Barmah Hats USA finds a new home in Staples
STAPLES — Leaving the California coast to relocate to a small central Minnesota city may raise a few eyebrows.
“A lot of people thought we were crazy, but now already a few months living up here we can say, ‘Oh, it’s definitely the right decision,’” said Andreas Vogel, who made the move with his wife, Michelle, and brother-in-law, Marco Puentes.
How their family-run business started on American shores and found its way to an unmarked building on the outskirts of Staples is a story in itself. And one that covers three continents.
Andreas Vogel, 35, was born and raised in Switzerland in the countryside of the Emmental region outside of Bern. His parents, U.S. fans, took him on regular visits to the United States during vacations where they rented a car and explored the nation.
Once he was ready for college, he applied to an American university in San Diego. After graduation and going back to Switzerland, he worked for Swiss-based promotions and marketing firm Trikora. But it wasn’t long before he told his boss he wanted to move back to the U.S., and he offered to open a Trikora office in his move to California and explore the market here. Later, an opportunity to take over an Australian hat company in California arose with Barmah Hats.
The connection to Barmah Hats began when Andreas Vogel met the company’s owner who moved to San Diego for its temperate climate. When the owner decided to go back to Australia and was planning on shutting down the U.S. operation, Andreas Vogel offered to take it over.
Last year, Andreas and Michelle, 36, a Spanish language teacher, were living in the San Francisco/Oakland area. They wanted to raise a family in a safe and less congested setting.
After making the decision to leave California, they could have moved anywhere. So why Staples?
Andreas Vogel was already quite familiar with the area. He spent summers in Minnesota visiting his aunt and uncle’s Lipizzan horse farm near Verndale. His uncle moved to Minnesota after traveling the U.S. looking for more space than Switzerland could provide. They brought their horses and made the move about three decades ago.
“The family ties and I researched the states and it just made sense. Just to plan your future there are so many arguments for Minnesota,” he said.
When they told their friends and family about the move, they got tired of the reaction.
“If we told people we were moving to Minnesota, they’d go, ‘Oh, why Minnesota. It’s so cold’ and those people haven’t been here, you know. It is so beautiful here with the lakes and no earthquakes,” he said.
And after living in California they could appreciate a state with an abundance of water.
“All that and a good economic state. I still believe Minnesota is growing and the work mentality is a lot better here,” Andreas Vogel said. “So I like the fact that Minnesota is underestimated by a lot of people.”
Michelle Vogel said the move has gone smoothly. She first wondered about the distances, which were farther than she was used to driving, say between amenities in Baxter and Staples. But she found the travel time is often quick when compared to California traffic. She said there are so many more amenities here now than when her husband’s family first moved to the area.
“Imagine what it will be 30 years from now,” she said, adding while some questioned their sanity in making the move other friends who had teenagers told them they were making the right decision.
“What we feel also is the cost of living is a huge difference,” Andreas Vogel said. “We rented a house. We rented a warehouse. Then we had to rent additional storage. All those rents we paid a month that was crazy and now we bought the warehouse. We bought a house in Staples. You can own it here.”
They moved to Staples at the end of December after insulating and heating their warehouse building, which has production space, room for inventory and offices. There were a few culture shocks — Minnesotans wave at strangers and leave their cars running outside stores during the winter and still expect to find them when they come out.
But the move had its perks for them and their clients.
“The infrastructure is new, it’s invested in but in California there is no money, it’s breaking down,” Andreas Vogel said.
The move allowed them to have Internet connections at six times the speed and half the cost. They were paying about $700-$800 a month for California’s speed with a T-1 line. Now they have even faster fiber optic, which wasn’t available to them in San Francisco.
Barmah Hats, which originated in Australia, started in the U.S. about 14 years ago in San Diego. Andreas Vogel and Puentes took over the company’s United States portion in 2009. They moved the company to San Francisco before the more recent move to Staples. They reported selling about 50,000 hats a year and doing about $1 million in sales. Individual hat prices vary from perhaps $30 to more than $70.
