Celebration Corner: The Bullard Hard Hat's 100th anniversary

By April Hall

It’s hard to imagine a construction site without a hard hat. It would be impossible to calculate how many lives Edward W. Bullard’s invention has saved.

The Business: In 1898, Edward Dickinson Bullard founded the E.D. Bullard Co. in San Francisco to provide gold and silver miners with carbide lamps and other equipment they needed to stake a claim in the West.

When second-generation member Edward W. Bullard returned from World War I, he was inspired by the “doughboy” helmet soldiers wore overseas.

Building on that memory, the business created the trademarked “Hard Boiled” hat in 1919. The new product took its line of protective equipment to the next level.

The Hard Boiled was made of steamed canvas and glue, with a leather brim. The entire thing was painted black.

Initially, miners or construction workers chose whether or not to wear the head protection. There were no regulations or any governmental entity to protect workers back then.

The first wide use of the protective headgear occurred during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, between 1933 and 1937. Engineer Joseph B. Strauss provided Bullard hard hats for everyone working on the bridge, designating it the first “hard hat area,” where the helmets were mandatory.

While Bullard hard hats protected construction workers during the building of the bridge, the company’s engineers also created an aspirator specifically for the painting prep on the bridge. As workers were blasting the steel before painting, they had clean oxygen to breathe instead of steel shards.

Since then, the hard hat has evolved from steel to aluminum to fiberglass to thermoplastics. Initially handmade, the hats are now created via plastic mold injection. The three-rib design on top (created by Edward W.’s wife, Esther) has been trademarked.

During the company’s evolution, the company moved its production facilities from San Francisco to Sausalito, Calif., and then to Cynthiana, Ky., in 1971. The headquarters relocated to Cynthiana in 1991 to create synergies in office and manufacturing operations.

Last year — the 120th anniversary of the family business — the company opened the Bullard Center in Lexington, Ky. Bullard’s research and development, new product development, marketing and global shared resources departments are housed at the Bullard Center. The headquarters remains in nearby Cynthiana.

In addition to the hard hat, which celebrates a century on the market this year, current Bullard Co. products include firefighter helmets, thermal imagers and air-quality equipment.

The company has stayed true to its vision statement: “Our vision is to advance human safety to enable long, healthy, productive lives through innovative solutions.”

“My great-grandfather invented the hard hat before hard hats were required,” says Wells Bullard, the fifth-generation CEO of E.D. Bullard. “Safety is in our DNA, and we are older than OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration].

“There are a lot of people in this space and a lot of people getting into the space — many after OSHA required workplace safety,” says Wells. “But whether it’s with Bullard [products] or a competitor’s, we want [workers] protected.”

The Family: A Bullard has always been at the helm of the company. Leadership passed from Edward Dickinson Bullard to his son Edward W., who was succeeded by his son, Edward “Jed” (who is now chairman of the company’s board).

“There are lots of Edward Bullards,” says Wells, Jed’s daughter, who became CEO in 2017.

Wells’ brother — Edward, of course — doesn’t work in the business. “We were neither entitled to work at Bullard, nor were we expected to work at Bullard,” Wells says. “It’s not his passion, not his calling. He’s still very proud of the company.”

The family business is Wells’ passion, however. She joined full-time after she finished Harvard Business School. She started working six days a week, 10 hours a day on the shop floor. She got experience in manufacturing, engineering, marketing, and both product and business development before becoming CEO.

Wells is a trailblazer as the first Bullard woman to take the lead in the family business.

“The importance of being a woman, it’s not just about one person,” she says. “It’s important to have diversity of thought on the team.”

The Celebration: The company planned several celebrations throughout the year to mark the anniversary of the hard hat, but the marquee event was literally one for the record book — the Guinness World Record book.

On Saturday, Jan. 12, Bullard took advantage of a University of Kentucky basketball game at Rupp Arena to set a world record under the watchful eyes of observers from Guinness.

At the game, 10,000 fans on the lower level of the arena received Kentucky blue-colored hard hats branded with both the University of Kentucky and Bullard logos. (That was enough to set the record.) Then, at halftime, the fans were instructed to put on their hats.

After a solid five minutes, a record was set: Bullard officially holds the world’s record for largest gathering of people wearing hard hats.

Wells and her parents were photographed holding the certificate of the world record with Phillip, the “authenticator” from Guinness. “He was wonderful,” she says.

“It was really interesting,” Wells says. Fifty-four counters walked around to make sure the tally was as accurate as possible.

“People stayed and celebrated with us” after the record was set, Wells says.

This year Bullard established a $10,000 engineering scholarship in the name of Edward W. Bullard at the University of Kentucky.

The hard hat was also feted at a global sales meeting in San Francisco, where the company originated.

In September, there will be an event for employees and company partners to “celebrate the hard hat,” Wells says.

The Planning: “The marketing team gets mad props for this one,” Wells says.

The preparation for the world record took 18 months. In the summer of 2017, the idea was batted around with others. The planners wanted “as much creativity as possible,” Wells says. “The marketing team came up with all of this.

“That went pretty quickly, to be honest. That idea came to us September-ish and was approved October-ish,” she says.

The Advice: “People like to celebrate and to share in a special event. If you have an anniversary that feels like a big deal, go for it,” Wells says.

She included as many team members as possible in the planning and the celebration to arrive at the most creative ideas. No suggestion was too big or too small.

Celebrating the hard hat is great, but it goes deeper than that, she says.

“We’re also celebrating the creativity and the work,” she says.

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.                                                                       

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May/June 2019

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