Preben Holm (1947 - 1989) has set some marks in pipe history. Just before his 16th birthday in 1963 he sold pipes to the legendary Pipe-Dan shop and at the age of only 22 he headed 45 employees. He was among the first Danish artisans who made "Danish pipe design" famous in the USA in the 1960's. More than that he was one of the very first carvers who exceeded this moderate Danish design which based on the classical shapes. "Chaising the grain" they turned out wild and dramatic fancy pipes. Combining smooth with blasted surfaces, showing big areas of the original bark at the top of the bowl and at the end of the stem, these pipes were quite shocking to many elder and more conservative pipesmokers.
When he started to sell his pipes to Lane Ltd. under the Ben Wade label, he caused a hype fairly beyond comparison. Especially in the U.S., as most of his pipes were sold there.
1983-84 Preben Holm wrote an autobiographic article which was published frequentely online and in print media (e.g. T.P.S.E. in 1994; see Book II page 670-673). This is a most interesting piece of history and, furthermore, one of the rare authentic documents.
The Story of my Firm
by Preben Holm
Already at an early age I became interested in pipes and in pipesmoking. After school I worked as an errand-boy in my father's shop which was a provision shop with 3 departments, one dealing with pipes and tobacco, one dealing with wine, and another one selling magazines and cigarettes etc. When starting as an errand-boy I was 12-13 years old, and it did not last any length of time before the pipe department roused my curiosity, and it was there I spent my time when there were no goods to be delivered. My father was somewhat mean, and he only paid me a sixth of what I could earn somewhere else, but this, I think, was very sound. On the other hand I earned a lot of good tips, and this money I saved carefully and deposited it in the bank. Though at that time I did not know what I should save the money for it proved to be very important later on, because this became my "initial capital" in the pipetrade.
My father was altogether a very wise man, and one of the things he did, and which I appreciate to-day, was to prohibit the smoking of cigarettes, but on the other hand he did not mind my smoking the pipe already at the age of 13 - 14. When I was 14 years old I got tired of going to school, very much to everybody's amazement, as it was considered a matter of course that I should study in order to acquire a superior education. However, I was very tired of school, and therefore I asked my father to be allowed to leave the school. No doubt he was rather disappointed, but he did not want to force me into anything, and we agreed that I should begin a commercial training in his business. It was, especially to begin with, a mixed job as some hours each day I still worked as an errand-boy at the same time receiving a good training within the retail trade. Part of that education was that I had to go to a commercial school where I, no doubt, learned things by which I benefited later on.
The wine department I found very exciting, and I began to read thick books about wine, especially red wine, however, it was still the pipe department in which I was most interested. I was myself a very active pipesmoker, and both the pipes and the tobacco interested me very much, and it was not long before I practically was in charge of the pipe-department. I found that very exciting, and already at the age of 14 I managed the purchase of pipes and tobacco. Most likely I was not always popular with the sellers of pipes who considered me too critical, but I thought that necessary in order to live up to the confidence our customers of pipes gradually placed in me.
I remember that my father considered me to be a bit crazy when I began to buy tobacco for myself that was three times the price of the common Danish made quality, but I really thought that it was worth the money. Before long I also made my father accept the idea to include a very large selection of the better tobaccos, most of them made in England, into our assortment, and it did not take a long time before we had one of the largest selections in Copenhagen.
It is not allowed in Denmark to sell tobacco by weight, but I had the idea that the customers should have a chance to see what they were buying. Therefore I wrote a big book describing in it each single brand, attaching a small plastic bag of the tobacco. It was a great success. There also belonged a small repair shop to the pipe department, and very soon I took over the repairs.
In the meantime I had grown 15 years old, and my interest in pipes increases more and more. During some time an elderly gentleman, who himself made hand-carved pipes, had visited the shop and wanted to sell the pipes. Of course I was very fascinated by him. After I had talked with him a few times he asked me whether I had any money. I had after all my saved tips-money in total 1.400,00kr., and he said that this would be sufficient to buy the necessary machinery so that I could start making my own pipes. He was very helpful with he purchase of machines, and he made also the special tools that were required. I was allowed to mount the machines in a small room in my father's cellar.
