Christopher Koch's great-grandfather, Ehrhardt, started making hats like fedoras and "newsboy" caps in Buffalo 87 years ago.
The business might have dried up when fashions moved away from the styles, but Koch's grandfather changed direction.
"Harold (Koch) . . . started the company down the path of baseball caps," his grandson said Thursday, adding that he wished he could show the founder what had become of a company "that was started, basically to put food on the table."
Christopher Koch, chief executive of New Era Cap, told the story of his company, and of his family, at the Buffalo News Prospectus Premier event Thursday before more than 250 business leaders gathered at Salvatore's Italian Gardens. The event previewed the Prospectus business supplement, which appears Sunday.
New Era recently returned to Buffalo with a splash. It moved its headquarters from rural Derby to the former Federal Reserve building on Delaware Avenue in November, bringing 285 jobs to downtown Buffalo along with the corporate home of what has become a globally recognized brand. New Era also opened a flagship retail store at 160 Delaware Ave., joining one in New York City and other planned stores in Atlanta, London and elsewhere.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I expect we would be as successful as we are," Koch said.
The company has taken part in what Koch (pronounced "cook") called a renaissance in Buffalo, as a string of corporate relocations and other business activity heats up the downtown business sector.
Attendees of the event agreed with Koch's assessment that Buffalo's business center is seeing an upswing.
Said Joseph Marris, a partner at the law firm Phillips Lytle, "I think there are a lot more reasons to be optimistic than there have been in a long time."
The fact that a company in the "highly fickle" fashion industry can make it in Buffalo demonstrates that the city can be cutting-edge, said John Hoffman, chairman of First Niagara's Risk Management unit.
Koch said that technology, the theme of this year's Prospectus edition, isn't his strongest subject, although corporate displays showed how New Era caps rely on advanced wicking and vapor control to keep wearers comfortable.
It is New Era's 70-year association with Major League Baseball that forms the foundation of the company's success, Koch said. The company's caps are official on-field gear for big league players, making New Era products a must-have accessory for legions of fans.
In recent years New Era has leapt from the field to the street, as caps became part of hip-hop culture. Koch played a video emphasizing the connection, backed with the driving beat of contemporary urban music.
Celebrities from Spike Lee to Jay-Z are wearing the company's products.
"It's not because we pay 'em, it's because our head-wear has become a part of modern-day culture," Koch said.
Having latched onto fast-moving consumer trends, New Era is determined to keep up with consumers' tastes.
"The consumer plays a huge, huge part of what we are," he said.
The company's flagship retail stores help keep it in touch with buyers, he said, while it stays tuned into Internet marketing channels that didn't exist a few years ago.
"When you're in the fashion business," Koch said, "what was great last year won't even be recognized this year."