Alan Rubin, George Sosa, and Clay Roberts from Alec Bradley Cigars join Cigar Café Radio and talk about how they got started in the tobacco business and about branding and marketing. Alan reveals that Alec Bradley was named after his two sons, Alec and Bradley. He identifies two things that are a big barrier to having a successful brand – dealing with people, with cigars being handmade, and always having to continue to be creative and come up with new products and things for people to talk about. The Live True motto has been on several of their products, which echoes their guiding principle of staying true to the brand and to yourself and enjoying your life one cigar at a time.
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Cigar Cafe Radio Classic Cigar Brands Fuente | Macanudo | Davidoff
My name is Lane Oden. I’m joined by my co-host and owner of Cigars and More, Harris Saunders. In addition to Harris, I know that we’ve been promising our readers some relevant cigar industry guests. We’ve got Alan Rubin, George Sosa, and Clay Roberts from Alec Bradley Cigars. We wanted thank them for being with us and welcome them to the show.
We’d like to welcome you back to the show. If this is your first time, we’re glad to have you join us again.
Harris, thanks for having me back in the shop. How are things going?
It’s going great. I’m excited to have Alan, Clay, and George with us from Alec Bradley Cigars. We’re gearing up for the Tobacconists Association of America Conference in the Dominican Republic at Casa de Campo. It’ll be a fun trip. It’s your chance to see everyone in the cigar industry.
You forgot to mention that I’m a guest. This is Sean Kavanaugh.
We do have Sean on the show, producer and technical advisor. He’s always been here. We’ve found out that he has been wooed by the cigar lifestyle. He is blaming his newfound habit on all of us.
You guys are at fault. I will say I do enjoy it. It’s maybe because I’m a little older now. I can sit back out in the backyard and enjoy it. No one bothers me. It’s been fun for me. Thanks Harris. You’re the cigar drug dealer, the first one’s free type of stuff.
Alan, a couple of questions for you. How did you get into the cigar business? How did this all start for you?
There’s a bunch of uninformed decisions on my part. I was in another business. I had sold my previous business. I had been smoking cigars since I was 22 years old. My office in my other business opened at 7:30 AM. Unfortunately, we don’t open until 9:30 AM now. Tobacconists don’t get in before 10:00 AM. At 7:30 AM, I’d pick up a cup of coffee and start my cigar on the way into the office. I did that every day. It was always a passion for me. I had a chance to figure out what I was going to do next, I wrote a list of everything I wanted my next business to be and the list of everything I didn’t want it to be. Cigars fell on the second category of everything I didn’t want my next business to be.
It was something I was passionate about. There was something about the history and tradition of cigars that attracted me to the industry. Back then, it was the RTDA. I went to an RTDA show with a friend of mine who was a store owner just to see what the industry was. I met the people behind the business, the other brands that already existed back in the mid to late ‘90s. Everyone was friendly. Everyone was in a good mood. Everyone was having a good time. I’m like, “There’s something about this cigar thing that’s attractive.” It was a luxury lifestyle product that was affordable. It was something I wanted to be a part of.
You said it was in the second category. I was talking to my friend, Bill Rancic. He won the very first Apprentice contest for Trump. He owned the Cigar Of The Month Club and sold it at a pretty young age. When he got into that business, he said he reverse engineered a bunch of business to try to talk himself out of the businesses. That one seemed to stick in the one that he did want to be in. He went at it from a completely business angle and you approached it from a passion angle.
If you think about it, everyone needs food. It’s a huge food industry. A lot of people drink liquors. There’s a large liquor industry. Not everyone needs cigars, they want cigars. It’s not a huge mass appeal. It’s handmade. The external elements affect what we do every day in terms of the tobacco growing. There are a lot of variables, high inventory, employees. If you add it all up, you couldn’t ask for more headaches in some level. If I was going to get into a business that hit the left side category, would have been no inventory, maybe internet-based service provider where I’m dealing on a more technical level of things I can control. We’re in a business that has little control. All we do every day is try and control all of those variables.