The room was only 1/2 m2 (13 1/2 square feet), and conditions were thus rather limited. The first Bruyere-blocks I bought from that nice gentleman, and I was now ready to start my own experiments. That was done after working-hours in my father's shop, and I experimented in my small work-shop until 11:30 p.m. Then I had to finish, because I had to get up and open my father's shop the next morning. On June 5th, 1963 11 days before my 16th birthday, the moment had come when I sold the first pipes to my father for sale in his shop. I then approached the big pipe shop Pipe-Dan that is situated in the city of Copenhagen, and that sells a lot to the tourists.
Pipe-Dan believed in a chance for the pipes I made, and he was prepared to buy 20 - 30 pipes each week. He was to judge the pipes and fix the prices. Now I became very busy and got some friends to come and help me in the evenings for a reasonable payment. I then taught them the more rough work so I myself got more time to occupy myself with the molding and finishing. In that way a couple of years went by, and one fine day I had finished my commercial education. I was now able to devote myself to the manufacture of pipes all day long as well as during the evenings and weekends. 18 years old I employed my first journeyman, and we made gradually 50 - 60 pipes a week which I continued mainly to sell to Pipe-Dan.
Then came the time when I had to serve my time as a soldier. I kept my journeyman who in the meantime had become quite skilful, and for the rest I went the long way home from the barracks every time there was an opportunity. I had now got a larger and better work-shop, but that did cost money and, as already mentioned, Pipe-Dan fixed the prices of the pipes, and the tendency was, I suppose, the more pipes we made the lower the prices. One day during my military service I realized that I was unable to keep my journeyman, and therefore had to sack him. That was not very pleasant.
One day while making the rather traditional hand-carved pipes as we had to in order to come by some money, I took a fancy to make something completely untraditional at that time. From the very beginning I had only worked with the finest Bruyere that could be provided, and on the whole it all had very pretty grain patterns, and that gave me the idea to try something novel. Contrary to what was done so far I started to form some of the pipes according to the grain pattern, and out of this I got some quite particular models. Thus having experimented a little while I had a very smart specimen, at least I thought so. At that time I received about 30,00kr. for a pipe from Pipe-Dan, and I remember that I first went and showed my father this special pipe. He was very impressed, but when I told him that I wanted to go to Pipe-Dan and ask 500,00 kr. for it he seemed not really to believe me. Anyway, I did it. Pipe-Dan studied the pipe and said. "By Jove, it is nice to see something novel". He paid the 500,00 kr. and told me that I was welcome to make some more of them. However, there was naturally a limited market for pipes at such a price, and it was not long before he could not buy any more of them. Anyway, I continued to make them in addition to the ordinary hand-carved ones. I began also to let the raw bark-top be part of the design.
When I was called up for military service I had 18 pieces of these pipes which I was unable to sell. Therefore I left them in my father's shop. One day when I returned home there was big news. An American, called Lon Schwartz had been calling. Lon Schwartz was making a purchase trip for his retail shop in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, USA. When he saw the 18 pipes he was very enthusiastic about them and bought them on the spot, placing at the same time orders for everything I could make against being entrusted with the monopoly in the entire U.S.A. When my military service came to an end there was a lot to do. I could now afford to engage a journeyman, and very soon another one, and gradually we established quite a nice production.
I then got the idea that it would be fun to see where all the pipes were sold, and therefore I decided to travel to St. Thomas. St.Thomas is indeed a tourist island, visited by tourists from all over America, and it was these tourists who bought my pipes in Lon Schwartz' shop. During my first visit I stayed in the shop for 2-3 weeks and had ample opportunities of talking with pipe-smokers from everywhere in America. That really gave me a lot of impulse. Then I returned home and continued working with the new inspiration. That was repeated 3 times within the first year's cooperation with Lon. I could simply not have had any better starting point, because the taste changes quite a lot from one place in the U.S.A. to another, but here came, as mentioned, pipe-smokers from all the States. It was wonderful to feel how something one oneself enjoyed making really was accepted.
