Labor of love : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Labor of love

An avid pipe lover, Denis Blanc leaves a successful
engineering career to own two of France’s oldest brands

by Stephen A. Ross

bc1

There’s an old adage in some industries that if one wants to make a small fortune he must take a large fortune and engage in business. With an increasingly negative environment regarding smoking sweeping the globe, the saying could be applied to owners of pipe factories. To be sure, there are still plenty enough pipe smokers around the world to make such an endeavor potentially profitable, but to do so requires a steadfast management of expenses and constantly finding ways to economize production while maintaining and improving quality. When Denis Blanc decided to purchase

Denis Blanc

Denis Blanc

Pipe Ewa in 2000 and Berrod-Regad six years later, he must have left his friends and family befuddled. After all, the jovial Frenchman earned a Ph.D. in engineering and had worked for some of France’s top technology firms with jobs specializing in materials research and purchasing. An avid pipe smoker, Blanc learned of Pipe Ewa’s bankruptcy and purchased the company, saving a brand that had been started in St. Claude by Horace Waille in 1860. Using his experiences in the business world, Blanc believed he could streamline Pipe Ewa’s costs and keep the company and its three employees in business. He would continue to work in the technology industry and devote one day a week to managing Pipe Ewa. He also created a website, Ad Hoc Pipes to sell those pipes. “I got into pipes for the fun,” Blanc recalls from a meeting room at the Butz-Choquin, formerly Berrod-Regad, factory in St. Claude. “It was perfect. I smoked pipes and I wanted to sell something that wasn’t very big to ship. It was my hobby.” When the opportunity to purchase Berrod-Regad arose in 2006, Blanc bought bc4it and left his engineering career to turn his full attention to owning a pipe factory. Berrod-Regad traces its history in St. Claude to 1875, when Lucien Regad established the company to produce pipes for the German and Swiss markets. By the time Blanc purchased Berrod-Regad, the company had grown from being not only a pipemaking concern but also a maker and distributor of lighters, humidors, cigar and cigarette cases, and other smoking accessories. The company had also purchased one of the best-known French brands, Butz-Choquin (pronounced “boots show-can”) in 1951.

Butz-Choquin was established by Jean-Baptiste Choquin, a tobacconist, and his son-in-law Gustave Butz in Metz, France, in 1858. The pair designed an unusual-looking pipe that featured an albatross bone stem extension and silver rings and soon were quite successful. By the time Claude and Jean Berrod purchased Butz-Choquin, it had fallen on hard times, but moving its production to St. Claude and utilizing Berrod-Regad’s sales network throughout the country, the brand was revived and continued to do well up to the time of being sold to Blanc.

Within a few short years, Blanc had purchased two of France’s oldest pipe brands and consolidated their production at the Berrod-Regad factory, which had been renamed Butz-Choquin. Built in 1970, the factory consists of two buildings connected by two hallways that surround a central courtyard. Production is done in one building and the administrative offices and warehouse occupy the second structure. The courtyard is used as a very small parking lot.

Like all of the surviving French pipe companies, Butz-Choquin prides itself in carrying on the traditions of St. Claude’s illustrious association with pipemaking as well as continuing to make the classic shapes that made the bc2pipes so popular around the world. Sometimes a company can get lost in bowing to those traditional methods, and soon after purchasing Butz-Choquin, Blanc discovered that he would have to modernize some of the company’s business methods.

“The organization wasn’t so good when I bought the company,” Blanc explains. “Everything was managed manually and inventory management was very difficult with so many different products, especially when you include the work we do for other companies. I put everything into a computer and we got a better handle on our production. I also created new digital catalogs so that our sales representatives can show their customers the pipes on their laptop computers and place the orders on them. All they have to do at the end of the day is upload the orders to us and we can ship them out the next day. Other than that, I tried to do what they had done successfully in the past but add new things, such as gift pipes, and streamline the number of pipes available. There were something like 400 to 500 shapes when I took over. We had to reduce that amount because there were just too many.”

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Winter 2014

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