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An Interview with Oscar Boruchin

Owner of Licenciados and 8-9-8 Collection cigars.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 2)

CA: What year did you sell the stores?

Boruchin: '64.

CA: How long did you stay with General Cigar?

Boruchin: Until 1981, about 19 years.

CA: Were you successful at General?

Boruchin: I had a tough time at the start. General had a lot of personnel, and I basically washed floors. I was the guy that came last.

CA: You were the bottom of the totem pole?

Boruchin: My immediate boss harassed me all the time. He didn't believe that I was making that many calls, and doing such a good job. He actually told me that I was showing up everybody, and maybe I should slow down. At first, he just didn't believe me, and then he spent some time with me and realized I was doing the job. What was happening was that the factory guy would go home at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and I, like a jerk, used to work until 5 p.m. I finally had to go to Mr. Casten and complain to him because I was being put in such a difficult situation. I was just showing up the rest of the people. I told him the story and he got very upset. He called a sales meeting and gave me a title--a special projects supervisor. That meant I worked directly for him and didn't answer to anybody else. He started using me in different parts of his region, sending me to Georgia to work on certain accounts, and with certain men.

CA: I would say he made you a troubleshooter.

Boruchin: Yes, but it was a huge break for me. In a second, I was promoted over people who had worked with the company a long time. It put me in a position where they were practically working for me. It created a lot of jealousy.

CA: The Cullman family owned General Cigar at that point, but it was mostly selling machine-made cigars. Is that right?

Boruchin: Yes. After I came to the company, General acquired Gradiaz Anniz, which owned the Gold Label brand. They were experimenting in Jamaica, and some of those factories were making the Macanudo brand there. The only popular brands at that time in my area were Don Diego and Flamenco; they were made by the Menendez and Garcia family in the Canary Island. They were the keys of the high-grade market. I don't remember anything else at that time competing with them.

CA: But it was basically a mass-brand, machine-made business.

Boruchin: Yes. Things like Tiparillos, White Owl, Robert Burns. Tiparillo came on very strong after the [U.S.] surgeon general came out with his report about the problems with cigarettes.

CA: How big was the Cuban cigar market in the early 1960s?

Boruchin: After the embargo, it was pretty small. There were some cigars left over, but when they ran out, you couldn't get a Cuban cigar in the United States. It's not like today that they are available practically all over. When they were closed down, Montecruz, Don Diego and Flamenco became tremendously popular. They were the high-grade cigars at that time, and they were priced between 40 and 65 cents.

CA: When you left General Cigar in 1981, what was your position?

Boruchin: Earlier I had been assistant regional manager to Mr. Casten. I was his assistant already with responsibilities in certain areas. He had much more territory and I was in charge of quite a few states. Casten passed away at the age of 65 and General made me, I can't tell you what year, regional manager. It was probably about 1974.

CA: So by that point, you had pretty much reached the top?

Boruchin: It was one of the five or six bigger positions in General because I think we were divided into five or six regions.

CA: Was General Cigar's business growing even though the market was shrinking?

Boruchin: I am proud to say that in my territory, there were increases every year. When the Macanudo brand came on the market [in the early 1970s], it was a tremendous boost. The first year, year and a half, we had a tremendous fight, but the Cullmans really are cigar people, and the effort and the consistency of quality that they insisted on for Macanudo made it a success.

CA: Was there a fight with the brands already on the market?

Boruchin: Gulf & Western had acquired Consolidated, so it was a fight between us and Don Diego.

CA: Don Diego was a Canary Island cigar at the time. Was it the biggest competitor to Macanudo?

Boruchin: Yes, but Flamenco and Montecruz were important, too. The big break for me was when Consolidated moved its operations to the Dominican Republic. People didn't like the quality and the product as much. Macanudo became really strong because the quality was there. At that time, Macanudo [Rothschilds] sold for 75 cents.

CA: Let's see, you've risen up the ranks of General Cigar, you have a large territory in the United States, and you decide in 1981 to get back into the retail business, which is where you started. What caused you to go back to retail?

Boruchin: Mike [Mersel] was one of my biggest customers in Florida. For a long time he had been telling me that he wanted to retire. He was tired and he wanted me to buy the store.

CA: Had Mike's store always been in that location on Arthur Godfrey Road in Miami Beach?

Boruchin: Yes. Since 1950. It was one of the biggest players in the South in the cigar business. As a matter of fact, only Lew Rothman and Famous Cigars were bigger than Mike's. That was true even though Mike's volume didn't reach $2 million a year in 1981. But he was one of my big customers and he kept telling me that I could make more money working for him if we established a wholesale operation. And working for General had its limitations. I was traveling 40 weeks a year. I also knew that one day I wanted to have my own business. I set my mind to creating the wholesale division. But it wasn't easy. I was making decent money with General and I had all kinds of assurances from them. But the decision was essentially made when Mike called me one day and said that his lease would expire in the summer. He had about eight or 10 months to go. He said, either I come with him or he was going to liquidate the store.

CA: Did he want you to come work there, or to buy it?

Boruchin: He gave me 33 percent of the company to start. That still made me an employee, because the other 67 percent was owned by him and his brother. But my relationship with Mike, even when he was my customer, was very special. It was sort of a father and son relationship, and through the years has developed into a very strong relationship. So, in 1981 I started at Mike's.

CA: When you left General Cigar and went back into the retail business, were there any problems because you left or did they accept it?

Boruchin: I don't think they totally accepted it. But the friendship was always there. My immediate boss at that time was David Berg. David and I had an excellent relationship. Now, Mike was also one of General's biggest customers. He had an agreement with Morton Annis, even before General acquired Gradiaz Anniz, where Mike got all the seconds. So Mike was a big customer. But it was like General got an employee for free in me. My pride was the introduction of Macanudo, and I felt very responsible for it even though I was working at Mike's now.

CA: When did you buy the entire operation?


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