Monday 23 October 2017

Born to the saddle, and the Berneys are still racing ahead

Why Berney Brothers Saddlers are the leaders of the pack

SOMETHING IN THE BLOOD: Master craftsmen Thomas Berney senior and junior in the back of their shop, Berney Brothers Saddlers, in Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Photo: Gerry Mooney
SOMETHING IN THE BLOOD: Master craftsmen Thomas Berney senior and junior in the back of their shop, Berney Brothers Saddlers, in Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

The first thing that hits you when you walk in the door of the Berney Brothers Saddlers in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare is the glorious scent of rich leather.

There is a feel to the shop that is unique and for a moment it is as though you are caught in a time warp, wrapt by the smell and the noises of hammering, busy sewing machines, the sharpening of knives and the cutting of leather. Despite appearances, however, this is one business that is certainly not stuck in the past.

This week the small town saddlers has been alive with customers from all over the world, calling in on their way to or from the nearby Punchestown Racing Festival. And many more flock to the area throughout the year, to shop at Berneys, which has been located in the same main street premises since 1880.

Thomas Berney and his cousin Jamie are the fifth generation to now work at the helm of the business, which has been passed from father to son throughout its 135 years in existence. Both of their fathers, brothers Tom and Jim, who are now aged in their 70s and 80s, still work in the shop.

"Back when it began there would have been a saddler in every town because the horse was the main form of transport and power on the farm as well," Thomas explains. "We survived, I suppose because of the sport horse market. Kildare is real horse county and we are really located in the epicentre of all of that."

Berneys may be a small saddlery, but its reputation for craftsmanship has made it one of the most sought-after names in saddlery around the globe.

"The Berney reputation has always been about good quality, and durable, long-lasting saddles," Thomas says. "We are producing the guts of 1,200 saddles a year and each one of those saddles is going to last 25 years, so there are a lot of Berney saddles out there.

"Until recently we didn't really do any advertising, it was all just word of mouth," Thomas explains. "Wherever the horses are, there are Irish people working and those people have brought their Berney tack with them or if they were there and what was local wasn't good enough they would send home for it.

"So a lot of our export trade is on the strength of those Irish people. We have about 20 parcels going out each week, going to all different parts of the world."

Through the generations the Berneys have been innovators in their craft and kept up with changing needs. The business has seen many highs and lows, but has lived on to tell the tale.

"The team has grown - at one stage we had about 15 lads working here - and then it would have gone down to maybe three and now it is back up now to about 10 staff," Thomas tells me.

"The business has seen world wars come and go and many recessions, and our most recent recession has had a huge effect in so far as the numbers of horses in training was halved, so obviously when there are less racehorses being trained there is less need for tack.

"During the recession was we refocused ourselves on the higher-end product and we developed a new range of Grand Prix saddles to compete at the higher end.

"You have show-jumping competitions now being won by hundredths of a second," Thomas explains. "So we knew if we could produce a saddle that is a little bit lighter or a little bit more shock-absorbent, it would give these top riders that marginal gain and our new Grand Prix range does that."

This move has been a resounding success and Berney Brothers are now the official suppliers of Team Ireland Equestrian; a hugely positive endorsement considering the fierce competition within the sport.

But as well as this innate ability to adapt, customer loyalty has been key to the Berneys' sucess.

"We service all of the bigger stud farms," Thomas explains. "Many of our customers are incredibly loyal. Willie Mullins would be a very good customer and the Walshes too - and that is something that goes back generations.

"We are dealing with the four generations of the Mullins family, we are dealing with three generations of the Walshes, three generations of the Oxxs - so it is lovely that that relationship has been passed along to the generations.

"Without our customers we are nothing," Thomas explains. "We are producing quality products, so our customers have faith in us when we produce something new and we have always been at the cutting edge, so with that mix of tradition and innovation people believe in us.

"I often compare it to Jaguar cars," Thomas adds. "Jaguar are very innovative and they are not the only innovative car-makers, but because they have that tradition and quality behind them, people trust in them.

"Our saddles are not just being designed for the riders, they are being designed for the horses and I think that is where Berneys have a slight advantage; we are saddlers and we are also horsemen, so we understand what it's like from both sides of the counter."

Another unique element to Berneys is the fact that customers can see straight into their workshop and watch saddles and tack being made by hand, while browsing around the store. In a world almost overwhelmed by so much mass manufacturing, the opportunity to watch these master craftsmen at work is a refreshing experience.

"We take it for granted because this is what we do and this is what we have known, but I often see it when oversees visitors come into the shop and they are blown away by it," Thomas smiles.

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