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An Interview With Robert Levin

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

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CA: With a Dominican wrapper.

Levin: Yes, with a Chateau Fuente wrapper.

CA: What kind of growth do you expect for Ashton?

Levin: It's difficult now because the demand is so great and there's a limit on the production. That's going to continue because you can't use young tobacco. You have to use tobacco that's been properly aged. Therefore, there can only be so much increased production every year because you still have to use tobacco from the 1991 and 1992 crops, which was before the boom started. So, maybe next year we'll go up to 4 1/2 million. That's all we can do.

CA: Four and a half million is 50 percent over this year. How are you going to achieve that?

Levin: The Fuentes are opening up their new factory. Factory number four.

CA: The new factory is going to produce Ashton and be able to meet your projected sales growth?

Levin: Yes. We have contracts with the Fuentes now. They are not for specific quantities, but as Ashton has become more and more popular and it got to be more than just a little brand, the Fuentes have made assurances to me. They are going to purchase tobacco in advance for me. And, of course, I gave them assurances that I would be there for them and support them.

CA: How did it come to be that a factory is more or less dedicated to your brand, and what is the plan for factory number four?

Levin: First of all, the demand for Ashton has grown. And, the Fuente brand is one of the most in-demand cigars in the world right now. When they opened factory four they wanted to put in everything that they had learned in building the other three factories. The idea is to just make superpremium cigars there.

CA: What is the capacity of factory number four?

Levin: I think they have 60 or 70 rollers there now. We won't get any Ashtons from there probably until the middle of next year.

CA: Will the factory produce other brands? Or is it strictly for Ashton?

Levin: No it's not strictly for Ashton. Sosa will be made there. Juan Sosa, who owns the Sosa brand, is working with the Fuentes at factory number four.

CA: That really is a culmination for you; starting out a jobber and ending with a national and international consumer franchise. What happens after '97? Do you have plans for new brands?

Levin: After '97. We will be working on a few other brands, which we will promote in both the national and international markets.

CA: Will you own those other brands, and will the Fuentes produce them for you?

Levin: Hopefully. If they can expand their production in the way they always do, which is to focus on quality first. Also, we are going to have a brand from Honduras, called Castano, which we are working on now. We hope to get our first shipments in February.

CA: And who will produce that?

Levin: Villazon [makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch].

CA: Will the acquisition of Villazon by General Cigar, if it happens, change your deal for the new cigar?

Levin: I hope not. Frank Llaneza is one of the most knowledgeable tobacco people around. I'm an old customer, we know each other very well, and I think that they'll honor the commitment that Frank makes.

CA: What about a ceiling for Ashton sales; do you see it leveling off at 4 1/2 million?

Levin: No, no, no, I think if I had 10 million cigars now, I could sell 10 million cigars. I'm looking for major increases every year in Ashton.

CA: Do people knock on your door to buy your brand?

Levin: Lots of phone calls. No knocks, phone calls. Not for the brand: the whole business, everything.

CA: So what goes through your mind?

Levin: I'm having too much fun right now. I mean everything is working. The new retail store is fantastic.

CA: So you're having a lot of fun.

Levin: A lot of fun. It's exciting. Every day is packed, busy.

CA: A question that I am always asked is, is the cigar boom a fad? You're here very excited with grand plans, and you're turning people away who want to buy your company. Do you think all this cigar-related frenzy will disappear?

Levin: There are no guarantees. But I don't see the boom ending soon. I personally think that we have a very strong future. The average age of cigar smokers, when I first came into the business, was the 50s, even the late 50s and 60s. Now you have people in their 30s, professionals, college students coming in. There are just more and more young people smoking cigars. If they enjoy cigars and they stick with cigars, we are going to have a very strong business for a long time.

CA: What part of your cigar business is

sales by the box as opposed to sales by the individual cigar?

Levin: We always, even in the old store, had a large room where we sold cigars from open boxes on display. More than most stores. So we always sold a large amount of loose cigars. In the new store, we don't have showcases with cigars. We have a large 1,200-square-foot walk-in humidor. So everything we sell is open on display, and a lot of people come in every day to buy their cigars.

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