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An Interview with Marvin R. Shanken

The editor, publisher and founder of Cigar Aficionado sits down with his Executive Editor, Gordon Mott, to talk about the genesis of the magazine, and his love of cigars.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

In 1991, Marvin R. Shanken fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit Cuba and to see first-hand the place where some of the world’s greatest cigars are produced. By the time he returned from that trip, a clear idea had formed of what he wanted to do—start a cigar magazine. It wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment decision, but the perfect synergy of a lifetime of smoking and enjoying cigars with a publishing career that was reaching new heights. He has never before told his story from the beginning. Executive Editor Gordon Mott sat down with him in the corporate offices of M. Shanken Communications in New York City.

Cigar Aficionado: When and where and how did you fall in love with cigars?
MARVIN R. SHANKEN: I was a freshman at the great University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. I started smoking Hava-Tampa Jewels, which were then 25 cents for a box of five. They had wooden tips. Rather unsophisticated, but they were fun to smoke.

CA: What year was that?
SHANKEN: Oh my God, 1961 or 1962. Later on, I moved up to Partagás No. 10s, which were big cigars in those days. They were mild. That was my go-to cigar for a long time. But I do remember that when I was in college I was probably the only kid smoking cigars in my fraternity.

CA: Wasn’t that about the time the first big influx of Cuban immigrants arrived following Cuba’s revolution? Was there a cigar community in Miami at the time?
SHANKEN: Not really. I was a loner in the cigar world. I used to buy the cigars at a convenience store across from the university campus. It wasn’t even a cigar store. It was more like a five-and-dime. They sold hardware and different kinds of products. Cigars were just one of the things they had on the shelves.

Marvin R. Shanken and Gordon Mott.
CA: Why did you pick one up the first time?
SHANKEN: I don’t know. My father didn’t smoke. I must have had the impression that this was something that made me appear more mature. Or it was sort of like a way to elevate my own self-image in some way. It was something that I enjoyed doing. I might add that one of my college professors was this delightful elderly woman who was Cuban. She came to America in the late ’50s. After school I would visit her in her apartment where she shared stories of her life growing up in Cuba. It was a major fascination I had while I was in college. She told stories of Havana, Vuelta Abajo, and the culture of what sounded like a great country. Obviously, she was unhappy about Castro taking control, which is why she left with her husband who was a doctor. I think this is how I began to have the desire, the dream to one day visit Cuba.

CA: After you graduated, you started working on Wall Street. Did you keep smoking cigars there?
SHANKEN: Yes. Actually in one of my early jobs, one of the partners was a regular cigar smoker. He smoked during the day, all the time. Now that I’m thinking about it, and I haven’t thought about it in 50 years, he smoked only Cuban cigars even though they were illegal.
CA: Where was that?
SHANKEN: This was at a small investment banking company in New York. It wasn’t a big deal, but I was a cigar smoker.

CA: Were you smoking one, two or three a day?
SHANKEN: I don’t think I smoked a lot but I’m guessing a cigar a day.

CA: Did you start smoking Cuban cigars, or at least try them?
SHANKEN: Yes, but they were too strong for me. I smoked mainly Dominican cigars. It was very relaxing. I learned early on that cigars were a wonderful way to relax and to expand my mind. Over the years, whenever I had a difficult problem or business issue, if I would sit back, have a cigar, my mind would wander into new ways of solving a problem.

CA: You started on Wall Street, but then you got interested in the wine business. How did that happen?
SHANKEN: I started financing vineyards in Northern California and that’s when I became interested in wine and started learning about it. At a given moment in time, don’t ask me why or how, I decided that I wanted to be a wine writer. I didn’t know what I was doing. I never took journalism courses. I was not very good in English class, but I always had an
appreciation for the Fourth Estate and I always thought that other than being a doctor or a judge, there was no greater glory than being a journalist. That was something of very high standing but not necessarily something that I personally thought I would ever move to. And it was after getting involved in the wine industry and starting to read about and visit vineyards that I decided I wanted to be a wine journalist. It was a stupid idea at the time. I had no reason or basis for going in that direction because I had no experience in that field. That was 40 years ago!

CA: It couldn’t have looked like a career in which you were going to make a lot of money?
SHANKEN: Money was never a goal other than I wanted to survive. It was really about learning and about being involved in something I loved. And I fell in love with wine. And I decided I wanted to be a wine writer. I started looking around and found a newsletter for sale called Impact Newsletter. It was owned by a stock brokerage company called Oppenheimer, and was published by a guy named Jack Maxwell. He was unloading it and, I heard about it. It had 200 subscribers and he wanted $10,000 dollars; I thought I was being very sharp by negotiating to buy it for $5,000; but I later found out that he would have given it to me for free. He just wanted to unload it. I borrowed the money from my sister because I didn’t have $5,000 and I started being a publisher. That was about 1973. I did it part-time up to 1975, working in the investment bank and doing the newsletter. Then I decided to leave Wall Street and starve, but be happy being a writer.

