Sean Mulligan grew up in Valentine, Neb., going to rodeos with his dad, Bill, in a 1978 Ford Super cab pulling a two horse inline. […]
Special Feature: Keith Maddox
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
Keith Maddox has “it.”
Whatever “it” is, the Texas cowboy always attracts a crowd. People love being around him, they love his laugh, his positive outlook, and they want to be on his team.
Keith Maddox’s team is the American Hat Company.
He bought the business in 2003, bringing it from the brink of death to a thriving, flourishing company.
But there’s a lot of history between when the rodeo contestant was born in Weiser, Idaho, to the business based in Bowie, Texas.
Keith was born in 1945 on the family ranch, the son of Dwight and Marjore Maddox, and the eldest of three children. His dad was a bull rider and steer wrestler, and by the time he was fifteen, Keith was competing in the bareback riding and bull riding at pro rodeos. After high school graduation in 1963, he rodeoed a few years before going to college. He started at Casper (Wyo.) College, then went on to Walla Walla (Wash.) University, where he and classmate Leland Kelly began the rodeo program there, and graduated from Eastern Oregon University in 1971.
Out of college, Keith went to work for Heyer Boot Co., with Texas as his territory. After a year he went to work for Tem-Tex Clothing, with the states of Colorado, Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming as his sales territory.
Then his dream job came open. Tony Lama “was the most sought after job in the world in the western industry in those days,” Keith said. He was hired in 1972 with the state of Wyoming as his sales territory, selling Bailey Hats in addition to Lama Boots.
Tony Lama “owned” the state of Wyoming, Keith said, and sales were brisk. He was an excellent representative, doing very well for the company as one of their top salesmen.
Then the Urban Cowboy craze hit, and he was no longer one of the higher paid salesmen; they were in Texas, where demand was huge and everybody wanted to be a cowboy. He told his boss: play me or trade me, asking to be transferred. He was given Dallas/Ft. Worth and southeast Texas as his territory, where once again, he did very well for the company.
He left Tony Lama in 1987, and a few years later, took over sales at the Larry Mahan Boot Co., doubling their sales from $6 million to $12 million.
But Keith was restless. He wanted to own his own business. So he decided to buy the American Hat Company. He knew the former owners from being in the western industry, and when he went to visit them, they asked $10 million for the company.
He put together the finances, and when he returned to American Hat, the owners had changed their minds and decided to give the company to their kids.
Driving away from the meeting, he was furious. “I was trying to tear the steering wheel out of the pickup,” he remembered. He decided to open his own hat store and make cowboy hats.
So he opened The Best Hat Store in the Ft. Worth Stockyards, and started making and selling hats, buying hat making equipment and learning how to make them from scratch.
In 2003, his chance came. The American Hat Co. was in bankruptcy, and Keith bought it from the bank. He moved it from Conroe, Texas to Bowie, into a 35,000 square foot factory that was already in existence. A year later, “we were really rolling,” he said.
And then disaster struck. In late November of 2005, a grass fire with winds blowing 40 miles per hour hit. When it got to the factory, the fire was so hot it melted the phone lines and the air conditioning vents, sucking smoke into the building. The walls even turned black with smoke. The inventory, $13 million worth of it, was ruined.
But Keith is not one to focus on what he doesn’t have but what he can do. He got back to work, mortgaging his home, emptying out his retirement fund, borrowing money, to start over. The longest part of the wait, besides waiting for insurance to pay up, was waiting for raw materials. Five years later, the American Hat Co. was built back to where it had been before the fire.
Keith, who is full of grit and determination, had doubts at times. “You look at yourself and ask, ‘Am I crazy for doing this?’ But you’re all in. It’s like the chicken and the pig, the ham and eggs. The chicken was involved, but the pig was committed. We were committed.”
Keith builds the best cowboy hats in the business at the American Hat Co. “We’re really proud of the hat we build,” he said. “We’re the standard bearer for quality. We stayed with quality when everybody was making hats cheaper.”
He knew what he wanted in a cowboy hat. “I’d worked for Bailey earlier (in his career), and I’d been at their factory. Since I was a little kid, I’ve worn a hat, and I knew the quality I wanted. If you know what you want, it’s a lot easier to get there.”
American Hat Co. hats are made exclusively in the United States. Much of the raw materials comes from overseas, mainly because those products are not available in the U.S., like the furs which are from Europe. And Keith makes sure his product is quality. “The lacquer I put on those straw hats costs $1,099 per 55 gallon barrel. You can wear it in the rain, you can crush it and pop it back out.”
He also surrounds himself with quality people. Keith Mundee, former president of Miller, International, the parent company of Cinch, Rocky Mountain, and Cruel Girl, is now president of American. Stan Redding, past president of Stetson and Resistol Hats, is sales manager. “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’d better change rooms,” Maddox said.
He’s full of maxims, and rarely has a bad day. “Someone asked me one time, if I ever had a bad day. No, but I had a bad fifteen minutes one time,” he said. “I’ve always been extremely positive.”
Keith has “it”, said Keith Mundee. “He has a personality where people are automatically drawn to him. He has a big smile, he’s always happy to see you. He’s got that magnetic personality that people are drawn to. You want to hang out with him, you want to be his friend, and you want to do business with him.”
The fire could have caused Keith to walk away, but he didn’t, said Mundee. “A normal human being would have given in, and said it didn’t work and ride off into the sunset. Not him. He hitched his belt a little tighter and gritted his teeth, got through it, and came out on the other side thriving.”
Maddox is proud of what he’s built. When he was with Tony Lama, “we could cuss each other in the sales force, but nobody from the outside better cuss them. They’d be jumped on severely. We rode for the brand. That’s what I’ve always wanted to build, and that’s what I’ve built. My people believe in what we’re doing, and there’s not one person (among the staff) that I wouldn’t want to spend time with. We’re all together.”
The American Hat Co. is exclusive hat sponsor for the National High School Rodeo Association, the National Junior High School Rodeo Association, National Little Britches Rodeo, and partners with three-time World Champion Tie-Down Roper Tuf Cooper on a line of Tuf Cooper hats.
Keith’s wife Susan works alongside him, often managing The Best Hat Store in Ft. Worth. He has a son, Bret, who lives in Pendleton, Ore., and he and Susan have two daughters: Treasure, who lives and works in New York City as a fashion coordinator for a public relations firm, and Mercedes, who is a senior at the University of Oklahoma.
Persistence is key to Keith Maddox’s vision. “If you never give up, you can never lose,” he said. “The only way you can lose is to give up. If you have a goal and a dream and you stay with it long enough, it will work.”
And Keith Maddox and the American Hat Co. are proof of that. “It’s very rewarding, seeing all your hard work come to fruition. I knew exactly what was going to happen (with the company), I just didn’t think it would take me this long.”