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The El Producto Story

Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 4)

Combined with the 1960s consolidation of the sales forces (which meant the closing of many El Producto distribution facilities), the advertising cuts had a devastating effect on sales, especially in markets where El Producto didn't have a strong regional following, as in California. Salesman Joe Kissinger estimates that 35 percent of the brand's business was lost on the West Coast (20 to 25 percent nationwide), and ruefully adds, "Cutting the advertising just guaranteed the diminishing of the cigar."

But even more trouble loomed for El Producto. What one sales rep calls "a death blow for the cigar" was leveled once Gulf & Western divested Consolidated in 1982 to five of the cigar company's senior managers. Again looking to cut costs, the Consolidated executives decided to produce the majority of El Productos (except for the Queens and Escepcionales) with a reconstituted "sheet" wrapper. They insisted this wouldn't affect the taste of the cigar, or how it felt in a smoker's mouth. Disagreeing, Colucci, then Consolidated's western region sales manager, felt the use of a homogenized wrapper would mean "the beginning of the end" for El Producto. But "sheet" was the trend in the early '80s, as White Owls and Phillies had also begun to use synthetic wrappers, and so his protests went ignored.

Sales soon plunged. In 1982, El Producto sold more than 200 million cigars. That figure dropped to 132 million in 1984, 117 million in 1985, 83 million in 1990 and to 50 million by '95.

Part of the decline was due to the industry's overall skid in the late 1980s. Yet as Colucci says, "Consumers simply didn't like the synthetic, tobacco-substitute stuff. So we took big hits every year, a 25 percent dip in units the first year, then 12 percent, 15 percent declines. It was the wrong move, just a terrible decision to go to sheet, and El Producto got killed."

Now Colucci is trying to undo that wrong and to shape El Producto's revival. Working with George Burns' estate, and possibly utilizing a Forrest Gump-styled promo from Burns about El Producto's charms, Consolidated is launching four natural-wrapped shapes this spring, priced from about 75 cents to $1.25 for a glass-tubed cigar.

Colucci realizes "it'll be a slow build" to restore El Producto's reputation as a quality machine-made cigar. But he's still confident this "premium-looking George Burns' Collection" will be faithful to the cigar's storied tradition and to the spirit of Sam Grabosky.

"It's time to correct the past mistakes, the wrong turns that were taken with this brand in the 1970s and '80s," says Colucci. "I told George [Burns] years ago that El Producto merited better treatment, that we should do something special with his beloved cigars. Now I want to keep my promise to him, and to his 'little lady.'"

Edward Kiersh is a freelance writer living in Florida.


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