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The CA Interview: Austin McNamara

Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

Austin McNamara has become a well-known figure in the cigar industry during the tremendous sales boom of the past five years. As president of General Cigar, he has led the company through the most significant period of growth in its history. But that's not why he took the job, leaving his position as group vice president and general manager of the prepared foods division of Chiquita. At the time, he was charged with bringing some of his marketing expertise to a company that had seen its market slowly declining and had been searching for ways to reverse that trend.

McNamara has shown his stuff over these past five years. He was involved in the successful campaign to launch and sell the one-time Partagas 150 series; he helped shape and bring to market the new Cohiba brand; and has been integral to the marketing campaigns of Partagas and Macanudo, seen by many in the cigar industry as standard setters.

The 43-year-old McNamara also is steeped in a background of corporate analysis and market research, and he has used that training to produce valuable information and insights into today's cigar-smoking trends. In a wide-ranging interview in November with Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, McNamara talked openly about the incredible ride of the past five years, and his optimism about the next five years in the cigar market.

Cigar Aficionado: Recent press reports have suggested the cigar boom is peaking. Given General Cigar's perspective on the market, what impact will that have on future cigar consumption in America?

McNamara: There is a shakeout going on. I think it's healthy for the cigar industry. I believe that the secondary brands and the third-tier brands are having a tough time selling. We've seen no slacking in the demand for our premium brands. In speaking to other premium manufacturers, they seem to have the same kind of demand that existed last year and continued on into this year. That's good.

The reason is because great tobacco is the source of great cigars. These new cigar brands are not doing as well, primarily based on the inferior tobacco that they are using. Most of the major manufacturers have held tight to their standards. They continue to produce high-quality cigars. The consumer and the retailer are coming back to quality. I think that bodes extremely well for General Cigar and our brands, because we produce a quality cigar and our consistency and quality are second to none. In many ways, we're perfectly positioned, even in a shakeout.

CA: What allowed so many new unknown brands to be successful? After all, the cigar market has always been brand-driven, which made it tough to launch new ones. How did that change?

McNamara: The new smoker coming into the marketplace explains it. They were experimenting with many different flavors from many different countries. Your publication has done an excellent job of educating them about various countries of origin, different brands and even highlighting those different brands. There's a whole ethos of experimentation with the new 25-to-40-year-old consumer. That's great.

CA: Wasn't it also a fact that major premium marketers such as yourself couldn't give the retailer enough product, so that they looked to other brands just to fill their shelves?

McNamara: Clearly, the retailers were in a tough spot. They could not get sufficient quantities of name brands or the top brands, the brands they really wanted to sell. So they had a choice: Do they go bare on the shelves or do they experiment with other brands? Some of them experimented with them. But the major brands have come back. We've significantly expanded our production. Last year we went up by 50 percent. This year [1997] we went up by 50 percent. Next year we plan to go up by 50 percent.

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