Peterson’s 150-year legacy : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Peterson’s 150-year legacy

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With sales in its home country stagnant, the Irish pipemaker stakes its future on the U.S. and other export markets

by H. Lee Murphy

Fewer than 5 million people live in the whole of Ireland, with the country’s capital, Dublin, and its environs accounting for about a quarter of that. But are any of them pipe smokers? A reporter’s five-day visit to the busy city center of Dublin turned up one lone pipeman on the street. The revelers spilling out of the pubs onto outdoor patios for a smoke were invariably clutching cigarettes—usually the cheap roll-your-own variety, since state taxes have become so onerous on the branded Gauloises and Davidoffs once considered the natural complement to a pint of Guinness or a dram of Jameson whiskey.

Perhaps the image of Ireland as a primal backdrop for puffing literary types is all wrong anyway. A cursory search finds that George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats were probably never photographed with pipes. James Joyce seemed to avoid briar, too. Oscar Wilde smoked cigarettes, and so did Samuel Beckett. Our ideal of the pipe-smoking Irishman probably comes from the fanciful matchmaker Barry Fitzgerald in the John Wayne film The Quiet Man, and from another Irishman displaced to Hollywood, Bing Crosby. Oh, and Ronald Reagan, descended from County Tipperary, could be found polishing off a bowlful when he wasn’t touting Chesterfields in his movie-making days.

peterson3On a trip to the Valhalla of Irish pipemaking, the headquarters of Kapp & Peterson Ltd., on the southern edge of Dublin in the Sallynoggin district, one is bound to encounter detours. A reporter’s 60-year-old cab driver, who grew up in the city and could take you to any one of hundreds of pubs, doesn’t recognize the address, and maybe not even the brand. He makes four wrong turns and stops three times to ask directions before coming upon the modest little plant, with an understated Peterson Pipes sign out front. Some 40 people work at the place—ranking Peterson among the three or four biggest pipe factories in the world—but one soon learns that of the 40 perhaps only five employees are regular smokers, all hooked on cigarettes. Conor Palmer, an avid fly fisherman who is director of sales and son of the owner, is challenged by asthma and thus rarely takes a puff. Robert Nesbitt, the operations manager for the past four years, is an abstainer altogether.

Finally, an encounter with a Peterson pipe smoker ensues with the news that Tom Palmer, the owner and CEO, actually uses the products his company makes. He has to: He is called upon to sample and test all new tobacco blends before they’re ready for public consumption. But Palmer, who is 63 years old, admits that he’s a moderate smoker. “The laws in this country are so strict that I cannot even smoke in my own office,” he notes. “Therefore my pipe smoking is confined to home, and I would say that on average I get through just two bowls a week. I’m an occasional smoker.”

The rest of Ireland must be in the same situation, which is why public displays of peterson1Peterson pipes have become so rare. And yet the Irish have always been resourceful. Palmer figures that just 5 percent of the company’s sales last year, when it turned out 80,000 pipes overall, landed in the home country. The U.S. was the biggest and most important market, accounting for 25 percent of sales, followed by No. 2, the United Kingdom, and No. 3, Germany. Peterson is sold in 57 countries in total, not surprising, perhaps, considering that the Irish have been exporting their population and their fishermen’s knit sweaters and their Waterford crystal to America and everywhere else for at least the past two centuries.

Palmer is reconciled to a future marked by declining sales in Ireland. He’s got bigger ambitions for the rest of the world. However, he is worried about how he will ever reach his goal of boosting sales 5 to 10 percent a year over the next decade. The fact is that Peterson has been constrained by a troubling decline in briar supplies that shows little evidence of easing. Particularly frustrating has been the shrinking inventories of high-end raw product suitable to be turned into the company’s most expensive fine-grain collections.

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Category: Feature Article, Summer 2016

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