184. A Chat with Josh Burgess, Peterson’s Managing Director

I first met Josh Burgess, Peterson’s managing director, through a phone conversation several years ago when he was still at Smokingpipes.com. I was in the middle of teaching an 8th grade class and they’d just gone to their independent practice when he called in response to my answers on one of those “Survey Gorillas” that SPC sends out from time to time. If I remember correctly I was (for shame!) grousing about their perceived deficiencies where Peterson was concerned. Then as now, Josh was articulate, informed and erudite with an astounding amount of sensitivity and graciousness. But that didn’t prevent us from really getting into it for about 30 minutes or so, as I received an education of the “business side” of our hobby and he got an earful of one hobbyist’s views. I’m glad the school principal didn’t walk by and that my class was, for a bunch of 14-year-olds, fairly well-behaved, because I all but forgot I was at work. I remember being surprised that Josh would take so much time to talk to me. Only much later did it come to me that Smoking Pipes must take these surveys very seriously, since they felt the need to both acquire Peterson and then send Mr. Burgess over to be its Managing Director. Right?

This time I got to write the survey questions and Josh got to answer them, and as I expected, you’re in for a treat as he talks about his unusual road to Peterson, the new directions the company is taking, where it’s been recently and where he sees it going.

Your professional road to Dublin and current position as Managing Director of both Peterson and Smokingpipes.eu seem the epitome of Laudisi’s unorthodox and counter-intuitive way of doing things. I’ve heard you were raised on a farm, hold a Ph.D. and companion a fiercely Calvinist Scottish Terrier. Can all these things really be true?

That’s the Reader’s Digest version, yes. I grew up on a farm in Winston County, north Alabama. Perhaps our biggest claim to fame is that when Alabama seceded from the Union in January of 1861, we, having no appetite for disunion, adopted the same logic and tried to secede from the state. I spent my summers working on the farm, which was hard work, of course. I hauled hay, built fences, and fed chickens. When I got my first summer job at the age of 16, I felt like I’d graduated to a life of ease. But it was a nice place to live and a nice way to grow up. I had a real fondness for livestock, so I spent most of my youth thinking I’d become a veterinarian.

When I went off to college, I realized my talents lay elsewhere. I developed a passion for early American history. Being a bit obsessive, I decided that anything worth doing was worth overdoing and went on to the PhD program at the University of South Carolina. My intention was to study the history of the American South, which is a real strength of the department. I completed the program in 2012, then taught for a year at South Carolina on a postdoctoral fellowship. Graduate school was an intense experience, but I always found it rewarding. I particularly enjoyed teaching the American survey.

And yes, the Scottish Terrier – Duncan – joined me during grad school. I suppose I also have to take responsibility for his religious sensibilities, as I was reading a lot about Puritanism at the time. He must have gotten his paws on some of that literature.

When I came to work for Laudisi in 2013, I was at a bit of a loss about what I wanted to do with myself. The academic job market didn’t have much to offer that year, but I also didn’t know if I had any skills that would be attractive in the private sector. I spent the first six months alternating between thinking Sykes and Ted were crazy for hiring me and feeling guilty for tricking them into hiring me. But as I got to know the company better, I came to see that this is a place that values intelligence and enthusiasm. If you’ve got those things, Laudisi will help you develop the skills that you need for your role.

You are Peterson’s first dedicated pipe-smoking director since the days of Tony Dempsey back in the 1980s. How did you take up the pipe and what difference do you think it makes in Peterson’s new direction?

As a college student, I was first interested in cigars. But my early efforts there just didn’t go well. My great uncle, who was a sort of grandfather figure for me, smoked a pipe, so pipe smoking was something that I had a vague awareness of even though I hadn’t really thought of in years. One day I got the notion to buy a pipe, but I didn’t really have a budget for it as a student. Then I remembered that I had a change jar I’d been keeping since high school. I dumped that out on my dorm room bed and counted it up. It came to the princely sum of $60. I figured that should be enough to get some kind of pipe. So I went off to the local B&M, where I purchased a Wessex bent Billiard and four ounces of tobacco. Like most people who start out, I didn’t have much of an idea what I was doing, but it seemed like a pleasant enough way to pass the time while reading on the quad. For whatever reason it stuck. 18 years later, I’m still at it.


