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.
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