11-month-old son, Will.
Within a few months, Bill opened a shop called “Country Leather” in Burleigh Heads, Queensland, which offered world-class surf within walking distance from the shop and enough customers to keep him busy
Surfing is considered mainstream in Australian culture now, but in the 70’s it was still considered a fringe sport. This meant uncrowded, world-class point breaks for those willing waveriders.
Bill’s love of surfing, laid-back Floridian nature, and long hair allowed him to fit right in with the locals of Burleigh Heads. That’s not to mention his terrible eyesight, which stopped him from catching very many waves, a quality that further endeared him to the crew in the water. Today The Gold Coast is considered one of Australia’s fastest growing regions, but back then Burleigh was a relaxed and easy-going coastal town.
As high rises went up, Burleigh Heads began to buzz a little too busily for BC, so the family made the move an hour down the coast to Byron Bay; the very town that the serendipitous hitchhiker mentioned to him all those years earlier.
With the move, Bill honed in on refining his leather hats, which were already amongst his best selling items. With this specialization, also came the realization of wholesaling, which would allow him to sell to stores all around Australia, while living wherever he liked.
Back then, it was just one style in many colors. Nevertheless, BC’s original Stockman style hat was fast becoming a national bestseller. The debut of the 1982 film The Man from Snowy Riverpopularized BC’s iconic hat style. As a result, Bill was able to hire his first employees and start a small factory. This was a big step for a guy who was used to handcrafting every hat himself.
Each new employee was taught how to make certain parts of the hat with the same care and quality that Bill always had. In 1986, when the movie Crocodile Dundee was released, Bill started getting calls from distributors worldwide and production went from a small workshop on his property to a larger one in Byron Bay’s Arts and Industrial Estate.
In 1988, BC Hats became the official hat of the World Expo held in Brisbane. Then in 1993, Bill received the Small Business Exporter of the Year Award from the Australian government, given in recognition of creating Australia’s original leather hat with a shapeable brim, and successfully bringing it to the world stage. Australia definitely made a good investment all those years earlier.
Today you can still find Bill surfing his favorite local spot every morning as the sun rises, and later, making sure the factory is still producing quality hats. Bill resisted the trend of manufacturing overseas and has always stayed true to the fact that if you can make a top-quality product by hand, there will always be a market for it.
Truly an Australian original, BC Hats have stood the test of time and continue to bring a taste of Australia to hat wearers around the globe.
THE CONNER HAT STORY
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.
Will’s travels as a young man gave him an appreciation for how all humans affect the world we live in. Realizing that every product has an impact on the planet, Will makes it company policy to tread lightly and consider the wider outcome of business decisions. “I believe we can make a positive change,” Will says. “Thoughtful actions can improve the health of business while reducing negative impact on cultures and ecosystems alike. Our goal is to promote long-term thinking and to really consider future generations with every product we create and every decision we make as a brand.
Owning and managing Conner Hats is a great challenge, and we are always learning, always growing. We’re open to innovation and there are some great examples in the outdoor industry in the U.S. and around the world that we aspire to.”
“Responsible business practice presents great and ongoing challenges. None of the success we’ve had so far could have been achieved without our small but amazing crew, including my operations manager, Margie Conner (Aunt Margie). All of us at Conner Hats try to keep an open mind and embrace change. We’re always learning and are excited to discuss and hear new ideas about how we can improve in every way.”
Today, BC Hats and Conner Hats can be found in stores worldwide, and online. Will still calls Byron Bay home and takes great pride in selling his dad’s original Australian-made hats alongside styles from the Conner Hats brand. He travels between St. Augustine and Byron Bay and credits his parents Bill and Marion with showing him that even if you start with just an idea, as long as you are happy on your path and never give up, there is no limit to what you can achieve.