"I just came home one day," says Atkins, 43, "and said to my wife, 'I'm going to make a hard hat that looks like a cowboy hat.' " The result: the Western Outlaw, a hat that would have made Jesse James proud, not to mention safer. It's selling so well at $28 to $34 (and up to $250 on Saudi oil rigs) that Western Hardhats, the company Atkins started in September 1996, has grossed close to $2 million this year. "I figured I was going to sell like 10 hats to friends and people I work with," says Atkins.
The son of an oil worker and a contact lens technician, Atkins, who lives in Bakersfield, Calif., first tried bonding fiberglass to a straw Stetson; it burst into flames. After a year, and with financial help from friends, Atkins met federal hard-hat specs with the polypropylene Outlaw. When Katie Couric wore one on the Today show in February 1997, sales took off. "The money was a shock," says Atkins. "It wasn't anything I was used to."
Atkins quit his $35,000-a-year sales job in April and now spends his days at sales conferences and trade shows, where no one ever, ever asks him to take off his hat.
Take away a cowboy's horse and you've got a lonesome cowboy. Take away his six-shooter and you've got a defenseless cowboy. But take away his hat, and what you're left with is a dude in too much denim—a dressing-down that used to drive Bret Atkins crazy. A sales rep for a machine-tool company, Atkins got sick of being told to trade his $100 straw Stetson for a hard hat every time he went out to drilling rigs and other work sites.