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Making It in a Man's World

Eight Women Have Defied the Odds to Run Their Own Tobacco shops
Shandana A. Durrani
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 1)

As for advice for fledgling businesswomen? "I think that if you have something that you want more than anything else in the world, you can do anything that you want to do."

Five years after Silvius-Gits launched her tobacco business in Chicago, Philadelphia native Louise Hood-Lipoff, then a 25-year-old radiology worker at a local hospital, opened Tobacco Village with her then-husband, David Hood, in suburban Philadelphia. Two years later, in 1970, she bought out Hood, whom she later divorced, and took complete control of the shop. For almost 25 years, Hood-Lipoff ran the 800-square-foot store, located in the Roosevelt Mall. In 1992, when new owners bought the mall and raised the rent nearly 50 percent, Hood-Lipoff transplanted her shop to a new mall across the street, to a space more than double the size. The landlords of her former shop sued, claiming she had broken the lease. Hood-Lipoff won the court battle. It's just one of the obstacles she has overcome during her almost 30 years in the business.

"I had a hard time proving myself in the beginning," she says. "I didn't take it personally, because when I looked at the field and I realized how few [women] there were around who owned a tobacco shop, I knew that I would just have to try harder. I made it my [mission] to learn about every single thing [in the business]. I just knew that I was going to be successful if I concentrated on it and listened to what my customers wanted."

Hood-Lipoff didn't have any retail experience, but she had the determination to make her store succeed. Intrigued by cigars and pipes, she felt that she had a flair for selling tobacco and dealing with customers, she says. She is grateful for the advice of General Cigar Co.'s Bob Williamfield, a vice president, and Mike Magill, a salesman, and Gus Gerstl, a former salesman for M&N Cigar Co. (now JC Newman & Corp.), who were her mentors when she started. "What I have learned from those three people was so invaluable that if I began to write it down, I could fill books," she says. "Back then we had 'real' salesmen, who came to the store and talked to you about product and told you what every little item was about. They weren't just 'order takers.' Now, I think that it is a little bit impersonal."

The industry today has other problems, she contends, charging that the newcomers to the business are driving up cigar prices and aren't knowledgeable about tobacco. "You know that when you walk into grocery stores and 7-11s and see [tobacco products], that these people do not belong in the cigar business," Hood-Lipoff says. "These people are coming to me and calling me up and asking, 'Can you help me do this, do you know about this, can you help me build a humidor?' Hey, I learned the hard way and I have spent a lot of money putting it together. I think that they are a detriment to the business."

Hood-Lipoff is firmly entrenched in the business. She has four employees, who all received on-the-job training. She has served as president of the Philadelphia Tobacco Retailers Association for the past six years. In 1986 she was presented with the Phillip G. Bondi award for Cigar Retailer of the Year from General Cigar. She even met her second husband, Irv Lipoff, through the business in 1979; he was one of her customers. Four years later, they married and spent their honeymoon touring the cigar factories in the Dominican Republic. Between them they have five children who have all helped at the store, but none has expressed interest in taking over the business.

Even if none of her children eventually step in, Hood-Lipoff sees a bright future ahead. "The pipe business has been doing wonderfully. I think pipes are the next trend." But cigars aren't taking a back seat. "Cigar sales are up every year," she says. "I think that people who have stuck with it are going to continue with it."

Sticking with it is what Ruth Gorman of Smoke & Snuff has done for 27 years. Her entrance into the business came as a result of a tragic loss. A homemaker, Gorman had to quickly change roles and learn about the tobacco business when her husband, Dan, died suddenly.

Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Gorman grew up in an age when women were more likely to sell pies at bake sales than cigars in tobacco stores. She had briefly worked at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, but because her husband didn't approve of her working, she ended up volunteering instead. Then in 1970, her life changed. Dan Gorman decided to open a tobacco store in the Twin Cities because of his love for cigars and pipes, but five months after its launch he died of an aneurysm. Grieving and left with a daughter and a son to support, Gorman's best option was to continue running the store. Her husband had planned to open two more stores in the area, but after his death the company with the lease for the additional stores reneged on its agreement with Gorman. "They would not allow me to open the other two because, they said, 'What man is going to buy from a woman in a tobacco shop?'" she recalls.

But customers did buy her pipes and cigars. According to Gorman, her shop became so successful that in 1973, her daughter, Mary Ann Fores, decided to open another Smoke & Snuff, this time in Florida. One year after opening a store in Clearwater, the Gormans opened two more stores in the state, in St. Petersburg and Bradenton. Ruth Gorman and an employee left the Minnesota store under another employee's supervision and moved to Florida to run the expanding business, now called Garrison Corp. It wasn't long before more Smoke & Snuffs opened all along the Gulf Coast of the state, from Tallahassee to Naples.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

suman chaniyil — capecoral , florida 33909, usa,  —  June 16, 2012 7:26pm ET

like ur article

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