In 1874 Benjamin Dunkerley arrived in Tasmania from England and decided to start a hat making business in Hobart. His skills as a hatter were backed by his ability to invent machinery, and soon after his arrival he had developed a mechanical method of removing the hair tip from rabbit fur so the under-fur could be used in felt hat making. Previously this task had to be done by hand.
In the early 1900’s, Dunkerley moved the business to Crown Street, Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney, setting up a small hat making factory. In 1904 Stephen Keir I, who had also migrated from England, joined Dunkerley. Keir had hat making experience from England and was seen as a valuable acquisition for the business. In 1905 he married Ada Dunkerley, Benjamin’s daughter and soon after was made General Manager. Since that time the hat making firm has been in the hands of succeeding generations of the Keir family.
In 1911, the business became Dunkerley Hat Mills Ltd and had a mere nineteen employees. There are nineteen employees and seven shareholders. Stephen Keir I is the managing director.
The trade name “Akubra” came into use on the 7th of August, 1912.
The increasing popularity resulted in the move to larger premises in Bourke Street, Waterloo and expanded production, especially of Slouch hats during World War I, forging an association with the armed forces that continues to this day. Soon after all hats were branded Akubra.
Following the death of Dunkerley in 1925, ownership of the business transferred to Stephen Keir I.
Hat sales decline during the Depression so the 200+ staff decide to take a 10% pay cut so no one is made redundant.
The business continued to flourish with staff numbers peaking at 500 in the 1940’s thanks to the continued military contract that was responsible for 80% of the hats produced.
When Stephen Keir retired in 1952 production was at a record high. He was succeeded as Managing Director by his eldest son, Herbert. His second son, Stephen Keir II, served as General Manager and became Managing Director in 1972.
In 1956, Akubra supplies the Panama straw hats worn by the Australian team at the Melbourne Olympics.
By the 1960’s consumer production is made of 60% city hats and 40% country styles. The high price of wool sees the company focus on fur felt hats.
The purpose built factory in Kempsey is built in 1972, establishing Akubra as a major employer for the region. In 1982 “The Man From Snowy River” released and the hat inspired by the movie becomes a staple in the Akubra range. It is estimated that more than 21 million hats have been made by this time.
Stephen Keir III, became Managing Director in 1980. Another son, Graham, joined the firm in 1972, first as the sales representative for Northern NSW and later as a National Sales Manager. Unfortunately, Graham died prematurely in 1987.
The “Aussie Gold” hat is made for the Australian Team at the 1984 Olympics.
“Crocodile Dundee” is released in 1986 and “the Croc” is born. The rural community now accounts for 70% of all sales.
Greg Norman signs on with Akubra in 1987 and the “Great White Shark” hat goes into production.
In 1988, Kempsey officially becomes known as the home of Akubra. The Aussie team wears Akubra hats at the Seoul Olympics.
By the early 1990’s 7800 hats are being produced each week. The “Olympian” style is released for the Barcelona and Albertville Olympics.
The “Spirit of Australia” style is released for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
In 1998, Strand Hatters is purchased by the company.
The “John Laws” hat sells around 8600 units in 12 months in 2004.
Lee Kernaghan is named Australian of the Year in 2008 and Akubra releases the “Outback Club” to celebrate.
Stephen Keir III retires as Managing Director on 31st December 2007, allowing his son and fourth generation of the Keir family, Stephen Keir IV, to assume the mantle of Managing Director.
In 2010, after working with the company for more than 56 years, Stephen Keir III O.A.M stepped down as Chairman of the Board of Directors. Stephen Keir IV, who has worked with the Akubra company for more than 20 years, is appointed Chairman of the Board of Directors. On 25th May 2012 Stephen Dixon Keir III passed away peacefully. He is survived by his his wife (and former Director) Wendy, daughters Stacey and Nikki (who both currently serve as directors of Akubra Hats), son and Chairman of the Board of Directors Stephen Maitland Keir IV as well as seven grandchildren.
In 2012 the Guinness World record for the record number of people wearing an Akubra Hat (1912) in one place is created.
By 2015 Akubra has produced two million hats for the military.
Akubra Hats are still proudly Australian made in Kempsey NSW.