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
(continued from page 2)
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.
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