CA: Weren’t you the only employee of Impact at the time?
SHANKEN: There was a girl who’s name I can’t remember who ran it in ’73 and ’74. By 1975, when it became my full-time occupation, I didn’t just start writing it by myself. When I went off on my own I brought in Margo Lee [Hofeldt] whom I knew from college and she was there working with me when I started to try to build Impact Newsletter for the wine and spirits industry.

CA: Didn’t you build the newsletter’s reputation very quickly?
SHANKEN: It took time. But the first goal was to get the newsletter business to $100,000 in revenue so I could take a salary. That took me about four or five years. My first salary was about $15,000 dollars a year after four years. Don’t ask me how I lived. It was hand-to-mouth. By 1980, I had a very small business.

CA: In 1980, isn’t that about the time you discovered Wine Spectator and brought it into your publishing empire?
SHANKEN: It was hardly an empire. But I had found it a few years before. In 1976, a gentleman on the West Coast named Bob Morrissey launched a tabloid newspaper called The Wine Spectator. I ran across it and thought it was great and I picked up the phone one day and said, “Congratulations! Great!” It was a very friendly, unpretentious publication, not for wine snobs but for beginners. He and I became telephone pals. In 1978, he asked me to come visit him and help him because I had an MBA and he had come out of the armed services. He said he couldn’t make it, and would I take it over? I said no but I would help him. So I came back east and I got some friends I knew in the wine business to buy ads in his newspaper. It was $200 a page and I did it as a favor to him.

I didn’t take any commission; I didn’t take any money. I just wanted him to survive. And then in 1979, he called me and said, “I don’t want it to die. You have to take it over.” And I said, “I’m not taking it over.” He says, “Well, I’m coming to New York and I need to see you.” And so he came to New York and he told me he was folding the newspaper and that I had to take it over. “I’m giving it to you,” he said. I said no. But then I don’t know what got into me because I was struggling myself at the time. So, I said, “Yes, but I don’t want it for free.” I said that I read in a book that media companies sold for one times revenues. He said his annual revenues were $40,000. So I said, “Okay, I’ll pay you $40,000 dollars but I don’t have it so I’ll pay it over five years.” He said it’s not necessary. “No,” I said. “I insist.” So I paid him $8,000 a year for five years. I took it over, threw my heart and soul into it and struggled and starved for a fairly long time. Then one day, I woke up and I had a business. During the time, I had launched research reports, started marketing seminars and another magazine called Market Watch. I was doing everything I could to make a buck to stay alive. At the time, I had a friend named Terry Clancy, who was in the wine business, and he gave me a lot of good advice on how to build a business.

CA: Were you still smoking cigars during that period?
SHANKEN: Absolutely. Cigars have gotten me through a lot of difficult days at The Wine Spectator and Impact.
 
CA: We’re in the 1980s, the company’s reputation and influence is growing rapidly. When did you start thinking about doing a cigar magazine?
SHANKEN: Well, as I said, I had launched Market Watch, which is a trade publication for the wine and spirits industry and then I bought a beautiful magazine for chefs and restaurateurs called Food Arts in the late ’80s. By then, I had a successful, small publishing business. I had always thought about a cigar magazine but never very seriously. It was like a fantasy fun thing to think about because there were no cigar publications. There was very occasionally a cigar article in the newspaper or magazine and I actually wrote a few columns about cigars in Wine Spectator. The first one was in 1984.

CA: You wrote about cigars in Wine Spectator?
SHANKEN: Yes, the first one was entitled, “I Love a Good Smoke.” which was in 1984, 28 years ago. The senior editors at the Wine Spectator were not happy that I was writing about cigars in a wine magazine. They thought it was very inappropriate and after three or four columns, they pushed me to stop because they thought it was unbecoming for a wine magazine to be writing about cigars. But those columns meant a lot to me in those days.

Then, in 1990 or 1991, I had an editorial meeting in California at Pebble Beach at the Inn at Spanish Bay with all the editors of the Wine Spectator. I was making a lot of changes at the Spectator to make it more of a lifestyle publication and upgrading it from newspaper to a colorful magazine and getting into collecting, cooking and dining, and travel and many other lifestyle topics. I was challenging the editors to come up with story ideas or cover ideas that weren’t about wine. I don’t know how, but I or somebody brought up cigars or maybe doing an article on cigars in The Wine Spectator and I said, “You guys are crazy; all these years you’ve been beating me up and now you, you’re saying it’s okay to do an article on cigars.” And now they start pounding the table saying, “Cover! Cover!”