The one thing that I never did before was brand. The business I was before was somewhat of a commodity-type product. It was never about a brand. Branding Alec Bradley was something new and by far the biggest challenge, career-wise, I’ve ever had. We get emails from people saying, “I love what you do. I had a great experience with my dad smoking an Alec Bradley or with my son,” and all the negatives that we all deal with every day go away. We’re providing an experience for somebody that impacts them on an emotional level. To me, that’s where all the success is.
You mentioned branding. In an industry where much is predicated on by family names, whether it’s Rocky Patel or Davidoff, where did the name Alec Bradley come from?
Alec and Bradley are my two sons. When I first started the business, they were one and four. Now they’re both of legal age to smoke cigars. I’m fortunate because growing up, I was always smoking cigars at my home or if they came into the office after school or over the summers. Now we sit down when we’re together and smoke cigars together. It’s an amazing bonding experience.
I felt I was in a business that had a lot of obstacles between me and a profit. I was in the construction business, particularly the plumbing trade. Out of all those variables, which one do you think is the biggest between you and having a successful line? I’m not talking governmental interference. Is it climate? What is it that seems to be a big barrier to entry or a big barrier for you and having a successful brand?
You could probably break that down to two components. One is because everything is handmade and you’re dealing with people. People have good days and bad days. You put processes in place, but no levels of consistency in handmade products. No two cigars are ever the same. No two leaves are exactly the same. You always try and create a profile and stay within that profile. That’s always a constant battle, humidity, elements, temperature, growing, year in, year out. Those are the constant variables that we deal with, that were heavy business in terms of people. That’s always an obstacle. No one comes out and says, “I want to roll cigars for a living. I want to sell cigars for a living.” This is something we do as a passion as an adult.
Two, we’re in an industry that everyone always wants to know what’s new. You always have to continue to be creative, come up with new products, and things for people to talk about. When somebody says, “I know everything about the business. I’ve been in it long enough,” they’re destined for failure. This is a business that you learn something new every day, whether it’s on the marketing side, the branding side, the manufacturing side, tobaccos or new strains. When you get a two-week raining period during the dry season, what do you do? There’s this constant movement for a company that we hope there are millions of fires. Set small fires on our cigars. All we do is put fires out every day.
I tell people all the time all I did was put out fires every day. The great thing is that you do have a passion for it, especially when you sit down with your sons and have a cigar, It washes all that crabbiness away.
I’m in this business now more than fifteen years. I came in one morning to the office. I sat down with one of the guys here and I said, “I realized something. All the years, all the thousands of cigars I’ve smoked.” The night before, it was 1:00 AM and I couldn’t sleep. I went outside, picked up one of the new Coyols that we make, and I realized that whether you’re by yourself or not, when you have a cigar, you’re never alone. It’s almost like you’re there with a friend. You would think by now I would know that. It became evident when I was out there. I had a lot on my mind. It was almost as if I was in a peaceful place with the cigar. That holds us to a high standard in terms of what we do every day. Other people expect that same type of experience and we don’t want to let them down.
This better be a good friend. You don’t want to spend your time out there with a bad one. A lot of your marketing has Live True on a lot different things. Can you tell us a little bit more about where that comes from and a little bit about that?
There was another manufacturer who I was friendly with, who was getting started in the business years ago. He was having a difficult time with his company conveying his brand within that organization. He called me for advice. We had talked a lot. One of the things I said to him in a text was, “You have to stay true to your brand. You can’t let them tell you what your marketing should be or what your packaging style should be. You need to live true to yourself.” That was the advice I gave somebody else.
I was sitting down with one of the guys in our marketing department. We were talking about the company. Most people don’t smoke and most people don’t smoke cigars. In some level, we’re not the masses. We’re different. We want to pursue our hobby. We don’t want people to tell us not to do that. We’re enjoying our life one cigar at a time. That’s about being true to yourself. That was the whole premise behind Live True.
I told you a little bit that I had a buying experience on Easter Sunday where I was jonesing for a smoke. You talked about things that are new. What’s the next big thing is what people are trying to know?