A Wessex Bent Billiard (pretend it was Josh’s first pipe)

I think it does make a difference in at least two respects that lots of us who are charting a new course for Peterson are pipe smokers—Glen, Sykes, Ted, and a whole group of people at Laudisi who are pitching in at Peterson in various ways. First, it changes how we think about some subtle but important practical questions in piemaking. What makes a stem comfortable? How’s the draw? What is the hand feel of the sandblast or rustication? The ways in which we think about those and similar questions is rooted in our personal experience as pipe smokers. Secondly, the fact that we’re pipe smokers means that we’re bringing a really particular sort of enthusiasm to stylistic and design questions about Peterson pipes. We’ve each got shapes that we favor and finishes that speak to us. We each relish different aspects of Peterson’s tradition and design language. And so questions about what we should do – whether it’s the Pipe of the Year, a new finish, or a subtle change to a shape – are subject to fairly intense debates. It’s a level of critical engagement that I think is really good for the pipes.

What is it like being the first American director of an Irish company? Has there been any culture-shock or tremors that you’ve noticed, either in yourself or the company?

I suppose it was about a year after I moved to Dublin that Glen Whelan and I made a day trip over to the UK on business. We were flying back to Ireland that evening, and I hadn’t been around any Americans for a while. As we ascended, the pilot came over the PA system to do his usual spiel. I turned to Glen and said, “What’s wrong with that guy’s voice?” Glen laughed and said, “He’s American.” Looking back, I find that really amusing. But at the time, it was profoundly unsettling to realize that I had heard my own accent as foreign. I think that’s a sort of metaphor for the ex-pat experience. So on a personal level, yes, relocating to a new country – even a country like Ireland that shares so much in common with the US – has its challenges. Little things that you just take for granted at home, from how to pay your light bill to figuring out where to shop, suddenly require effort.

But professionally, I think we were quite lucky. The staff was really welcoming, and on some level, we felt like we already knew the company pretty well. Culturally, I think the transition to Laudisi ownership went smoothly. There was a common culture around pipes that transcended national boundaries.

The sea change of new management and ownership can spell new life or disaster for a business, especially such small one as Peterson. Yet it has weathered the storms, squalls and doldrums of the world market for 154 years now. The Dublin Era (1991-2018) was one of Peterson’s finest, rejuvenating the company, bringing the notion of the affordable “collectible pipe” to the forefront for the hobby with the Pipe of the Year, Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day commemoratives and special collections. But in a little over 18 months, we’ve begun to see a new tack. Could you chart for us the direction you and Laudisi are hoping to take Peterson?

There are a few different ways to answer your question, one of which is really simple but no less true: we want to make better pipes. Peterson is many different things; it’s a brand, a community, a tradition, a story. But most fundamentally, it’s a pipe. If we get so caught up in the brand narrative that we neglect the pipes, then we’re going to run aground (to continue with your nautical metaphor). The pipes that we are making today are better than the pipes that we were making a year and a half ago. We’ve made improvements to bowl coating, rustication, sandblasting, and, most recently, to drilling and mounting.

A Recent 302 “Fat Bottom” Premier Blast

There’s still much that we want to accomplish, so our focus remains on incrementally improving the pipes themselves. I suspect that what you’re most interested in here is a bigger sense of how we view the brand and where we want to take it, but that question of where we want to go is predicated entirely on making excellent pipes that smoke well.

The 2019 POY Natural

The next way to answer your question is by thinking about what kind of pipes we want to make. In this respect, I think it’s best to reiterate something that we said shortly after we acquired Peterson about Laudisi having a bias toward Peterson traditionalism. That has been even truer than I expected at the time. In 2019, our Pipe of the Year revived a classic Peterson shape. That’s going to be true again in 2020.

A 302 “Fat Bottom” 2019 St. Patrick’s Day System

 

A 305 Standard Dark System

We’ve produced two new versions of the Peterson System since owning the company—the Dark Smooth, which was released earlier this year, and the Green System for St. Patrick’s Day 2019. We’ve leaned less on brightly colored stems in favor of black and cumberland. We’ve celebrated the P-lip for the first time in decades, I think. So we’re largely drawing inspiration from Peterson’s past and trying to make pipes that could just as easily have been made in 1950 as in 2019 or 2020. (And I’m pretty certain that even Charles Peterson himself would have allowed us a green pipe for St. Patrick’s Day.)

Factory Manager Jonathan Fields

A final way to answer your question is by thinking about how we want to make these pipes. I won’t belabor this point, but I think it’s important to note that as Peterson got smaller over the years as the global pipe market shrank, some key pipe making skills were lost or outsourced. Over the past two years, we’ve worked to restore those and bring them back in house and will continue to do so. So that’s the direction: better pipes that are firmly in the Peterson tradition, made by skilled craftsmen who are deeply knowledgeable and passionate about pipe making.

