From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93
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Just what to say to customers has always been a difficult situation for cigar merchants who sell Davidoff. In most instances, the Davidoff cigars produced in Santiago, Dominican Republic, are not comparable to their Cuban cousins, and consumer acceptance of the new generation of Davidoff cigars in such Havana-bound markets as Great Britain and France has not gone as well as expected, according to various cigar merchants interviewed for this story. A 15-minute television program on Davidoff, aired on France's Channel 4 in early June, highlighted the difficulty in changing the habits of Havana smokers. After spending much of the program glorifying Zino Davidoff and his many successes, including moving his cigar operations to Santiago, the last two minutes of the show were spent interviewing famous French cigar aficionados on how they found the Dominican Republic Davidoffs inferior to the Cuban versions.
The program's ending may have been slightly unfair since many cigars from the Dominican Republic and other countries are as good if not better than some Cuban cigars. Nonetheless, the 88-year-old Davidoff is an old hand at dealing with such criticism. "Everyone has his own preferences and tastes," said Davidoff late last year when asked how a Dominican cigar compares with a Havana. "I love Bordeaux wines but I also like Burgundy. It's the same thing with cigars. They [cigars from Cuba and the Dominican Republic] are not the same thing."
Curiously, the Davidoff Company claims it never set out to replace its Cuban cigars with those from the Dominican Republic. "We know that Havana tobacco is the best for cigars, but not under the current conditions there," said Raymond Scheurer, joint managing director of Davidoff International, during an October 1991 interview in Basel, Switzerland. "We are not afraid to say that our new generation of cigars is not a replacement for the others. It is a new line for a new generation of smokers. We are not out to thwart Havana cigars. On the contrary, we shall go back there only when it is possible to work under normal and proper conditions, whereby we can ensure the quality of our cigars."
Whether Davidoff will ever be welcomed in Cuba after so many bad words and feelings remains to be seen. For the moment, it is like a difficult divorce. All the parties involved, both in Cuba and Switzerland, will no longer discuss the breakup. "I must not talk about Davidoff anymore, and he must not talk about us anymore," said Francisco Padron, the head of Cubatabaco, during an interview last November in Havana. "We signed an agreement, so we must not talk about it."
But a lot has been said over the years by both sides before the agreement was signed. It's been nearly a decade since problems began to develop between Cuba and Davidoff. According to Ernest Schneider, chairman of Oettinger, which took control of Davidoff in 1970 and developed it into a more than 500-million Swiss-franc branded business selling everything from cologne to neckties, they were obliged to examine every box of cigars sent to them from Cuba beginning in 1983. "We couldn't associate ourselves with their problems," he says, pointing out how shortages in fertilizers and qualified workers reduce the quality of cigars. "They have the soil and climate but this alone isn't enough if they don't take care of the land. Sadly, there is one thing they care about, that is making quick money. Quality is sacrificed for profit."
Zino Davidoff picks up the theme: "Imagine all the work for Havana, and then suddenly it all changes. We received cigars from there that were as hard as this table and quite unsmokable. The good workers are no more and they were replaced by just anyone. They were taught hurriedly and badly. This does not make a good cigar. All this played a part. For example, in one box of 25 cigars, there were two or three good cigars with all the lesser ones and even other brands."
European representatives for Cubatabaco are still shaking their heads in disbelief over the quality issue, which came to a head in 1987 when Zino Davidoff went on French television and condemned the Cubans for their shoddy workmanship. Davidoff even burned 130,000 cigars in a huge bonfire, after claiming the cigars were unsalable. "If there ever was a problem, Cubatabaco would have taken the cigars back and replaced them," said one Cubatabaco representative based in France. "Why did they burn 130,000 cigars? They would have been replaced. In the end, it was Cubatabaco that decided to stop delivering cigars to Davidoff, and not the other way around."
Davidoff strongly disagrees with that kind of analysis. "It was untrue that the Cubans canceled the contracts," says Scheurer. "They used the excuse that our cigars were selling for too high a price [more than other Cuban brands]. We paid 30 to 40 percent more for our cigars from them. We have never said to the Cubans that we will only pay so much for a certain quality. If you have smoked Davidoffs for a while, maybe you will remember the cigars from 1980 to 1985. They all had an elegance and a particular hue in color. You couldn't find that anymore."
In interviews from 1990 to 1992 Cubatabaco officials argued that the conflict with Davidoff has never been a question of quality, although they do admit that quality was diminished for all Cuban cigars during part of the 1980s. They said that bad blood between Davidoff and Cuba has always been over ownership of the brand name. "Davidoff has committed a grave mistake saying bad things about the product which has given his name so much recognition," said Robert Yaech Estrada, deputy general manager of Cubatabaco in a September 1990 interview in Havana. "He contradicts all the things that he has said all of his life....All the problems that have come with Davidoff have a commercial basis."
The breakup was well on its way by the mid-1980s when Cubatabaco embarked on a plan to control its distribution and marketing by assuring the ownership of all its key brands and worldwide distributors. Cubatabaco always assumed it had the right to the Davidoff name, according to contracts signed in the 1970s, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars it paid each year in royalties and legal fees to defend the brand worldwide, officials in Havana said.
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