Lon Schwartz still wanted to buy all the pipes I could make, and new markets began to be added. Japan was the next one. People there seemed to be more interested in the design and the quality of the Bruyere than in the price. Due to my always being very careful with the purchase of raw material and only accepting the very best, no matter what is the price, we very quickly acquired a very good market in Japan. Very soon new markets turned up, among others most countries in Europe showed great interest, and we once more increased the production.
In earnest it now began to demand much time of me, because I soon learned that it was not easy just to increase the production as by no means I wanted to compromise regarding the quality, but little by little I managed. My small workshop on the 4th floor in the city of Copenhagen wa snow too small. I was by now 21 years old and had six journeyman. Therefore I decided to move to a much bigger place in the outskirts of Copenhagen. However there now arose problems with the U.S.A. Lon Schwartz still bought as much as we could spare him, but it had slowly become too much for his shop in St.Thomas, and he could not really make up his mind whether he should renounce with the monopoly in the U.S.A. or whether he should establish a wholesale business that covered the American market. Finally he decided to stay in St. Thomas, and to renounce with the monopoly the rest of the rest of the U.S.A.
Gradually the American wholesalers had commenced to talk about us, and we received a number of applications, among others from messrs.Snug Harbour in New York. They wanted to sell our pipes all over America, and in March, 1969, we determined to enter into cooperation with that firm. In the meantime we had made an effort to rationalize the production in order to be able to offer the market some more "consumer friendly" prices, and the success on the American market achieved. Snug Harbour now began to press me in order to make me manufacture series produces pipes. After some time I considered this to be a new challenge and invested quite a lot of money in this new project. Among other things I bought a decided pipe factory. I did not, however, take possession of the building, but moved all machinery and most of the people to my factory at that time.
Personally that was a great mistake. Before I realized what was happening I employed at the age of 22 forty five people, partly with the hand-carved pipes and now also with the series produced pipes. It soon dawned on me that neither the serial production nor the by far much widened administration interest me. It was simply impossible to maintain a quality which I could enjoy and be satisfied with. I have never been really content if I was not allowed to produce carefully, and I am fully convinced that in the long run one profits more by producing real quality even though, of course, one has to ask the price for it. Therefore I think after all that the following events suited me quite well.
After a while, when delivering Snug Harbour both hand-carved and serial produced pipes problems occurred. The sale was a great success, but that, of course, caused a bigger need of capital which Snug Harbour could not supply. One day when three invoices that were fallen due were not paid we had another large shipment ready for the, and therefore I phoned the manager and was told that there was no more money on the account. I have had a presentiment that it was going this way, and fortunately we had such great success on the market that several of the most important firms in the U.S.A. had shown interest in cooperating with us. After many calls and discussions of the situation with some of the friends I gradually had got in America I deduced to pay messrs. Lane Limited a visit.
Lane Ltd. were known to be by far the best firm to represent a pipe factory. They were especially known for three reasons which appealed very much to me: Their sense of quality, honesty and efficiency. Of course, it was very nerve-wrecking, because I still had my 45 employees and something that looked like a very considerable loss, which also appeared to be the result, because Snug Harbour never paid. However, I went to New York and met Mr.Herman G. Lane, president of Lane Ltd., for the first time. It was in February, 1971.
Lane Ltd. owned themselves several pipe factories in Europe, and thus they were not interested in my series produced pipes but in the hand-carved ones. My meeting with Mr. Lane resulted in an agreement to start a cooperation. I then went back home, partly in order to make new samples for that cooperation, partly in order to sack half of my staff where upon we closed down the production of the serial produced pipes. In the middle of all this hectic activity that certainly was a great relief for me. The export to other countries was still good, and with that new cooperation with the U.S.A. thing began again to improve.
The cooperation with Lane Ltd. proved later to be one of the most important incidents that have happened to me. Not only as regards business but certainly also the personal friendship. One of the great problems that first had to be solved was the question whether Lane Ltd. could offer our pipes for sale under the name of Preben Holm, because what would happen to the stock of Preben Holm pipes in the possession of Snug harbour. Most likely they might sell the pipes at very low prices so that they would bring in money, and how should Lane Ltd. then be able to sell the pipes at a very much higher price under the same name. We therefore determined to call the pipes Ben Wade and to alter the finish, and I also discussed the qualities within each price-group very carefully with Mr. Lane.