They had decided I think to challenge me to do an article in Wine Spectator on Cuban cigars. I said, “Who’s going to do it?” And everybody said, “You’re going to do it ‘cause it’s your love.” In 1991, I went to Cuba to do research for a cover story on Cuban cigars, which came out in February of 1992. The cover was entitled, “The Allure of Cuban Cigars.” It had a tasting report for cigars like we had for wine. It had beautiful pictorials of Cuba. It had interesting stories on people at the Cuban cigar company, Cubatabaco at the time, and many other things. It was a full issue devoted to Cuban cigars. While I was on the trip to Cuba, I must have lost my mind. It was the most exciting week of my life to go to the mecca, the birthplace of cigars.

CA: The trip itself was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, right?
SHANKEN: Oh, absolutely. I never thought I’d be able to go to Cuba. On the way back, in the airplane, I said to myself I don’t want to die without having a cigar magazine. That was the beginning. And so I came back; I had a meeting with many of the top executives at the company in circulation, in marketing, in production and editorial. I don’t know, were you there?

CA: I was there.
SHANKEN: I told them of my dream. And I asked them to, to go around the room and to tell me what they thought of the idea. Correct me if I’m wrong—every single one of them told me it was a bad idea. Not to do it.

CA: You remember it correctly.
SHANKEN: The circulation head said, “You know if you want to, if you want to play, do a special insert, a special issue or run it as an insert in The Wine Spectator.” I thought that was a defeatist thing. But in the beginning, I think I was just insecure with the idea of doing a cigar publication. I thought more about doing a cigar newsletter. I just wanted to do something. But as I spent more and more time developing the idea and everybody kept telling me not to do it, including my friends who were not even in the business, I just got more determined.

CA: I was going to say, the negative feedback wasn’t just inside the company, right?
SHANKEN: Everybody. My Young Presidents’ Organization forum of successful executives laughed at me when I shared my idea. I mean everybody said it was a bad idea, and that it would ruin my reputation. But the more people told me not to do it, the more committed I became to it and went from a newsletter to a magazine to a glossy magazine. I started developing the vision of what this publication would be. I wanted it to be the ultimate men’s lifestyle magazine. Then the question was what do we call it? And you reminded me that I had thought of it originally as a quarterly because I didn’t know if it could be sustained on a monthly basis and we came up with Cigar Quarterly, or CQ. Then, you did some research to see about the name, but you found that Congressional Quarterly was already known as CQ. Then the working name was The Humidor or Humidor Magazine and that’s what we were working with and doing dummies of and so forth. I don’t know why, but I started re-reading some of my earlier Wine Spectator columns, written in the mid-1980s.

CA: You have a copy there now. Read the line.
SHANKEN: Yes, I came across the article that I wrote in February, 1984 and in it, there is a sentence where I’m talking about a cigar auction of Cuban cigars. Here’s what I said: “To the serious cigar aficionado, this was a moment in history.” A light turned on in my head and I said, “Cigar Aficionado Magazine”. When I said that to other people they scratched their heads, “Cigar Aficionado? Nobody even knows what it means, nobody would use it, nobody knows how to pronounce it, nobody knows how to spell it.” But I was convinced that was the name even though it was not a word used much in the English language. Today you read newspaper articles and there are fishing aficionados, there are car aficionados, there are all kinds of aficionados. The word is used all the time and it’s basically because the name was popularized in Cigar Aficionado.
It was a name that was added to the American popular language through the launch of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

CA: Did you do any market research, focus groups or independent studies?
SHANKEN: No. My stomach was the only research. My stomach and my passion and love for cigars.

CA: What was your reaction when you saw the first printed copy?
SHANKEN: Well of course, I had prototypes put together by the art department. We designed a dummy for advertisers to show them what I had in mind. When they saw what I had in mind they realized that this was going to be an elegant, beautiful look at a lifestyle for the affluent male. The first issue was everything I could ever have dreamt of plus much more. From day one, the magazine was a great success.

CA: What was your goal when you started it?
SHANKEN: My goal was to somehow get to 20,000 circulation. In the first issue we had over 100,000. What happened was I started running small ads in The Wine Spectator, black and white ads saying if you want to get the
issue free, Xerox the ad and fax it to us. We started getting five a day, 10 a day, 20 a day... and then it was 50, 100 a day. It’s no joke. Unbelievably, we ended up with a mailing list of 100,000 before the first issue. The truth is, if I had used any other magazine as the source to develop a mailing list, it would have been a failure. But the Spectator had many male readers who were interested in the idea. It was an overnight success. The magazine actually turned a profit in the first year, which is unheard of in publishing.

