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Davidoff's No. 1

Cigar Aficionado interviews Davidoff's director general Ernst Schneider.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

Ernst Schneider, the owner of Davidoff cigars, has been the driving force over the past 20 years in turning the company into a leading consumer-products enterprise. As director general of the Max Oettinger Co., he has overseen Davidoff's growth in new markets, the shift of Davidoff's production from Cuba to the Dominican Republic and the expansion of the Davidoff name to other products such as men's cologne and accessories.

In late November in New York City, Cigar Aficionado Editor and Publisher Marvin R. Shanken sat down with Schneider for a wide-ranging interview on Davidoff's future and the company's strategy in continuing to build the brand.

Cigar Aficionado: What is your background?
Ernst Schneider: I was born in Basel, Switzerland, into a good, middle-class family with two sisters and one brother. We had an ideal family life. I made my studies during the Second World War in Basel at the University, and I was two-and-a-half years in the military service. That was in Switzerland where you have to do some military service as a youngster. I am a doctor in law, and this was my university title.

After that, I was a delegate of the Swiss Red Cross to organize medical help in Dachau, Birkenhau, for the displaced persons. This was, by far, my best experience I ever did in my life. I thought that I was very important with a doctorate in law, and when I saw all this misery in these camps and those displaced persons, I became modest and thankful for what I had. I was just happy to help.

Afterward, I was part of the political department in Bern for the Swiss diplomatic corps, and I defended the Swiss interests in Japan. At the time, I learned how cruel the Japanese were then. So, I have had two experiences in this direction, and I was personally convinced that you have to fight against all these awful situations.

C.A.: When did you get into the tobacco business?
Schneider: After that, I met my soon-to-be wife, and her father was sick. He was the proprietor of the Max Oettinger Co. This was my first step in the tobacco business. So my first job was son-in-law in the tobacco business.

C.A.: What kind of tobacco business was it?
Schneider: Oettinger was founded in 1875. The company was one of the first importers of Havana cigars, Brazilian cigars and Jamaican cigars. He was selling the cigars in France, in Germany and in Switzerland. He was dealing with mostly bar owners and tobacco shops.

C.A.: In what year did you join this company?
Schneider: That was in 1949. It was a difficult time because many of his clients had been in the war, and the company was in trouble because of a decline in business. Basically, many of these bar owners and tobacconists had disappeared in the war. So at this point, my father-in-law was deciding if the company could be restructured. And he did it.

But he pulled out of imports, and he was only a wholesaler and distributor. And then in 1949, I entered the company, and I started the import and retail business. And after six years, I had the chance to go to work as director of the Loens Co., the owner was Tobacco Vinum. And this was my best experience over the six years. I traveled all over the world, and I really learned the tobacco business from A to Z. After the six years' time, my father-in-law retired, and I took over the direction of the whole company.

Today, we have the manufacturing department; we have the import; we have the export; we have the distribution, and we have the retail business. We also have the diversification, and we have three of our own brands: Davidoff, Zino and Griffin's. This is today our strength.

C.A.: What was the date that you took over Davidoff?
Schneider: We took over Davidoff in 1970.

C.A.: Was Davidoff offered to another company before yours?
Schneider: No, Davidoff offered his shop because he was convinced he was on top of his business then, and, at 65 years old, he thought it was a good moment to sell. Many people said that I was crazy to pay such a price for one shop only, but I had an idea in my head. I said that we would internationalize the Davidoff business because the base was created, and I had developed a special concept. I always used three important points as a means to success. The first point is that quality and price have to be in order. The second point is the concept has to be in order, and the third point is that you have to make a special distribution system. With all of these together, you will have a successful luxury brand.

C.A.: You mention that people said you were crazy to pay so much for one store. What did you pay?
Schneider: Oh, I don't remember (laughs).

C.A.: Was it under or over a million?
Schneider: Over a million.

C.A.: Over a million?
Schneider: Yes.

