GREELEY – The entrepreneurial spirit has always been in Trent Johnson’s heart, but it wasn’t until his stint as a ranch hand in northwest Greeley that he found it was in his head, too.
While attending the University of Northern Colorado in pursuit of an education degree, Johnson worked at Susie Orr’s ranch, doing everything from irrigating to building fences to delivering calves. In addition to ranching, Orr owned Greeley Hat Works, a nearly 100-year-old company she purchased in 1985.
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When Orr decided to move Greeley Hat Works from her ranch to a downtown Greeley storefront, Johnson found himself spending a lot of time at the shop. The art of hat making, an increasingly lost one, truly appealed to him.
“The thing I liked about it is that I got to build something from start to finish,” he said. With a storefront, the company quickly became a full-time job.
“Before, when it was at the ranch, we would shut down in the summer,” he said. The company would see customers only by appointment. “Now, it was like a real business with regular hours.”
The 9-to-5 grind didn’t appeal to Orr, according to Johnson, providing him with an opportunity to buy the business. It wouldn’t be his first foray into business ownership.
As a middle school student, Johnson took a magic class one summer so that he could earn money by performing at younger children’s birthday parties. In high school, he started a lawn service company. Johnson recalls that his father, to instill in him the lessons of entrepreneurship, required his son to lease the lawn mower from him and pay him mileage when the younger Johnson needed transportation to jobs before he got his driver’s license. By his senior year, Johnson had several employees. He sold the business to one of the employees when he graduated.
To raise the money to purchase Greeley Hat Works, Johnson first attended classes at the Small Business Development Center to help him formulate a business plan. He presented the plan to several area banks, but had no takers. He approached family members with the plan and got a similar reception. However, his parents informed him that he already had the money to buy the business. They had been saving and investing the rent payments they had charged him while he lived at home to attend college.
Johnson took ownership of Greeley Hat Works in 1996, and its growth since has earned the Bravo! 2008 Entrepreneur Award for Greeley.
“I think my plan was to grow smart, not fast,” he said. Johnson had an opportunity to take on a partner that would have grown the business by leaps and bounds into more of a factory instead of a custom shop.
“It ended up not working out and that was a huge blessing,” he said. Even with “smart” growth, Greeley Hat works has grown fast.
In 1995, the company sold 60 hats. After his first year as owner, it expanded to 120 hats. By 2005, he sold 800 hats, after expanding to a new shop.
The company’s hats have gone international, gone to Hollywood and even to Washington, on the heads of President George W. Bush and the diplomats who visit him. Greeley Hat Works is on track to sell 3,000 hats this year, and Johnson still has a hand in about 90 percent of what goes out the door.
“I don’t want to give that up,” he said. “I don’t know if I ever will.”