We’re going to be a little hush-hush on what’s new. We have a couple of things that we’re going to release at the IPCPR. These are natural products. I know Alan and Ralph, who is our chief blender and also Vice President of the company. He wants to make sure everything’s right. When it ends up in the consumer’s hands, it’s always an enjoyable experience. There’s a little disconnect in there where he will want to do things and they want to know from us, “This is coming out on the 15th of this month,” it doesn’t always happen like that. If a product’s not right, if it’s too damp or it’s too dry, it has to be right when it gets to you, the consumer. That’s important to us. I’m going to say there are some exciting things coming. Canned corporate response. Exciting things are coming from the Alec Bradley camp. We do have some new products that we think that consumers will enjoy.
Are you guys at all interested in any of the infused type of cigars? I know that real cigar smokers hate that, but it is a big seller. Are you guys at all interested in that lane to go in?
That is a specific part of the market. If you’re going to do that, you have to do it well. What we do well is producing premium cigars at an affordable price. When you start getting the flavored market, it’s a different animal. If we go off the tracks and go down that road, our core lines might suffer. This is what we do. Alan, Ralph, and George, this is what we do best. There is a specific company out there. We all know well. They do it well and we’re proud of that.
Unless we could do what we feel would be something better or different in the marketplace, there would be no reason for us to jump into that category, which already does well. They have some great players in it. Drew Estate does a phenomenal job with their marketing and what they do. They have a great following. There are some other companies, Rocky with Java, which is also tied into Drew Estate. Unless we felt we could make a real impact in the marketplace and put an enjoyable product different from what’s currently out there, that’s not something we would probably explore. At least not at this time.
Do you have any thoughts on the Cuban embargo being relaxed a little bit? With some of the things changing, any thoughts or ideas on that?
It’s a pretty complex answer. After the Dominican Republic, I’m going to Europe for a month. Europe has become an important market to us. There are a couple of factors. Four years ago, we really put our foot down in Europe. We got the right partners and we established ourselves in short four years. This year we’re opening up a German distribution, an Alec Bradley warehouse. We have an Alec Bradley subsidiary in Canada. I don’t think anyone can be more excited than I am about the Cuban market opening. It’s going to be great for the industry. My personal feeling, I don’t know if Alan feels this way or Clay. We’re going to have a little boom. It’s what this industry needs. I also feel that people are going to question, “Why are they paying $30 for a Robusto, when there are many other great Robustos out there?” I include other companies besides Alec Bradley. I smoke everyone’s cigars, including Cubans when I’m overseas. A lot of good cigars are here against the Cubans. It’s a price point issue. It’s a quality control issue.
If they’re having these many issues only supplying 30% of the market place, how’s it going to be when they’re trying to take care of the largest mass, which is 70% of the market is the US alone? I brought to Alan’s attention on Cigar Aficionado when this thing first busted open. In one week, there were two news releases out of Cuba. The first one was that they can easily see themselves taking over 40% of the US market. It says realistically they can own 70% of the US market if they wanted to that same week. Cuba tobacco yields were stubborn and I said, “That’s pretty incredible, all in one week. Bring it.” The other caveat is when you start getting people who have been doing this for a while, blending Cuban with Nicaraguan, Honduran. I can’t wait to taste these cigars. I keep saying, “The best cigars in the world are made by Cubans. They just live in Miami, Honduras, and Nicaragua now.”
I got that sense, too, from others that that wasn’t a big fear. Like you, a lot of other manufacturers out there think that their cigars are as good or better than any Cuban out there.
We may take a hit initially with someone who might have smoked ABs or Padrons. Now they say, “Let me try. I’ve always wanted to try the Cohiba, the Montecristo.” They’ll try it and they’ll spend the money. There’s going to be some guys that are going to come in to your shops and say, “Let me try the Cuban. I got to try.” You’ve never seen these guys before. They’re going to come in, and then they’re going to convert to other thing. How many of us have wanted COREs when we couldn’t get it? I remember before 9/11 when you could take liquids, you’d go to the West Coast. COREs wasn’t shipped East of the Mississippi. Everyone wanted you to bring back COREs. That you can get COREs, no one’s asking for it though.