CA: Apart from that first flood of faxes, when did you realize that you had something special, that the magazine had tapped into some special feeling, some desire out there in the market?
SHANKEN: I couldn’t quantify it or pinpoint the moment. I mean when you do something that’s a labor of love with no expectation of ever making a profit, there aren’t a lot of expectations. I was at a point in my life where I had gone forward expecting to lose money with the magazine the rest of my life, and the losses would just be offset by the profits of my other magazines. But I was fulfilling a fantasy and fulfilling a dream. More than any financial success, I wanted to create something that would bring cigar lovers together and bring them peace, and bring them happiness.

One of the magazine’s main missions was to educate people on how to enjoy cigar smoking. A lot of my friends didn’t smoke. I remember I would show them how to select a cigar, how to cut a cigar, how to light a cigar, how to smoke a cigar. They didn’t even know how to light a cigar, how to smoke a cigar or how to hold a cigar. I realized that the magazine’s mission for the first few years was just educating men so they wouldn’t be afraid and they would try smoking a cigar. If they tried it and if they liked it, then they would join my cigar world, which brought me a lot of pleasure. I wanted to share this pleasure with them.

As you well know, the magazine had great articles, great writers and great photography. It was just a very exciting period of my life. The publicity we got, the articles written about it—Fortune, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, New York Times. Everybody wrote about it. After the launch we began these events called Big Smokes that were like no others that had been done before. Today they are all over the world; people have copied them. But I had this vision of bringing people together in a room where we sampled and smoked cigars, drank whiskey; we had fun and laughed and heard music.

When we started one in New York, the first year we had 1,500 people. Then, we went to two sessions, we had 3,000 people there in one night. Then we started taking it to other cities. I think in all we’ve done like 15 different cities. At one point, we were doing about 10 a year. It got to be too much so we cut back and just stayed with events in the bigger cities. We now host Big Smokes in New York and Las Vegas annually. The Big Smoke Weekend in Las Vegas attracts 4,000 to 5,000 people.

CA: Do you remember the first one?
SHANKEN: The first Big Smoke? Absolutely. I walked into the room and could not believe the mob of people there having a good time, laughing and smoking. There were people from the cigar industry and cigar-smoking consumers. I had no idea that anyone would even come. It was just a wild, wild moment. That’s probably the first moment I realized that the whole project, and the magazine, was something very special for guys that love cigars.

CA: In the beginning, wouldn’t you say that  even the cigar industry was pretty skeptical?
SHANKEN: Yes. Before I launched Cigar Aficionado, I went around to visit a lot of the cigar makers in their homes and offices in the Caribbean or in Florida, virtually all of them looked at me like I was a crazy person. I mean, it was like, “A cigar magazine? What are you, nuts?” I don’t think any of them had a clue as to how it could impact their business. In the handmade cigar business, sales had been flat at around 100 million cigars for the previous 20 years. Many of the cigar makers were thinking about getting out of the business because there didn’t seem to be any growth or any future in the cigar industry. I think they were cautiously rooting for me, but they had no expectation that I could make it. I think the only credibility that I had is they would say to each other, “Look, he did it with wine. If he did it with wine, maybe he can do it with cigars. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

Following the launch of the magazine, many cigar companies’ business rose dramatically. I don’t want to say rose from the ashes, but they became enormously successful. The cigar market in America really exploded and sales grew rapidly for many years. A lot of people recognize that it’s the launch of the magazine that really was the fuel and the engine behind the growth of the cigar market in America. And of course, then people started reading it all over the world.

CA: What is your greatest memory of the last 20 years?
SHANKEN: Probably interviewing Fidel Castro in 1994.

CA: That didn’t just happen overnight, did it?
SHANKEN: No, it took two years. I had actually gone down to Cuba several times with the hope and expectation that I would get the interview because the advance people told me, yes, it was going to happen that trip. I would wait and wait and wait and it never happened. They would always tell me to stay in my hotel room with the instructions, “Tonight’s the night,
tonight’s the night.” It never happened. Then, one rainy night around midnight, the phone rang, and I was asked to meet a woman from the Foreign Affairs office in the lobby of my hotel. We went in a chauffeur-driven dark blue Mercedes through the damp streets of Havana to the Palace of the Revolution where I had my interview with Fidel Castro. It was a very special moment.


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Nick Russell January 17, 2013 4:09am ET

Well Done Marvin.


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