They recently shipped hats to Japan and said National Geographic has been one of their customers for years along with more recent customers from The Discovery Channel’s show “Swamp People.”
Andreas Vogel said the hat is designed to be worn every day and last for years. They’ve had customers call who are looking for a new hat after their old one wore out after a decade of outdoor use.
When the company first came to the U.S. it started in specialty stores. To have broader brand recognition it has to move to other outlets such as Gander Mountain or Scheels. With more hats made in the U.S. Barmah will incorporate native leathers and want to offer 100 percent U.S.-made hats.
For most of the clients, the company reported the move to the Midwest was an improvement as they typically ship UPS Ground.
And they are able to fly back to California to visit friends and family. Puentes, 39, who has three sons in California, flies back one weekend a month.
This winter was Puentes’ first in extended snow conditions outside of the week-long vacations the family took at his father’s cabin in Nevada. It was also a change from his roots in big city life.
“I actually really like it,” Puentes said, noting the good people he’s met in Staples. “People remember you. Just driving around town, everybody waves and it’s something that is not California at all.”
Puentes found things to do from his passion for fishing to music in the park in Staples just a short walk from his home. Michelle Vogel was teaching in Vallejo, Calif., and got her teaching certificate here but said she is enjoying not having to work after the move and is interested in volunteering. After traveling in the U.S. and abroad, she said she is looking for a little slower pace in life.
They lived eight miles from the warehouse but with traffic it could take 30 minutes to get there or longer if there was a crash.
“I love it now,” Puentes said, whose commute is now about two minutes. “I’m ecstatic with it.”
But there have been things to get used to along the way, like the cars left running outside the stores during the winter months.
“You don’t do that in California even with your car locked and off, you come out and your car is gone,” she said and laughed. “That is trusting.”
“It’s culture shock,” her brother agreed.
Puentes runs Barmah Hats, the Australian Outback hat company. The kangaroo hat is a company signature and part of a line of hats that may be folded into a bag and when unpacked springs back into its original shape. A canvas mesh hat is one of the company’s most popular. It isn’t designed to be crushed and snap back but does fold flat for packing.
The company started producing hats when it was based in California, making 10 to 15 percent of all the hats sold. Now that the dollar is weak, Vogel said it’s more lucrative to make the hats here, but he’s had trouble finding employees with the necessary sewing skills to get the production side rolling here, although the goal here to provide jobs.
“We have been trying to find people who can really do it,” Andreas Vogel said. “We are making high quality hats. We need sewers who can exactly sew straight. It’s more difficult than it sounds to do that hat. We’ve been trying to find people, you would think it’s easy but it’s not. We just have to be lucky and find the right people.”
The are perfectionists about the hats, Andreas Vogel said. “It’s not just one hat. Every hat has to be perfect. We have to be. Otherwise people won’t believe in our brand.”
Their hats are sold by outdoor retailers like Eddie Bauer and REI and in individual stores like Bass Pro Shops among other retailers and at state fairs across the country and via Amazon.com.
“There is a lot of potential,” Andreas Vogel said. “I really think we have the best quality hats compared to our competitors with very good pricing.
“We just need more stores and more store chains and we need more brand recognition,” he said.
While Puentes works with Barmah’s existing customer base and production scheduling, Andreas Vogel is working to reach additional retail outlets for expansion. As an entrepreneur, Andreas Vogel said he enjoys looking for opportunities. He recently started an online venture — VEAdventures.com.
In addition, he continues to operate his other companies such as Trikora, the promotional/marketing business, with its parent company in Switzerland. Trikora offers custom-made promotional materials and works with clients such as Vitamin Water.
Now they are settling into the Midwest experience. Andreas Vogel said they wanted to have a greater quality of life. From the abundant water to the air quality and limited natural disaster zones, he said Minnesota provided what they were looking for in a home.
Vogel said he and Puentes are quiet people who work well alone and are independent.
“He is an avid fisherman,” Vogel said of his brother-in-law. “He loves to fish and what better place. I think that’s why it works but you have to be the person for it. ... I took a chance and Marco took a chance and I think it’s turned out as win-win for both.”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.