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Davidoff's No. 1

Cigar Aficionado interviews Davidoff's director general Ernst Schneider.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

Ernst Schneider, the owner of Davidoff cigars, has been the driving force over the past 20 years in turning the company into a leading consumer-products enterprise. As director general of the Max Oettinger Co., he has overseen Davidoff's growth in new markets, the shift of Davidoff's production from Cuba to the Dominican Republic and the expansion of the Davidoff name to other products such as men's cologne and accessories.

In late November in New York City, Cigar Aficionado Editor and Publisher Marvin R. Shanken sat down with Schneider for a wide-ranging interview on Davidoff's future and the company's strategy in continuing to build the brand.

Cigar Aficionado: What is your background?
Ernst Schneider: I was born in Basel, Switzerland, into a good, middle-class family with two sisters and one brother. We had an ideal family life. I made my studies during the Second World War in Basel at the University, and I was two-and-a-half years in the military service. That was in Switzerland where you have to do some military service as a youngster. I am a doctor in law, and this was my university title.

After that, I was a delegate of the Swiss Red Cross to organize medical help in Dachau, Birkenhau, for the displaced persons. This was, by far, my best experience I ever did in my life. I thought that I was very important with a doctorate in law, and when I saw all this misery in these camps and those displaced persons, I became modest and thankful for what I had. I was just happy to help.

Afterward, I was part of the political department in Bern for the Swiss diplomatic corps, and I defended the Swiss interests in Japan. At the time, I learned how cruel the Japanese were then. So, I have had two experiences in this direction, and I was personally convinced that you have to fight against all these awful situations.

C.A.: When did you get into the tobacco business?
Schneider: After that, I met my soon-to-be wife, and her father was sick. He was the proprietor of the Max Oettinger Co. This was my first step in the tobacco business. So my first job was son-in-law in the tobacco business.

C.A.: What kind of tobacco business was it?
Schneider: Oettinger was founded in 1875. The company was one of the first importers of Havana cigars, Brazilian cigars and Jamaican cigars. He was selling the cigars in France, in Germany and in Switzerland. He was dealing with mostly bar owners and tobacco shops.

C.A.: In what year did you join this company?
Schneider: That was in 1949. It was a difficult time because many of his clients had been in the war, and the company was in trouble because of a decline in business. Basically, many of these bar owners and tobacconists had disappeared in the war. So at this point, my father-in-law was deciding if the company could be restructured. And he did it.

But he pulled out of imports, and he was only a wholesaler and distributor. And then in 1949, I entered the company, and I started the import and retail business. And after six years, I had the chance to go to work as director of the Loens Co., the owner was Tobacco Vinum. And this was my best experience over the six years. I traveled all over the world, and I really learned the tobacco business from A to Z. After the six years' time, my father-in-law retired, and I took over the direction of the whole company.

Today, we have the manufacturing department; we have the import; we have the export; we have the distribution, and we have the retail business. We also have the diversification, and we have three of our own brands: Davidoff, Zino and Griffin's. This is today our strength.

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