Andrew and Nicola Forrest take over Kempsey's iconic hatmaker Akubra

Sue Stephenson
Updated November 20 2023 - 12:11pm, first published 7:30am

They are synonymous with the hard-working men and women of regional and outback Australia and have been worn by kings, princes and movie stars.

Now, after 147 years in the hands of the Keir family, the iconic Akubra brand has been acquired by two of Australia's richest business leaders, Andrew and Nicola Forrest.

The purchase comes three years after the pair bought another legendary bushwear company, RM Williams.

Andrew Forrest visits the Akubra factory in Kempsey, which he and his wife and fellow billionaire Nicola Forrest, have acquired through their private company.

There was no shortage of hugs and handshakes when Dr Forrest arrived to inspect his new factory in South Kempsey on November 19; whether it was due to the excitement of seeing where the hat he's always worn was made, or wanting to reassure the family selling the iconic brand to him after 147 years that it was in safe hands.

"It's going to be great, isn't it," he said as he met assembled media, some who had been flown and bussed in from Sydney.

"This is a day for Akubra, a day for Kempsey, and a day for Australia; to keep a fantastic brand at home."

- Andrew Forrest

The Forrests', who recently announced their separation, have bought Akubra through their private investment company, Tattarang.

Chief Executive Officer John Hartman, who was among the Tattarang contingent in Kempsey for the official handover and staff family day, said they would not be disclosing the sale price at this stage and that a figure reported by other media that morning was "off the mark".

Both he and Dr Forrest reassured staff that numbers would not only be retained but that there would be growth.

Outgoing owner Stephen Keir IV at times choked back tears as he and his sisters Nikki and Stacey, and their Akubra-wearing extended family, stood alongside the man they have entrusted with their legacy.

"We got it to a point and we can't get it further," Mr Keir said.

"Tattarang will take it further and do that."

Nicola Forrest had toured the factory just days earlier, which is when the news was broken to staff.

Staff spokesperson Jenny Miller is now retired after decades at the factory. She said staff were initially "shell-shocked" when told the news on Thursday, November 16.

Such is their respect for the Keir family that she says staff are now trusting the decision is a good one.

Dr Andrew Forrest (left) with the now former Akubra owners and siblings, Stacey McIntyre, Stephen Keir IV and Nikki McLeod. Picture by Sue Stephenson
Dr Andrew Forrest (left) with the now former Akubra owners and siblings, Stacey McIntyre, Stephen Keir IV and Nikki McLeod. Picture by Sue Stephenson

Stephen Keir is the last of five generations of Keirs to lead the company. He and other members of the family will have either transitionary or ongoing roles with the company, including his son Stephen Keir V.

Dr Forrest says he now wants to make the Akubra "the premiere hat of its type in the world."

And while Australia's richest couple separated several months ago, Andrew Forrest couldn't help pulling out a well-worn phone and asking a journalist to take a "happy snap" of him with the Keirs, so he "could send it to Nicola".

Local legacy to live on

In a written statement ahead of his visit, Dr Forrest said it was to continue the company's commitment to local manufacturing and "to ensure companies like Akubra remain Australian owned... both protecting and creating new jobs, particularly in our regions."

Akubra is a major employer in the Macleay Valley, with about 120 people attached to its purpose-built factory.

It has operated in Kempsey since 1972 and is a major supporter of the local community; sponsoring events including the recent Akubra Kempsey Cup and Akubra Classic at the Greenhill Speedway; and partnering with Kempsey Shire Council to provide sun protection for staff.

Akubra has been owned and operated continuously by five generations of the Keir family.

Andrew and Nicola Forrest have taken over Aussie icon Akubra, which has been in the Keir family for five generations.

Nicola Forrest, who grew up on a farm between Mudgee and Dubbo, said she is committed to protecting their legacy.

"Growing up in regional NSW, my parents taught me lifelong lessons about hard work and resilience," she said.

"The image of my father's tireless energy and perseverance, measured by the sweat on his Akubra, remains etched in my memory."

Outgoing Chairman of the Akubra Board of Directors Stephen Keir IV, said the family chose to sell to Tattarang because they wanted custodians who would protect and invest in the company.

"We thought long and hard about selling the business after five generations of family ownership," he said. "And after we saw how the Forrests have invested in local manufacturing with R.M.Williams, we decided they were the right custodians for Akubra."

Nicola Forrest (centre) with outgoing managing director Stephen Keir IV and his sisters and fellow owners Nikki McLeod (left) and Stacey McIntyre (right). Picture supplied by Tattarang
Nicola Forrest (centre) with outgoing managing director Stephen Keir IV and his sisters and fellow owners Nikki McLeod (left) and Stacey McIntyre (right). Picture supplied by Tattarang


The company was established in Hobart between 1874-1876 by Benjamin Dunkerley.

The Englishman was as skilled an inventor as he was a hatter and he soon found a mechanical way to remove the hair tip from rabbit fur so the under-fur could be used in felt hat making.

In the early 1900's, he moved the business to Surry Hills in Sydney and in 1904 was joined by fellow hatmaker Stephen Keir I, who had also migrated from England.

Keir went on to marry Dunkerley's daughter, Ada, and in 1912, the trade name Akubra came into use.

It is believed to be an Aboriginal word for "head covering" or "head-dress".

Akubras are hand-made and designed to last, as many a farmer will attest.

The manufacturing process takes six weeks and 162 steps. Each hat is handled 200 times and passes through 60 pairs of hands.

Akubra hats have been worn by Olympians, our Armed Forces, King Charles and Prince William - among many.

And they have featured in many classic movies, including The Man from Snowy River, Crocodile Dundee and Australia.

Sue Stephenson

Sue Stephenson

Editor, North Coast NSW

Sue is an award-winning journalist and academic, and Editor of the Port Macquarie News and Macleay Argus

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