RICHMOND -- Sheldon Bigler got a kick out of the picture in the Dec. 3 issue of Newsweek magazine showing President Bush standing in the Saudi Arabian desert in the midst of a sea of soldiers wearing multicolored camouflage hats.
"A friend from New York sent me this clipping," said the 43-year-old Bigler as he pointed at the picture. "I called the Newsweek photographer and he's going to send me an 8 1/2-by-11."
The president's elated face wasn't what tickled Bigler, who is president of M&B Headwear Co. The company is the nation's only producer of the regulation camouflage hats worn by soldiers in Operation Desert Storm.
Demand is so great that M&B workers are working 10 hours a day, six days a week to produce 265,000 of the hats the military ordered in September.
"The government had a sudden need for these and they came to us to get as many as they could within as short a time as possible," Bigler said. "Because we could not deliver all they wanted in the time they wanted, several other producers are trying to deliver. But as of now, ours are the only official hats out there in the Persian Gulf."
The $1.5 million order isn't the first M&B has received from the government, nor will it be the last. M&B has been a government contractor for more than 40 years and has been producing camouflage caps for the past 10, Bigler said.
The hats, with six colors and a full brim, were originally designed for use by the Saudi Arabian army about 15 years ago, Bigler said. Their main attribute, besides helping one to blend into the environment, is to shield the soldier from the heat.
"We ship these hats within 60 days of receiving the order," Bigler said. "In government work that is very, very good. Normally, a lead time of 135 days is considered the barest minimum."
A family-owned operation, M&B is housed in 64,000 square feet of space in two turn-of-the-century buildings in Richmond's original Tobacco Row. Although the buildings may look quiet from the outside, inside it is a different story. The hatmaker employs more than 225 people. Most are women who work on the 500 different sewing machines that vary from 1940s-vintage Singers to $3,000 computerized Jukis machines. To keep those machines running, Bigler employs three full-time mechanics.
The military has an option for an option to buy 500,000 more hats for $3 million, but Bigler said he won't lose any sleep if the contract doesn't come in. "It would be good for me," he said, "but I'd just as soon get our guys back."