Eleanor Hanna learned at an early age just how important a good story can be in helping to market and sell products to consumers. After leaving school at 16, she joined Hanna Hats, the family business, travelling frequently with her father John to sell traditional Irish caps and tweed hats to customers in the US.
“My father had macular degeneration, so he couldn’t see very well by the time I started working with him back in the mid-‘90s,” Hanna said.
“I’d go with him to New York and Boston and I’d be his eyes, helping him get through airports and things like that. I learned so much watching him talk to customers. Many of them became friends.”
What Hanna remembers most about these trips with her father, who died last year, were the stories he would tell the customer he met.
“He would name the different hats we were selling after rivers and lakes in Ireland, and townlands and people in Donegal,” she said. “He had a story for every one of them and the customers loved it. Those wee stories were a big part of selling our products.”
The business was set up in 1924 by Hanna‘s grandfather David, and traded initially as David Hanna Bespoke Tailoring. Originally from Belfast, David Hanna had learned his trade from Mick McDaid, a tailor in Donegal, and took over McDaid’s business after his death.
“He started making hats in the ’60s, because there was a drop in demand for tailored suits at that time. His first hat took four-and-a-half hours to make and he called it the Hanna Hat,” Hanna said.
The business was taken over in the mid-1970s by David Hanna’s sons David jnr, Patrick, Edward and John, Eleanor’s father, who was 75 when he died.
“We’ll be 100 years in business in 2024,” Hanna said. “It means a lot to be able to keep a family business going for that long.
“There was just one period back in the recession in the 1980s when the business really suffered and went into liquidation, but my father and mother, John and Mary, were able to reopen it again in 1991 and I joined not long after that.”
The business is still owned by Mary Hanna and run by Eleanor and her brother John Patrick. It employs 25 people at premises on Tirconaill Street in Donegal town.
Hanna Hats sells a range of 40 caps and hats for men, women and children. Priced from €65, they include touring, skipper and baseball caps, as well as walking hats made from Irish and Scottish Harris tweed, linen and cotton corduroy. The company also sells tweed bags, scarves and bow ties priced from €45.
“Our products are still handcrafted here in Donegal. We use traditional quilting techniques and the colours inspired by the colours of landscape surrounding us,” Hanna said.
“The great thing about making the products ourselves is that we can tailor them for customers and we can make changes easily if they’re needed.”
Competing against mass-produced products in lower-cost countries has not, however, been without its challenges over the years.
“Products imported from the Far East can have a big impact on small family-run businesses like ours,” Hanna said.
“I’ve seen so many products over the years, even here in Ireland, that are labelled as having been made in Ireland, but they’re not. It can be very hard to compete against that, because people don’t realise what they’re buying.”
Hanna Hats is working with Design & Crafts Council Ireland to introduce initiatives that will help consumers to identify products that are genuinely made in Ireland.
“One of the reasons the story behind our company, and our family’s history, is so important to us as a business is that it helps people to understand that we are genuine and authentic,” Hanna said.
The recent announcement that Showcase, the creative expo held annually at the RDS in Dublin, will not take place in January because of the Covid-19 pandemic has come as a blow for Hanna Hats, which relies on trade shows to meet potential new customers.
“We usually go to a few trade shows a year with assistance from both Enterprise Ireland and the Crafts Council,” Hanna said. “Enterprise Ireland is generally great at introducing us to new clients at Showcase, in particular. Our focus now, going into 2020, will be very much on the online side of the business.”
Hanna Hats launched an updated e-commerce website four weeks ago.
“I worked here with John Patrick and my son Daithí throughout the lockdown getting our online orders out. It’s opened up new markets for us,” Hanna said.
These new markets include Russia, where Hanna Hats is now stocked by a retailer called Tweed Hat in Moscow.
“The US has always been our biggest market. We sell to the University of Notre Dame outside Chicago, Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay and the Seaworld theme parks,” Hanna said.
“We are very proud that every single one of our designs is our own. My father continued to create tweed products throughout his life using the traditions passed down from his own father. To this day, quality and craftsmanship is at the heart of everything we create.”