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The CA Interview: Austin McNamara

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McNamara: That's from Cameroon, West Africa.

CA: General Cigar has done a great deal of consumer research in terms of who is the target audience. Could you describe the target audience as it is, and then tell me whether or not you think it's going to change in the next five years? What percentage are male? What's the median age? Basic things, and how you think that's going to change.

McNamara: The most dramatic differences are if you go back five years and then look at the present. Our premium cigar smoker was basically 40 and above. They have always been at the higher end economically, usually with a higher educational level. They were managers and chief executive officers and probably better educated than the average person. The most startling change has been the group of young consumers between the ages of 25 and 40 who historically have not been involved in the premium cigar market, and who have come in. They are the largest growth of new users in the marketplace.

CA: So the median starting age dropped from about 45 to...?

McNamara: When we started, the median age was closer to 45. That's dropped to about 38.

CA: We're talking 45 to 38. In terms of male to female?

McNamara: Obviously there are a lot more female smokers today, but the real percentages are still largely male. Probably 90, 95 percent male, 5 to 10 percent female.

CA: Is there anything that the industry can do, or should do, regarding the government's health report coming out in the next few months, and which may be out by the time that this article is published, which is going to take a very negative perspective on cigars and the health risks of smoking cigars? From an industry point of view, what does it mean, how do you handle it, what will be the impact of this?

McNamara: I believe that as a company, we strongly support the Cigar Association of America's [CAA] plan, which is: developing a position that clearly states our product is made for, has been marketed to, and is used by adults--it's an adult product. And we hope to have before this issue comes out, a program in place that supports that, both in terms of the retailers and also the companies who will support a program of limiting cigars to adults only. I believe that the issues around cigars are well known, that we make products that are made for mature, responsible adults who can make their own informed decision about the use of the product. If you look at the demographics, this is really a product category that mature adults start using.

CA: Can you elaborate on the Cigar Association's plans?

McNamara: We are very supportive of the CAA's program that they are about to implement--the "adult's only" focus. Any issue associated with underage usage of cigars, we don't want to encourage at all. The plans calls for distributing across the country a "retailer focus" program that educates their employees, that is going to give signage and is going to encourage the support and carding of people to ensure that they are the proper age. They must make sure that to the best of their ability, the only people that use this product are mature, responsible adults who have made an informed decision.

CA: So, have you a minimum age effort? Does that vary from state to state? Or do you have one uniform age that you're going to be dealing with?

McNamara: Well, we actually take the position that anybody under 21 should not be using our product. But in many states the age limit is 18. So the position is to do it at 21 or older. And we're working on it and it should be out in the field soon.

CA: Is it fair to say that in terms of brands, that Macanudo, for the foreseeable future, will be the flagship of the company?

McNamara: Yes.

CA: Could you spend a minute with the various brands describing their strengths--you know, strong, spicy, mild, whatever--to get a sense of your portfolio, starting with Macanudo and going down the list and describing the taste and strength characteristics of each brand.

McNamara: Macanudo is a legendary taste. In fact, we believe that it's a unique taste in the marketplace. It is the largest-selling premium cigar in America and has been for a long time. It has a smooth and very consistent taste. It's actually the bedrock of exactly how General Cigar looks at cigars. It's relatively easy to make one great cigar, one time. Or even a thousand. It's yet another to make tens of millions in the course of a decade and make them all the same. And that's what we focus on.

CA: Is it mild, or strong, or extra strong? Is it spicy? Is it neutral? How would you describe the taste?

McNamara: I think it's very smooth and I think that it's very consistent from cigar to cigar and it doesn't change from one end to the other. It's a great cigar, and very smooth.

CA: Would you call it mild?

McNamara: I wouldn't call it mild. I'd call it smooth.

CA: With a medium body?

McNamara: Yes, medium-bodied.

CA: Partagas.

McNamara: Partagas is more full-bodied. It's definitely richer and it's got more taste characteristics than Macanudo. But it doesn't go as far as Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch. They are even more full-bodied. So that through those four brands, we have an entire spectrum of taste covered.

CA: Where does Cohiba fit in that taste spectrum?

McNamara: I personally like Cohiba better than I like Partagas. I have smoked Partagas for 10 years. [Cohiba's] my preferred cigar. Cohiba is more full-bodied than Partagas, but it has a very smooth aftertaste.

CA: When you went through the trial and error in developing the tobacco blend for Cohiba, did you look at the Cohiba from Cuba as something that you were trying to emulate, or were you trying to create a taste unto itself? What was the goal and where did you end up with it?

McNamara: No, we didn't try to match the taste of Cuba. We can't. Cuban taste is as unique as anything else. As unique as Cameroon or Connecticut shade. We wanted to design a specific taste that matched the taste of the times. And what we found is that we wanted more full-bodied flavors but not at all harsh. We experimented with literally hundreds of samples over a six-year period to come to this taste.

CA: What about the lawsuit that the Cuban government has brought against you for using the Cohiba trademark in the United States?

McNamara: It is a complicated issue. We believe we own the rights to the Cohiba name in the United States, which we registered back in 1978. We've been selling the Cohiba brand in limited distribution in [a few cigar stores] since 1978. In fact, we were quite puzzled by the action that Cuba took, because they've never challenged any of our trademark rights in the past, and they have the right to do that. In fact, in an article in Cigar Aficionado two years ago or so, [former Habanos S.A. chief Francisco] Padron admitted that they weren't interested in securing the rights to Cohiba; he recognized that someone else owned the name in the United States, same as with Consolidated's ownership of Montecristo. We are very confident that this will settle out that we own the trademark--the name, not the box. We were never interested in the design or dress of the box. We are not interested in any confusion. We specifically designed the [new] box to try to eliminate any confusion, either with the Cuban Cohiba or all of the counterfeits coming into the marketplace.

CA: Your primary sources for wrapper for all of your cigars are Connecticut and Cameroon. Do you buy wrapper tobacco from any other area?

McNamara: Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch wrappers come primarily from Ecuador, although they do get some from Honduras, too. They use Nicaraguan filler, Honduran filler, plus Dominican filler, of course. And of course, we use some Mexican filler, in Canaria d'Oro.

CA: Have you done anything with Indonesian wrappers?

McNamara: No. We have tested it. We have experimented with it. We think that it's a beautiful color wrapper. But we don't like the taste. We wouldn't move to it.

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