A new owner and an old hand restore the legacy of Smithbilt
Wade Schultz is a man of uncommon courage. He bought an old company with a tattered reputation and with the zeal of the faithful, is spearheading a Phoenix-like rise to its former glory.
He lured master hatter Bill Olsen out of retirement after 35 years with Resistol by simply requesting help. Olsen laughs as he recounts the story.
“I was retired in Hussar with my wife, Marilyn, just building houses and cleaning hats for friends. After Wade bought the company from the Harvey family, I was asked if I would come in a couple of days a week to help them out, and I think I spent 7 days a week, 24 hours a day here for the next year. So I guess I’m no longer retired.”
Bill Olsen himself is legendary for his work ethic and knowledge of hats after a career that began in 1969.
“In those days,” Olsen recounted, “you started in the back. You had to learn everything about hat construction because at that time we custom-built the hats in the store for the customer. I trained in the back and then went on the road.”
His territory? “Everything north of Texas,” grinned Olsen. “When I left Dallas I had five accounts. When I got back six months and 65,000 miles later, I had a hundred and twenty-three.”
The simple request for help has forged a close working relationship and a shared vision. “We sat down and I asked what direction they wanted the company to go. Wade said he wanted to build the company back up and get into better quality hats. That’s when I made the decision I was going to come along.”
It’s a big challenge to rebuild a company. Perhaps, Olsen concedes, it would have been easier to change the name and start fresh. “But,” he stated, “the Smithbilt name has been around for 85 years and we want to gain back the reputation, and take it even higher.”
Olsen continued. “Back in the early days those boys built a very nice, extremely lightweight fur felt hat. Guy Weadick’s family brought us one to be reconstructed, and it was an old, old Smithbilt, and you couldn’t ask for a better body than was in that hat.”
Shortly after Olsen joined the company, the phone started to ring. After 35 years of doing business with some of the biggest western retailers, they were curious.
“People couldn’t believe we could turn out these high quality hats. That’s the biggest hurdle, to show we can turn out beaver hats superior to anything you can get on the market. We just came out of a trade show and the response was very, very good. Now, we’re going to put the product into the stores and once the retailers are convinced, they’ll convince their customers.”
It’s in the details, Olsen explained. There are a myriad of steps in creating a quality hat. From the quality of the fur felt, to blocking, sanding, hand finishing and trimming. And it’s all done in-house.
The new Smithbilt Signature line goes to 100X Beaver, but their biggest seller is 20X. “Beaver is the premium fur to make hats,” Olsen explained. “We use 95 – 97 per cent beaver with hair fur in it. It’s like an alloy – you have to mix in a touch of hair to get a stronger body. The working cowboys buy the better beaver hat because they’ve learned it’ll outlast a fur felt by four or five times. You look after it, a beaver felt should last you a lifetime.”
Smithbilt offers its much improved Staple Western Line, the new Signature Series (Beaver Felt Line), as well as the Western Legends Collection. With the retro look making a big comeback, so is Smithbilt with the reinvention of the Knight Label Dress line of snap brim fedoras and pork pies.
In this country though, the proof is not in the pudding but on the range, and it’s here that Olsen has staked his considerable reputation.
“We have a couple of rodeo champions wearing Smithbilts and as they ride the rough stock and the hats hold up, they’ll make a believer out of a lot of folks. We’ve got a lot of working cowboys and boys riding feedlots, and they really give your hats a run for their money. That’s the ones that’ll wear ’em, give ’em testimony and as they hold up to the type of work that these fellows do in all types of weather, then you’ve proved you’ve got a winner.”