An Interview With Ashton's Robert Levin
Best known for creating Ashton, Robert Levin is a 30-year veteran of the cigar business.
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03
While he's best known for creating the Ashton brands, Robert Levin, president of Holt's Cigar Holdings, is a 30-year veteran of the cigar business with experience in retailing and wholesaling. After a humble start, sweeping the floor of his father's Philadelphia cigar store, he took over the family business in the 1970s, then created the original Ashton in the 1980s. His cigar grew up to be an industry giant, and in 1999 he trumped his earlier success with the addition of the Ashton Virgin Sun Grown line. This year, Levin hopes to add another million-unit brand to his portfolio -- La Aroma de Cuba. Recently, senior editor David Savona sat down with the 56-year-old Levin in Philadelphia for a discussion about the past, present and future of the cigar business.
David Savona: How did you get into the cigar business?
Robert Levin: My father bought Holt's Cigar Co. in 1957. It was a totally new business to him, and Holt's at the time was a small retail store in downtown Philadelphia.
Q: What was your father's business before Holt's?
A: He was a clothing manufacturer, and he closed down that business. Holt's was for sale; he had been smoking pipes and cigars his whole life, and he bought it.
Q: How old were you?
A: I was born in '46.
Q: So you were a kid.
A: Yeah, he would make me come in Saturdays and after school, and I would have to sweep up. There was not a walk-in humidor at the time. There were all these cabinets. In those days, the humidifiers were clay bricks. I would have to take the bricks out of all the cabinets every Saturday, take them down to the basement and soak them in big buckets of water.
Q: When did you get into the business full-time?
A: About 1972, '73, after college. My father always wanted me to come into the business; I always resisted, but he was having some health problems, and he wanted to go on vacation. Retail being as it is, it was tough to get away.
Q: What were your impressions of the business at the time?
A: It was a totally different business then. Premiums were not such a major factor. At that time, Philadelphia was actually a cigar-producing city. There were several factories, and mass-market cigars were still being sold in the cigar stores. There was no such thing as Walgreens and CVS.
Q: So Holt's sold mass-market cigars?
A: We sold everything. And we specialized in seconds. Garcia y Vega seconds, A&C seconds. We were cigar specialists. My dad would buy huge quantities from the factories. When I was still in school, the store had to move, and we moved into another store, and I think my father at the time was the first one to have a huge walk-in humidor, a store within a store with its own separate cash register.
Q: When was this?
A: Maybe the early 1960s.
Q: What did cigars cost back then?
A: Fifty cents. When you got into totally handmade, it was a dollar. In those days, and this was pre-Cigar Aficionado,
people were much more brand loyal. They would come in and they would smoke the same cigar -- buy a box a week, two boxes a week. And there were a lot more people buying cigars in those days. When I began managing the store full-time, that's when I started thinking about how we could expand the business, but I had a lot to learn before that. And in the early '80s, I wanted to have my own brand. I was looking for other things to do besides the retail store.
Q: Why did you want to have your own brand?
A: We bought a business in 1980, Harry A. Tint & Sons, which was another old Philadelphia shop that went back to 1898. The original Holt's was started in 1911 by a gentleman named Arthur Holt. Tint's was still importing directly from the Canary Islands, from Consolidated Cigar Corp. And Consolidated went through a lot of changes, ownership and management changes, and they decided that they weren't going to have a sales force, and the importers would do all the selling for them. So I ended up being a jobber. And I didn't like being a jobber.
Q: What is a jobber?
A: A jobber is a distributor. You're distributing other brands to other tobacco shops around the country.
Q: Was that a profitable business?
A: No. It was a very unprofitable business. Everybody was competing for the same business with the same stores, so the only way to get the business was to give discounts. So it's buying huge quantities of cigars, selling them for a few points profit, and it was obvious to me that that was not the way to go. Everybody was fighting for the same business. You're racking up huge bills for very low profit. That's when I started thinking of having my own brand.
Q: And what brand did you create?
A: I created Ashton. I knew exactly what I wanted: a cigar that had a little more flavor and more taste than was being sold then, because people were smoking very mild cigars then. And I wanted a Connecticut-shade wrapper. I knew all the manufacturers, so I got samples from everybody, and a friend of mine was importing and distributing Ashton pipes, so when I was searching for a name, he suggested that I use Ashton. And I didn't have a better name, so it was Ashton.
Q: Who made the original Ashton?
A: It was Tabacos Dominicanos, which was Henke Kelner. I was there for two or three years. But at the time, Henke was in Colombia, and I didn't meet him for a couple of years. Other people were operating his factory. And it was a fairly new factory, because Henke had been running the government factory, and he started Tabadom with several partners.