C.A.: In a dollar equivalent?
Schneider: Yes, yes (laughs more).

C.A.: A million in those days was a lot of money-- it's a lot of money today. But it was even more money then.
Schneider: Naturally, that was the reason why people said I was crazy.

C.A.: Just some general questions. The antismoking movement has been very strong in the United States and now seems to be expanding to Europe. There are various parts of the rest of the world where there are many restrictions and a lot of talk of more restrictions. How do you see the environment today with the antismoking pressures on the cigar lover?
Schneider: You know, there was a time when, if a lady smoked tobacco, she was burned at the stake. So, our situation is not so bad. In fact, when all is forbidden, it's even a little more interesting, and I'm happy to say that we had a vote in Switzerland last Saturday and Sunday on whether the state would forbid advertising for alcohol and tobacco products. Two-thirds of the people voted against this proposed law. So, we can go on. We are all adults, and we know what we have to do. God created tobacco and the grape, among other things, so when we enjoy them in a reasonable way, there shouldn't be any problem.

C.A.: Moving a little bit closer to home: you know that Cigar Aficionado has an international readership, but, of course, the vast majority of the circulation is in the United States, and so for that reason I ask this question. Today you have Davidoff stores in New York and Los Angeles. The only other store that is more or less in your category is Dunhill. They, of course, are more diversified in terms of products, but they have about 11 stores in the United States. Do you have plans to expand your retail business in the United States?
Schneider: Well, you see that's one of the points of our concept because when we started in Europe, we started first in each country with a Davidoff pioneer shop, and from this point on, we named the best cigar shops as Davidoff dépositaires. Besides this, we go to the best restaurants and hotels to place our humidors of Davidoff cigars. This is one of our systems to control the distribution. But as soon as you are losing your distribution, you are losing your luxury brand. That's one of the reasons we are very strict in America. We will have in America probably four stores and not more. But we will also have all of our key dépositaires in other regions to help build the brand.

C.A.: Which are the two other cities?
Schneider: We would like to have something in Florida and Chicago, but don't hold me to it.

C.A.: There are a lot of questions related to the new generation of Davidoff cigars. The first really deals with the fact that you have a factory where Zino is made in Honduras, and yet you selected the Dominican Republic as the source for your new generation of Davidoff cigars. What made you decide on the Dominican Republic as opposed to a country where you already had existing facilities and production?
Schneider: Well, I said, we have the three brand names: Davidoff, Zino and Griffin's. Zino is specially from Honduras. This is another line and also another category, pricewise. Zino and I traveled to Honduras, to the Dominican Republic, to Jamaica and also to Nicaragua to have a look where we would find the best situation and the best tobacco to make our new cigars. And we found it in the Dominican Republic with our friend, Mr. Kelner, who is one of the best tobacco specialists. Also, his is a family business, and mine is a family business. So we find in a short time the right place to make our cigars. Kelner was interested in working with Zino and me, considering our experience. He was also willing to go in our direction and to make every effort to reach our goal. We can now say that today we have the most modern cigar factory in the Caribbean. When you make a luxury product like Davidoff, you have to make sure it is produced in the best factory so that it comes out perfect every time.

C.A.: Well, I've been to the factory, and I know Kelner does a great job. There's no question about it. When we spoke two years ago, you always thought that the new generation of Davidoff cigars would be milder and lighter than the earlier version, which came from Havana. I am curious to know whether or not in the past two years you have in any way rethought that idea, given the fact that the market seems to be wanting more taste and more flavor. For example, some cigar brands from the Dominican Republic are changing their blends. They're making their cigars with a little more flavor, with a little more richness--and certainly the Cuban cigars are more in that direction. Are you changing your cigars? The wrapper of Davidoff cigars seems to have already gotten a little darker. Where do you stand in terms of lightness and mildness versus today's taste?
Schneider: That's very simple. We were analyzing the world market of cigars, and you know that not only in the cigar business, but also in all other sections, there is a trend to be mild, lighter. This was the basic decision. We will go to milder and lighter products because the trend is the same all over the world. So we decided to create the new generation with three, or today, four lines. We have the line of Davidoff No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and we have a line of the thousand: 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000 and 5000. And we have the line of the Grand Cru.

