The Horse Rider's Journal

It Runs in the Family

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It’s the pinnacle of German craftsmanship executed by skilled artisans: For almost 150 years, equestrians worldwide have consulted G. Passier & Sohn, makers of the finest quality saddles in the business. 

Text Marlene Toldbod Jakobsen Photography Daniel Stjerne / The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 14

When Dirk Kannemeier was 14 years old, he spent all of his school holidays working at his father’s saddle factory, G. Passier & Sohn, more commonly known as Passier. This experience presented him with two benefits: 1) He always had his own money when his friends didn’t; and 2) at an early age he got to know the product his family had been making for generations, and which years later would become his own livelihood.

Dirk represents the fifth generation of Passier saddle-makers. It was his maternal great-great-grandfather, Georg Christian Passier, who founded the business back in 1867, quickly bestowing the company a high quality reputation and establishing it as a supplier of the royal court. In the course of over a century, G. Passier & Sohn has survived two world wars and several global economic crises. The production facilities and sales offices were even destroyed during World War II, and had to be rebuilt and relocated to its current location in Langenhagen in Hannover, Germany. Dirk Kannemeier took over as CEO in 2004. He worked as a CEO in the financial sector in southern Germany before returning home to take charge of Passier. It’s a long-held company philosophy that there should only ever be one family member involved – this is to avoid any disputes or disagreements that easily could occur when mixing business and personal life. “I think this is one of the reasons why we have been able to carry on for so many years,” Dirk explains, “and to this day we keep growing without any outside interference from investors or banks. It’s never good when there’s too many interests.” 

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Even though Dirk is the only one from the Passier family actually working in the company, he regards his employees as family, many of them having worked with Passier for decades. The honesty reflected in Passier’s approach to making saddles is also evident in Dirk’s philosophy towards leading a good team. “I expect the people working here to do their job to the best of their ability, and I do not want any compromises on our saddles’ quality. Our staff get paid good wages and have stable working hours with no overtime in a pleasant environment. Our values are pretty straightforward that way.”

Needless to say, respect for the company’s craftsmanship is highly valued – especially in a market, which is very competitive and tough. “We have confidence in our brand and the quality it stands for. So do our clients, and we make sure that every product leaving this facility lives up to the quality Passier is known for. And we’re still here, so we’re doing something right.”

There is no doubt that tradition plays a big part in the making of Passier saddles. Many of the production machines are so old that Passier has to buy up other old pieces of machinery in the search for the right spare parts in case their own break down. The leather used for the saddles comes from cow hides because they are stiffer and tighter, which means that the fibres don’t get loose when processed. Passier have suppliers all over Europe, who buy the raw material for them, from an auction at a specific place in Bavaria, simply because it’s the best. The main construction of the saddle, the saddletree, is made from plywood from Finland, because this kind of wood is sturdy yet flexible. And that’s the way it is with every little component in the making of the saddle: They are the best there are. And once assembled, the result is phenomenal. Some of the best riders in the world swear by Passier saddles, many of them making special requests to have the exact saddle they need. Because that’s what Passier does: Making saddles on request, instead of mass-producing. That means every saddle coming from the production is uniquely ordered by one of Passier’s many long-term retailers. Passier also engages in collaborations, developing special edition saddles together with top riders. German Olympic medallist Ingrid Klimke is one of them, designing a jumping and cross-country saddle, which has been very popular.
“We of course have our own ideas, but we also get great input from the riders we collaborate with – obviously they know what works best and we have the expertise to execute that. I’m sort of the collector of the ideas,” Dirk explains. “I don’t spend too much time in my office, because it’s when travelling and meeting the retailers and riders in the field that most inspiration comes to me.”

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The Passier business lives purely from making saddles and the approach towards making these have remained the same since Dirk Kannemeier’s forefathers were in charge. And yet it has changed somehow. “We have been able to be flexible and adapt to what people need within the parameter of what we do and without having to compromise the quality. For example, we realised that bridles and accessories like that are not for us to produce ourselves. It’s simply too costly, so in 2007, we began to import them instead. It’s wasn’t something we’ve done before, but it turned out for the best,” Dirk explains, as he shows us around the production workshop and walks us through every single step in the making of the saddles. He knows every little detail, a consequence of his younger days working on the floor. It truly is fascinating, like stepping into a different era where manpower still outweighs machinery. This is where you’ll see grown men with big beards sewing the finest and most delicate stitching; it takes great strength to sew leather with the precision they do. The Passier employees are artisans at work. It takes an entire three-year apprenticeship at the workshop before one is even able to specialise in a field of the production. Every employee has his or her own workstation and is responsible for one specific part of the saddle-making. Each saddle component has a number marked down on a small yellow label – that way, if something doesn’t live up to the supposed quality when going through the final quality control, it can be traced back to the specific worker and be corrected. It also serves another purpose: Each saddle is given a serial number and is archived along with all the labels that also contains the customer’s name, the saddle size, and brand name. So if a rider wishes to reconstruct an older or a broken saddle, it’s easy to find the measurements and specifications for that one particular saddle – and the archives date all the way back to 1948.

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Even though Passier has done so well for so many years, Dirk Kannemeier is not one for resting on his laurels. There are many unpredictable scenarios that could turn the ship around, and he is very attentive to staying relevant and contemporary with his company, without having to settle on any standards: “There really is no crystal ball to say what the future holds. Our focus will as always be to keep our product up to date and have an eye on the market. The German market is the biggest and most important one, so if we’re successful here, we can make it anywhere. Our main business is with retailers, and many of the smaller ones have been going out of business these past years or have been bought by bigger chains. So that is of course one of our challenges – to upkeep a good relationship with our partners and keep doing what we do best: Making unique and high quality saddles.”•