Q: This is before he made Davidoffs?
Q: Was the cigar much like it is now?
A: I think it's much better now than it's ever been, and I think it's
getting better every year.
Q: What year did you launch Ashton?
A: We came out with it in '85, '86 -- so we started working on it in
Q: What was the original reaction to Ashton?
A: Ashton started out very slowly. I remember when I introduced it at the trade show, I took three or four orders from my friends in
Q: Was it hard to launch a brand?
A: Very hard. And I couldn't have done it if I didn't have Holt's Cigar Co. It wasn't a business you could live off of. And I had to go very slowly, and build it up account by account. Today, marketing is very expensive. Marketing in the old days was very simple. It was dealing with the retailers, and getting them to take on the brand, to support you. And there were a couple of trade magazines; you couldn't really advertise in any consumer publications, because there weren't any for cigars, and to advertise in a consumer publication that wasn't geared toward cigars was tremendously expensive and a waste of money.
Q: I wouldn't imagine there were a lot of new brands coming out on the market at the time that you originally launched the Ashton line.
A: There weren't, because it wasn't a growing business. But it was the business I knew. After two or three years at Tabadom, I needed to make a change. I think we were doing about 300,000 Ashtons a year, and the Fuentes began making the brand.
Q: Why did you make the change?
A: I knew the Fuentes my whole life. When they started in the Dominican Republic in 1980, they were just building up their factory. We reinvented Ashton in 1989, and Carlito [Carlos Fuente Jr.] and I worked on the blend, and got it to where we both thought it was a great cigar, and we started again. Even when Tabadom was making the original Ashton, we came out with Ashton Cabinet in 1987 or 1988, and that was made at the Fuentes, and we came out with Ashton Aged Maduro after that, and that was made at the Fuentes. Once the Fuentes started making it, that's when Ashton really started to take off.
Q: Did you blend Ashton to your own tastes?
A: Yeah. A combination of my tastes and Carlito's tastes.
Q: What's it like working with Carlos Fuente Jr. on a blend?
A: It's the greatest. Both Carlos Fuente Jr. and Carlos Fuente Sr. They're good tobacco men. They know tobacco -- and know how to blend it better than anyone else I know.
Q: Tell me about how Ashton grew in sales.
A: From '88 to '92, Ashton was growing at a very nice rate, but after '92, it was an explosion, after the publication of Cigar Aficionado.
Q: What kind of explosion?
A: Doubling and tripling. In 1993, sales were picking up at the retail level, the store was starting to do some major increases, and Ashton was selling -- the increases were huge. And Fuente was having a hard time keeping up with the demand.
Q: When did you first start to see supply shortages?
A: Approximately '95.
Q: When did Ashton become a million unit brand?
A: In 1994.
Q: How big is it now?
A: Probably around 6 million. If you want to throw in the little cigars, the Ashton small cigar series, that's another 2 million.
Q: And within that 6 million, how big are the sub brands?
A: Ashton Cabinets are about 600,000, Aged Maduros 500,000 and Ashton VSG 700,000.
Q: Let's talk about the creation of Ashton Virgin Sun Grown. How did it come about?
A: I wanted a line extension to Ashton. We were going to come out with Ashton Crown, which was going to have Chateau de la Fuente wrapper. I had packaging, I had bands, I had everything. But after Fuente Fuente OpusX [which used the same wrapper] hit, the demand was so tremendous, Carlos couldn't make any Ashton Crowns.
Q: When were you going to make this?
A: We were talking about it in 1992.
Q: And it was going to be a strong cigar?
A: Strong cigar, OpusX wrapper, but with a different blend. But after OpusX hit like it did, and demand was so unbelievable, we could never make the Ashton Crown. I still wanted to come out with an Ashton with a more full- bodied, more robust taste, and that's how the VSG was born. The Fuentes have fabulous inventories of tobacco. The Olivas had this Ecuadoran Sumatra-seed wrapper tobacco, and the Fuentes were buying it for five years before we ever came out with a VSG. And this wrapper, the Fuentes had to work it. They had to ferment it, again and again, and process it, to get it to where it is now. So in 1997, '98 I took a trip down to the Dominican, and Carlito handed me a cigar and said "Taste this." And it was unbelievable. I almost passed out. These weren't aged. They were powerful cigars. And that's what happened. I have to give credit where credit is due: it was Carlito and Rick Meerapfel [the grower of Cameroon tobacco] who came up with the name Virgin Sun Grown.
Q: Did you consider using Ashton Crown as the name for that cigar?
A: I was going to, but between '92 and that time, there were too many crowns on the market. We decided that the time had passed.
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Tom Flack — Westerville, Ohio, USA, — January 31, 2014 7:38am ET
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