Splitting his time between St. Augustine and Australia, Will Conner has made a name for himself as the founder of Conner Hats, a specialty hat brand that offers nearly 300 different styles of beach and surf-inspired hats. Influenced by his father, Bill Conner, who started BC Hats in 1969 and was the first in Australia to make a leather hat with a shapeable brim, Conner left his studies at Flagler College to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. Today, Conner Hats are offered locally at establishments such as The Panama Hat Company, H.W. Davis Co. and Materialistic, all on St. George Street, as well as Magnolia Supply on San Marco Avenue and the Alligator Farm gift shop. The hats are also available at more than 800 stores throughout the United States and Europe, and online retailers like Amazon and Village Hat Shop. St. Augustine Social caught up with Conner, age 46, to learn a bit more about his Australian upbringing, how Lincolnville influences his designs and his side gigs as surfer and musician. Here’s part of that conversation.
Tell me a bit about your childhood growing up in Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia and spending time at your dad’s factory.
Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Byron Bay was idyllic in many ways; it was such a pristine environment. I didn’t realize how unique it was until I started to travel. I could explore rainforests that grew right up to beautiful white beaches and headlands with perfect surf and not many people around. I have so many memories of campfires and everyone playing instruments and falling asleep under brilliant views of the Milky Way. It was magic and I’m constantly trying to recreate it for my wife and kids when we’re back home in Byron. It’s not easy though since the place has been loved to death in recent years, but there are still some hidden special spots. My dad’s factory was more like a workshop back then before he moved to the location it is now in the Arts and Industrial Estate. I was probably around 14 or 15 when he taught me how to make hat bands and just by being around a small but growing business I learned so much more thanany classroom could have ever taught.
You came to St. Augustine at the age of 18 to study business administration at Flagler College. How did that come about?
After finishing high school, I decided to apply to Flagler because I have lots of family in St. Augustine and had visited a few times when I was a younger kid. I wanted to see the world and I figured it was a good place to start.
You left college after one semester to, as your website puts it, “learn business in the real world.” Were your parents supportive of that decision?
My parents have always been confident that I could do anything I set my mind to and they knew I was way too stubborn to listen anyway. That alone gave me confidence and now having young kids I am realizing it’s much better to empower them and not worry too much about what society thinks. So many people just do what they think will make other people happy and what everyone else does and not take a chance on their own happiness.
Tell me a bit about how Conner Hats has grown since being established in 2014.
We have such a rich history, so while the Conner brand name may be young, I have 27 years in the business and my dad over 46 years. Just being able to tell our story and continue to tell it as it evolves has been a huge boost to the company. Probably the biggest reason we have grown and are on track for continued growth is because I realized why we are doing what we do and that is “to make the world a better place.” It sounds corny and idealistic, but it’s really a lot of hard work to go above and beyond socially and environmentally. We have spent more time in the last few years getting rid of single use plastics, making sure all of our materials are non-toxic, switching to organic cotton, sourcing material from recycled plastic bottles and countless similar practices than we have actually trying to sell hats and somehow we are selling more hats. That tells me we are on the right path.
You’re also a surfer and musician…
It’s hard to not surf growing up in Byron Bay. My dad, mum and most of my friends also surf. It’s taken me to places I normally wouldn’t have seen around the world and through surfing I have met some amazing people. Music is a similar creative endeavor. I was lucky enough to land a record deal in Japan and tour there and tour Australia with Jack Johnson and many other experiences that helped me truly appreciate how creativity and perseverance can lead you anywhere you want. Having a little talent helps, but having passion and perseverance is really the difference between success and failure.
How has St. Augustine influenced your hat designs?
That’s a good question. Places definitely influence me and St. Augustine is no exception. I have a little house in Lincolnville and spend a lot of time down there. Some of the East-West running streets are amazing to look down as the sun is setting with the huge oaks and Spanish moss and kids playing. I guess I have spent a lot of time with photographers over the years and we are always shooting in the last hour of the day trying to capture that golden light in many places around the world, but there is definitely something special about that time of day in that little part of St. Augustine.
What would you like the future to look like for Conner Hats?
I would like to keep finding ways to make the business more meaningful. Most people think a business exists just to make as much money as possible, but I want do something more interesting than that. I look at it like money is just a reward for doing something good for other people. So I’m constantly thinking of how we can grow our company by giving and doing the best we possibly can in every aspect. It’s a work in progress and once I figure it out, I feel like that will be a good future to exist in.
To read more about Will’s story, or to view all their styles, visit Conner Hats online.
Shop Locally at Magnolia Supply, 58 San Marco Avenue, Suite B.