I had the international division for my last company. What I found interesting was I went to a cigar shop in Zurich. It’s generational. They’ve had in the family for 115 years. It’s a beautiful store. I expected to walk in there and see just Cuban cigars. His assortment of product in there was about 50/50, 50 being Nicaraguan and Honduran, and then the other balance was Cuban. He said, “The consumers love this product. The Dominican, Honduran, Nicaraguan, they’re amazing products. The quality is there.” He said the consumers have gravitated towards these products. It’s interesting what happened. Since I’m a new cigar smoker, I feel I’m on the light to medium body type of kick. If there was one line of yours that you could recommend for me to smoke that’s in that light to medium body, what would it be? I’m asking you this because I want to smoke it. This is personal.
One of our bestselling products here at Alec Bradley is our Black Market. It does very well, not only here in the US, but around the world. We found out last year it’s probably the fastest-growing brand in Germany. It’s widely accepted. It’s at that medium level. I would think that if you are smoking more than once a week or once a week that you’re enjoying cigars, that may be something that you should try. It won’t be overpowering.
Let me give another one. Our family blend Lineage is very smooth, very light. One thing you will figure out about our blends when you start smoking them. If you’re looking for a gut-wrencher or something that you start building up nicotine sweats and you are going to pass out, we’re the wrong guys. We make nice cigars with a lot of body, whether it’s light, it’s medium. When we push the envelope, it’s medium to full. If someone’s looking for, I hate to say, screaming and yell, “Uncle,” I don’t think that’s ever been used before. We’re not those guys. Take yourself an inhaler and go for the other stuff.
In a sense or two from each of you, what are you excited about right now in the cigar industry? What’s on your mind? What’s exciting right now to you?
One is internally within our organization. We are as strong as we’ve ever been. We have a great group of people that I work with every day, both within the office and then out on the road representing us. Our international business is growing tremendously. George alluded earlier to the fact that we have opened up a distribution center in Canada called Alec Bradley Canada in Toronto. What I’m excited about for us internally is the growth of our company. We were on that precipice of getting to that next level. We’ve had great growth over the last seven years and that will continue. Internally, that’s exciting for me because we have a lot of people now moving in the same direction. We’re building a good momentum.
Two, overall, what I’m finding is that when I go into the stores and I do an event, there’s a lot of younger, mid-20s plus smokers that are in the stores. They’re inquisitive. They want to know, “What should I be smoking? What’s going on?” The same questions we’d asked, “What are you guys coming out with?” They’re sponges. That’s exciting for me to see the next generation of young people that want to find a hobby that they can enjoy, that’s affordable, that they can bond with their friends. Harris, they go into your place and they feel they’re home. It’s a bit of an escape. They can go around and be with people that have a similar hobby and get away for a little while. We all need that.
We need that relaxation. We need that bonding time. On the retail side, you guys provide that. We can’t thank you enough as a manufacturer. We can’t thank you enough for providing that, so that we have a chance to show our wares. In addition, you have the chance to bring people together in combination. That’s exciting for me is that in other industries like the golf industry. They say they lose a million golfers a year and they gain a million golfers a year. They’re not growing. First off, if you smoke cigars, you’re going to live longer. We’re keeping that end, and then we’re bringing these younger guys and girls in who want to understand the lifestyle and they want to be a part of it. That’s our future.
In addition, there are a lot of new brands out there. A lot of young guys are out there coming out with a brand here, a brand there. Sometimes people have said to me, “There are 600 new brands on the market. As a retailer, I don’t know what I should or shouldn’t carry,” but it wasn’t that many years ago that that guy was me. That I was the guy trying to get my name out there. Going out and meeting people and hoping to get a shot, it’s a positive sign.