Mr. Lane insisted that we should improve the quality considerably, and in return he would then be able to sell essentially larger quantities. The name Ben Wade belongs to Lane Ltd., and Mr. Lane was prepared to use considerable amounts of money for advertising in the big magazines. Among other things we used a picture of our very exclusive Seven Day's Set for these whole-page advertisements. We had certainly been taken in hand as the quality, and Mr. Lane himself took care that we did not get slack anywhere. But neither failed the result to appear. Within a very short time we sold Ben Wade pipes in by far much larger quantities that we had ever dreamed of. Snug Harbour sold their stock of Preben Holm pipes at very low prices, but fortunately what we had feared did not happen, that the retailers would sell the pipes cheap. Instead it occurred that when it was rumored that no more Preben Holm pipes would be sent to America the Preben Holm pipes in many places were sold as collectors; objects at high prices.
The problem of the preben Holm name has now long ago been overcome, and Lane Ltd. are selling Preben Holm pipes as well as Ben Wade pipes. Our cooperation with Lane Ltd. has as well as Ben Wade pipes. Our cooperation with Lane Ltd. has lasted so far 12 - 13 years, and for me that has been a great experience. Commercially it has been a eminent success for both parts, and that exceedingly is due among other things to the very close and cordial cooperation between us. Often our negotiations are very severe, but no matter how it goes we are always friend afterwards. That means immensely much to me, and makes me really take a pleasure in living up to their expectations though it often can be something of a person problem. We are on the top, and we should like to stay there, and for that reason the demands are very high.
It can be difficult year after year to fulfil the expectations with regard to offer nearly constantly novelties, but so far we have succeeded. At least once a year I visit one of the big fairs in America, and there I have ample opportunities to talk with the retailers from all over the U.S.A., and I return home with a lot of new ideas.
This is our twentieth anniversary, and looking back there is not much I would have like to be without. It has not always been equally easy, but in spite of that one has learned an incredible lot, and it is nice today to confirm that the philosophy I followed from the very beginning-was, quality above quantity was right. Of course, I would not have succeeded if I had not employed some good assistants, especially my head assistant whom I engaged 16 years ago when he was 16 years old. I trained him from when he was a big boy, and from experience I certainly find that in this way you get the best assistants. (That boy was actually 17 years old, named Poul Winslow and soon became Holm's foreman.)
Today we are a well established factory, and I think we have found the right form with a staff of 20, and even though we easily could sell more pipes I do not feel like extend the production but I prefer constantly to improve the quality. This year we have made a small series of pipes which we call Diamond Collection, but it is not due to the golden ring and the diamond that they are sold at 50.000,00 kr. the piece.
Last year I engaged an export seller so that I do not need travelling so much but can devote myself to the production, which really needs much time, and in which by the way I also take the greatest interest. The quality of Bruyere which we use is very expensive, and I examine myself each block. From these I pick the very best ones which are about 5 percent. These 5 p.c. I work up myself like 20 years ago, using some of my best people to do the rougher work while I myself do the molding and the finish. During the work at least half of the lot is taken away because of various faults in the wood while the rest ends as Preben Holm private collection. Those approximately 2 p.c. of our total production I put my signature on with a good conscience.
However, the U.S. market for Preben Holm's pipes dropped dramatically and thus he had to dismiss most of his employees by the end of 1985. He himself became seriously ill, so in early 1986 he had to close down his factory completely. He made an attempt to re-enter pipemaking in the same year, but his state of health stopped that. In 1989 he died only 42 years old.
Poul Winslow about Preben Holm: "Preben was a genius. Maybe a bit wild, always flying from idea to idea and impatient for results. But could he turn a pipe! Some of the most extreme free-hands came out of our workshop in the '70s, and whatever his critics say, they sold like crazy, mostly in America. And when it came to finishing, he was the best in the business."