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An Interview With Robert Levin

Owner, Holt's Cigar Store, Inc., and the Ashton Brand

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Levin's experience in the cigar industry includes some of the worst of times, and today, the best of times. He started working for his father full-time in 1973 and took over the business in the late 1970s. Levin consolidated and expanded the family's retail business, capitalizing on a demand for mail order cigars in his local market. In 1985, he launched Ashton cigars, which is one of the most highly respected brands in the marketplace today.

Today, Levin has seen his business grow eightfold since 1992. He not only has a thriving and elegant new retail store and a major cigar brand, but a solid catalogue business as well.

In a wide-ranging interview with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken, Levin discusses the history of the family's business, as well as the future of the cigar industry.

Cigar Aficionado: How and when did your family first get into the tobacco business?

Levin: My father bought Holt's Cigar Company, which was a small retail store in Philadelphia in the mid- '50s. He was a clothing manufacturer before that. I was about 11 years old when he bought it. So I grew up in the cigar business.

CA: What made him go from clothing manufacturing to the cigar business? Was it just a hobby business?

Levin: No. He had smoked pipes and cigars his whole life. He had just shut down his clothing operation in Philadelphia. He was looking for another business and Holt's became available. He bought it.

CA: How long had Holt's been in business?

Levin: The original Holt's cigar company started in 1911. However, after we purchased Holt's, we also bought Harry Tint & Sons, in 1980, which was another old-time Philadelphia retail cigar store. They started their business in 1898, so today we say Holt's history traces back to 1898.CA: When your dad, Albert Levin, bought the store in the 1950s, how big was the business?

Levin: It was a very small store.

CA: What kind of revenue was it doing?

Levin: It was well under a million dollars. It was in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. It was a good cigar business at the time, and we were cigar specialists. Philadelphia was known as a city for close-outs. Big market for seconds. We used to buy huge lots of Garcia y Vega seconds.

CA: When he bought the store, did he then go in and operate it himself?

Levin: He was there. He was the owner and the operator.

CA: What did he pay for the store in the mid-1950s?

Levin: He paid about $40,000 for it.

CA: He bought the store, he operated the store and then you said in 1980 he purchased another store.

Levin: No, my father was retired by that time. I bought Harry A. Tint & Sons, which was a more upscale business. Holt's cigar store was always the store you went to for deals. Harry A. Tint & Sons was for the uppercrust Main Line customer. That store was the Cuban cigar importer for that area before the embargo.

CA: When did you enter the business?

Levin: I came into the business in 1972.

CA: How big a store was Harry A. Tint in terms of revenue?

Levin: At one time they were the strongest cigar merchants in Philadelphia. They had all the name brands, especially the Cuban brands. They were directly importing them before the embargo. But when we bought the business, their business had really declined quite a bit. They were only doing about $250,000.

CA: What did you pay for that store?

Levin: Not much. We paid between $50,000 and $100,000.

CA: Did you merge the two operations?

Levin: Yes, we took their whole operation and moved it into our store. They had lost their lease anyway. And when we bought the business, the Tint brothers, they're twins, were already ready to retire.

CA: Let's go back. You entered the business in 1972. How old were you then?

Levin: I was in my mid-20s.

CA: Think back to 1971, before you came into the family business. What was your perception of the cigar business when you first started working there on a full-time basis?

Levin: When I first went into my father's business, I had no intention of staying in this business. My father needed help. I was wandering around the world at the time, and I didn't have a career. At the time, I was basically just getting into the business to help out the family. I was just going to do it for a few months and then go off and do something else.

CA: Did you have any particular passion or interest in cigars in those days?

Levin: No. I did it to help out my father, who had some health problems. But as I got into the business and took it over, my love of cigars started to come out.

CA: How big was the business in those days?

Levin: In the mid-'80s we went over $1 million in sales.

CA: So at that time, was it essentially a cigar shop?

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