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An Interview With Ashton's Robert Levin

Best known for creating Ashton, Robert Levin is a 30-year veteran of the cigar business.

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Q: What about the Internet?
A: That's part of mail-order. The catalog drives the Internet business, but more people are ordering online. I think it's replacing the phone.
Q: You have all these cigar brands that are doing well. Do you see adding more in the future?
A: There's going to be an addition this year, hopefully for the trade show. New Ashtons, with a Cameroon wrapper. I've always wanted to have a Cameroon wrapper. Rick Meerapfel is one of my best friends. I met him through the Fuentes years ago, and I've always wanted to have Cameroon wrapped cigars using Rick's tobacco.
Q: What are you going to call it?
A: We're batting names around. I'm not sure. And there's going to be a new size of Ashton Cabinet, the same size as the VSG Tres Mystique; we're going to call it Tres Petite.
Q: Let's talk about the cigar market. How was 2002?
A: It was a great year for us. We introduced La Aroma, Ashton was still growing, and we came out with the Ashton little cigars made in Europe -- I'm astounded at how they're selling. Quality always rises to the top and wins out in the end. If you have a quality product, it will rise to the top.
Q: So what effect does a tough economic climate -- higher unemployment, bad stock market -- have on cigar sales?
A: We're still growing; it hasn't hurt us that much, but I think it does hurt. I can tell by our mail-order sales and some of our wholesale accounts, say in New York. We had a great year despite what's going on in the economy.
Q: What about all these smoking bans?
A: I think it has to affect us. We haven't felt it yet, but I think we'll start to feel it.
Q: Are you worried?
A: Yeah. I think we're still going to grow, but I think if a guy is smoking five, six cigars a week, and he lives in a place like New York now, he might only smoke one or two cigars a week. And it's going to affect everybody.
Q: How is 2003 so far?
A: January and February were excellent. March was soft, but April came back like gangbusters. But we don't know yet the effect of all the antismoking legislation. Boston just went into effect the fifth of May, New York was April, so we haven't really seen the effect yet.
Q: Why the soft March?
A: It was a combination of the economy and such a strong January and February -- you have to tail off a little bit.
Q: Do you think cigar sales are somewhat immune to economic
A: My father always told me that. Years ago, he said that generally in recessions and depressions, cigar sales remain. It's an affordable luxury in hard times. But I think, definitely, that the economy has an effect on luxury products, and cigars are luxury products.
Q: About 20 years ago you sat down and created a cigar brand. That cigar forever changed the nature of your business. Where do you think this company will be in 20 years?
A: I have no idea. My son, Sathya, shows some signs of interest; he's a senior in college. My daughter, Meera, is a sophomore, so it's too early to tell.
Q: Would you like your son to take over?
A: If that's what he wants to do, he can do it. He's already spent time with the Fuentes in high school, he's worked with the salesmen out on the road, and he's worked in the retail store for years. He's seen every part of the company. If he shows interest and he wants to do it, that's great; if he doesn't, that's fine too. But the world's open to him -- whatever he wants. So things are alright.
Tom Flack Westerville, Ohio, USA, January 31, 2014 7:38am ET
I have purchased a box of Ashton Maduro 60 every month since they were available. Even during the difficult supply times.This cigar is the base cigar in my humidor and as long as it is available I will be a loyal and grateful customer.

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