The first line (those with No. 1 and so on) is the most light in style. The second is in between, and the strongest is the third. In addition, we have specialities like the Special T (a torpedo-shaped cigar) or the Special R (robusto-sized cigar), which are strong cigars. So, in each clear-cut category, you have what the consumer likes to smoke.

C.A.: I'm not sure that the consumer understands what you just explained, but I think that when he reads it in this interview, he may realize this for the first time. That is very useful to the consumer.
Schneider: Of course it is.

C.A.: Are the same cigars shipped to the United States and the European markets?
Schneider: Of course. They're exactly the same all over the world. We insist that we have the same cigars all over the world. The only difference is that--and I am being 100 percent truthful--when we have some lighter wrappers, we send those cigars to Europe and not to the States. Our cigars are not all the same color just like everybody else's.

C.A.: The last time I was in London, I noticed that the wrappers of Davidoff cigars were so much lighter. That's a curiosity because you would think it would be the opposite. The American consumer has been weaned on the milder cigar, the Macanudo if you will, and others like that--those with rather light wrappers. The European and British consumers have been weaned on the Havana, which is darker and stronger. So you would think you would send your darker wrappers to Europe and the lighter wrappers to the United States. Why does it work the opposite way in this particular case?
Schneider: Because in Europe we have no problems with lighter wrappers. The cigar smoker is willing to accept them without any problems.

C.A.: But two years ago, when you first released your cigars, they were much lighter--almost yellow in color. I was just looking at one in my humidor the other day. You must have changed even the lighter wrappers a little bit, or is that just a matter of differences in crops?
Schneider: This is just a question of the year in which the wrappers were grown.

C.A.: So it wasn't intentional.
Schneider: Not at all. Not at all.

C.A.: Is it fair to say that you are completely satisfied with the quality and taste of what is being produced in the Dominican Republic?
Schneider: We are really lucky and happy that we found such a nice and capable man. Today, we also have our own plantations, and we have total control and we can follow the production of our cigars from A to Z.

C.A.: One question that's probably on a lot of people's minds--and although nobody can really predict the future wth any certainty--under what circumstances do you think Davidoff might return to Havana?
Schneider: You see, you have your experience, and I have my experience. The older you get, you know that you can't say yes or no in every situation. All is possible. It's clear that when I say that if we go back to Havana, the situation can't be the same. We are flexible.

I can give you another answer. We told people for 22 years that the Havana cigar is the best, and we still say Havana tobacco is the best for cigars. But it is not always the best cigar, depending on the moment.

C.A.: What do you mean?
Schneider: The trend for the moment is going the other way. The market trend today is for a milder and lighter cigar. That's the reason we were doing what we are doing. On the other hand, with the current conditions in Cuba, it's not the best situation (for making cigars).

C.A.: Do you mean in terms of quality?
Schneider: I am sorry for the Cuban people because I like them. They are the sort of people that would give you their last shirt off their back if you are kind to them. I am really sorry for the Cuban people.

C.A.: I understand what you are saying, but I am still somewhat confused. I assume that your Davidoff store in Geneva and your other stores in Europe still continue to do a sizable business selling Havana cigars.
Schneider: Naturally. We are selling all Havana cigars. We never fought against Havana cigars. That's not our goal. With our own cigars, we are simply going with the trend. We are all in the same boat; so we should help each other (whether you make cigars in Havana or the Dominican Republic). All manufacturers should accept this idea.

C.A.: But it's a little confusing because what I think you're saying is that from the standpoint of building an international brand, the trend is toward lightness. So in terms of building volume business in a luxury-cigar brand, the Dominican Republic is the taste you have sought to meet that growing demand?
Schneider: That's correct.


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