Pehr Ferdinand Holm was born in Arboga, Sweden, on 3 April 1844, the son of Brita Christina Jansdotter and her husband, Johan Holm, a master mariner. Holm gained his first mate's certificate in 1867, and in 1868 sailed to Australia in the Queen of the North. After an unsuccessful attempt at goldmining in Ballarat, in 1868 he arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, as an able seaman; during a storm in the Tasman Sea he had fallen from the yard-arm into the sea and was swept back on deck by the next wave.
In New Zealand Ferdinand Holm, as he now called himself, joined the government paddle-steamer Sturt, carrying troops and supplies between Taranaki and the East Coast. When a surfboat was swamped landing troops at New Plymouth he rescued several men from drowning. On 30 November 1870, at St Paul's Cathedral Church, Wellington, Holm married Mary Alexander Callan; they were to have five daughters and four sons. Holm began work as a pilot in 1870, living in the pilot house at Worser Bay. The next year he was in command of the schooner Lady Bird in which he made a record run from Wellington to Sydney. Captain Holm commanded four different vessels between 1871 and 1874. He frequently took his wife and children to sea with him, and his sons received their early training in seamanship from their father.
After a period as second pilot at Wellington, Holm became chief officer of the steamship Taranaki, which was wrecked off Tauranga in November 1878. At the official inquiry he was highly commended for his bravery. In 1880 he bought a few shares in the barque Malay and progressed to half-shares in 1881. In 1889 he bought the barque Genevie M. Tucker, with which he traded as far afield as Madagascar and Mauritius. He trained apprentices in this ship and in the barque Helen Denny, and was influential in having the training ship Amokura established. Holm's last sailing ship was the barquentine Titania, purchased in 1913; it was wrecked off Nouméa in August 1914, a victim of the wartime blackout imposed on the reef lighthouse by French authorities.
In 1906 Holm became one of the original shareholders in the Maoriland Steamship Company for which he brought the Ennerdale from Britain. He sold his shares when the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand purchased an interest in its rival in 1908. Holm bought his own steamship, the John, in 1911.
A short, stocky man, Holm was genial and generous, independent-minded and determined. Mary Holm died at the family home in Karori Crescent, Wellington, on 6 May 1908; Ferdinand Holm died in Wellington on 30 March 1917. A stained glass window in St Paul's Cathedral, Wellington, was dedicated to their memory in 1970.
All of Ferdinand Holm's sons became engaged in seafaring. Sydney and Mariner became master mariners, and Ferdinand and John Herman trained as marine engineers. Sydney also ran the business both before and after his father's death, and was responsible for its being registered as the Holm Shipping Company. Three of Ferdinand and Mary's daughters became primary school teachers.