Job descriptions at Peterson have always seemed rather fluid, both in the office and out in the workshop, allowing individuals to grow and find their strengths. You’ve previously described yourself as primarily “an operations guy,” but I suspect few Peterson aficionados know what goes into your work. Could you outline the kinds of work you do over the course of a year?

As managing director my job is essentially to make sure that everyone at Peterson has the tools, resources, and feedback that they need to do their jobs well. The real expertise is in the factory, and my job is to facilitate. Over the past year and a half, we have, of course, identified a number of areas where we want to make improvements, either to the pipes themselves or to production processes. My role in this is to get us from the vague sense that something could be better to a realizable process for making the change: to turn an idea into a project. Sometimes these projects are simple. For example, someone in the factory might come to me and say, “I’ve noticed this specific problem, and I think we can solve it by using this buffing compound or sandpaper instead of the one we’re currently using.” In a case like that, my response is simply, “Yes. Try it.” In other cases, the projects are complex and extend over many months. They require serious planning and experimentation in the factory, coordination with suppliers and distributors, or the purchasing of new equipment. In a situation like that, my job is to ask lots of questions, to keep us organized, and to sustain momentum.

Otherwise, I try to pitch in where I’m needed. Sometimes that means that Adam O’Neill needs to give me a batch of estate pipes to evaluate for Smokingpipes.eu, or Glen needs me to pitch in with something on the sales side. On rare occasions, you can even find me back in the factory bending a few stems.

What’s your sense of the world pipe market just now, and where do you see it headed?

I suppose the answer to that question depends on what time period we want to consider. If we look at the past 70 or 80 years, we run up against some uncomfortable truths. There are fewer pipe smokers and fewer factories than there used to be. Those factories that have survived are smaller. But despite those facts, I don’t think ours is a story of decline. There is today a level of enthusiasm about pipes and a seriousness about them that I suspect did not exist in the past, when seeing a pipe smoker on the street was as common as seeing someone today holding a Starbucks cup.

There’s an interesting trajectory in pipes and tobacco that runs counter to what we see in other industries, where a luxury good is transformed into a mass market good. In pipes and tobacco, I think the reverse has largely been true. Pipes were mass market goods half a century ago. Today they’re luxury goods, and those who buy and smoke them do so more intentionally and are more sophisticated in their choices. I think we’re likely to see that trend continue, as people engage critically with pipe smoking as a hobby with cultural significance. So despite the challenges that we face, I’m optimistic about where we are and where we’re going.   

Can you drop any hints of what we might see this year from Peterson?

I’m obviously most excited about the quality of our new sandblasts, and I think Peterson aficionados are going to be really pleased as they see more of what we can do.

A 338 Smokingpipes 20th Anniversary Sandblast

I was exceptionally proud of the pipes that we made for the Smokingpipes 20th Anniversary, and I’m looking forward to seeing more pipes like that leave the factory.

An Early Republic 9BC Shamrock

Following up on last year’s chubby rhodesian, the pipe of the year is going to be another celebrated favorite from days gone by—the 9BC. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 epidemic in Ireland has interrupted production, so we’re going to need to reschedule that launch for later in the year. But I think your readers will be really pleased with the pipes. I’m already trying to decide which finish to buy for myself.

The De Luxe Dark Smooth XL5

Finally, the Peterson system is getting some serious attention this year. We’ve released the Standard System Dark and now the De Luxe Dark Smooth and Ebony Sandblast.

Is it true that your Scottie smokes Presbyterian Mixture when you’re not at home?

I’ll only say that I don’t smoke that much Latakia anymore, and the tin I brought to Dublin with me when I moved is almost gone. There are also some mysterious toothmarks in my meerschaum’s stem.

What’s your favorite Peterson shape?

That’s actually a tough one because I think Peterson has a lot to offer for different pipe smoking occasions. If I’m looking for a pipe to smoke on the go, I’ll likely opt for the recently reintroduced 406. It’s handy enough to tuck into a jacket pocket and easy to clench.

The 406 in Sterling Dress

But for those long smokes at home with a good book, I’ll take the Sherlock Holmes Professor every time. I really like the shape, the bend is just right for clenching, and my rusticated version has a great hand feel.

The Sherlock Holmes Professor with New In-House Blasting

 

Many thanks to Josh Burgess
Thanks also to SPC for select pipe photos
All other illustrative nonsense courtesy Chas. Mundungus

 

 

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