In just the short time, Alec Bradley is relatively a newcomer to the block. I know I have thirteen of the most phenomenal reps on the field doing events, if you go to our event calendar. Harris, this message is paid for by George Sosa. I’d love to do an event for you someday. I’ll be doing events all over Europe. I come back. I’m on the road for two weeks. It’s generating the excitement. If we don’t have the advertising budget that the big boys have, if we put the cigars in people’s hands, if we go out there and we see the excitement, there’s nothing better than when you go to a big smoke and people start rattling off.
Sometimes you see the guy who’s a BS and will go, “I love your stuff.” “What’s our stuff?” “My uncle loves you,” but then the guy starts, “I love your Black Market. Your Lineage rocks, your Mundial,” and he starts rattling. You say, “We’re starting to do our jobs. People know what we do.” For me, that’s the most exciting part of my job is being out of this office and meeting. I was with Harris a couple of weeks ago. It seemed every time I left one of his stores, he was pulling in. I got to visit every one of your stores. I was lost all over Alabama, but I wasn’t going to tell you that.
To add onto it, what Alan and George is saying is that what’s exciting is there’s a lot of new exciting things in the business. Going to events and seeing the consumers face-to-face, we love that. I implore anyone reading, if you have a question, there’s no dumb question to ask us. Please approach us. I have a lot of consumers will say, “I have a stupid question.” There’re no stupid questions. That’s why we’re there for. Please come up to us. Don’t be embarrassed. Newer smokers, like Sean even, might have a question that he’s embarrassed. Please ask us.
We all have different palates, so who knows? Cigar smoking is camaraderie. I tell guys, “When was the last time you see cigarette smokers telling each other, “Is that a Marlboro?” I was on a beach this weekend smoking a cigar. I go, “Here we go. The guy is walking towards me. I’m waiting for it.” I though he was going to say, “Cigars.” He goes, “What is that? It smells great.” “Three for $5.” The guy goes, “I never heard of your brand.” It was some bundle cigar he got from a nameless catalog. He goes, “Friends don’t let friends smoke that shit. Here.” He goes, “Why?”
It’s good that you mentioned that because this time of year, it’s barbecue season. It’s baseball season. It’s food festival and beer festival season around here. We’ve got all these events that are built up this time of year where people do approach you and say, “That smells like a great cigar. What is that?”
That’s important. It’s funny that you say that because if you think about it, they’re getting some of the pleasure. It hasn’t cost them anything yet. They’re getting some of the pleasure from what you’re doing because of the aromatics. The truth is, in some level, that’s what premium cigars are. It touches all the senses. You get to see it, taste it, smell it and there’s something about it. People sometimes have these preconceived notions and that they’re upset to see somebody with a cigar even if it’s not lit. If you’re open to it, you get to understand what the enjoyment is that we get.
The comradeship is second to none. Harris, in your shop you’ll see a bunch of guys sitting on the leather couch. These guys will probably not give each other the time of day when they’re out of that shop, if they didn’t know they smoked cigar. I was at a shop in California. There was a Hells Angel, a cop and prosecutor all sitting there. The guys were smoking a cigar and then they say, “See you later,” then they go back to doing whatever they were doing before. It is incredible. When I was in Israel during a cigar dinner, I was the only uptight guy in a room. About 50% of the room was Israelis and the other 50% were Muslims. I’m saying, “I’m going to sit back and watch this,” and let me tell you, these guys were civil to each other. They’re inviting each other to their house for dinner. I say, “That goes to prove if we chill out and smoke a cigar, so many world’s ills can be taken care of.”
You guys aren’t able to talk about your new blends yet. Are those cigars that you’re smoking now new blends? Is that something from your existing line?
This is a Coyol Petit Lancero that I’m smoking right now.
I’m smoking a Coyol Gordo.
We go shopping in the humidor here in the office, like a consumer would go shopping in your humidors. We all have specific palates. I’ll go in. I’ll feel like something stronger or milder. It’s like being in a store, except they get it for free here.
Alan, George, Clay, we appreciate your time. Thanks for being on the show.
Thanks for the invite.