Seven years ago, a businessman and avid cigar smoker wanted some cigars with his company's logo on the label. He was so appalled by the quality of the products available that he decided to create his own. Now, having your own personal cigar brand has never been so fashionable, and his business is off the wall.
Product branding is a multi-billion dollar industry: creating brands, building them, winning market share, gaining shelf space, hiring big stars to promote them, earning customer loyalty. The cigar business is a lot smaller than the Nikes and Gatorades of the world, but at its heart, brands rule. Big companies wrangle over the legal rights to well-known cigar brands while small cigar makers covet their ancestor's brands, or toil a lifetime to build their own from scratch.
So why in the world would anyone want to build a business around a "non-brand?" In short, because there are thousands of reasons why people -- from everyday folks to big stars -- want cigars with their own label on them. The same reason why entrepreneur Harold Nathan, founder of Victory Cigars, wanted one. It's a cool idea...but only if it's done right. As simple as that sounds, getting a good-looking custom band on a good cigar -- one he wouldn't be embarrassed to hand out -- wasn't an easy task when he first looked itno it seven years ago. The samples he received from the leading suppliers at the time didn't impress him.
"The bands were terrible at best," he recalls. "You could only get one color. You couldn't put your logo on it -- only your name." The cigars themselves were largely an insult -- most were short filler, and the worst ones he saw even has worm holes in them. "I thought, maybe there are other guys out there, like myself, who might want to put their company logo on a quality cigar with a quality band. That was my whole concept in the beginning," explains Nathan.
He had no intentions of building a burgeoning business that would see sales in dollars soar by 1000% since 1998. It just sort of worked out that way.
"It was just something I was doing, and it was fun," says Nathan, who says he still wakes up excited about his job every day. "I would sit down and cut the bands out with scissors and put them on the cigars and ship them out and be all happy that we sold two boxes," says Nathan, noting "I ship more in a day now than I used to keep in inventory back then."
One of Nathan's first attempts at marketing his concept was in 1997, when his hometown Seattle Mariners won an American League division title. "I went to see them and they bought 100 boxes, of which the first ten went to Ken Griffey, Jr," who was then playing for Seattle, Nathan recalls.
Next, it was on to the Pacific Northwest's premier cigar bar, El Gaucho, where Nathan landed the ritzy steak house and cigar lounge, supplying them their own house brand cigar.
"From then on it started catapulting," says Nathan, whose defining moment came when he made the leap from running small regional ads on a shoestring budget to placing national ads. At first it appeared to be the worst mistake in the world.
"After two or three weeks, I thought, 'Oh Lord, I put all this money into advertising and I was wrong.' I really did. I thought, 'OK, at least I know I was wrong' and I could go start another business doing something else." Then, all of a sudden the phones started ringing, and they haven't stopped since.
Nathan is an avid collector of vintage cigars who enjoys dipping into his stash of Cuban Montecristo A's or Punch Double Coronas, but as often as not can be found smoking his own Victory Cigar vintage box press maduro. He's equally at ease talking shop with cigar connoisseurs as he is patiently guiding a novice or neophyte who needs to order a gift for a husband or boss's friend, and has handled nearly every custom label cigar order himself over the past seven years. He's created cigars for rock stars, sports legends, CEO's, newlyweds, grooms-to-be, chefs, proud new parents. You name it. Nathan admits he's probably forgotten more clients than he remembers -- there have been some 5,000 to date -- but that doesn't stop him from trying.
"Gary Payton. Lone Star. Lil' Kim. Steve Harvey. The 82nd Airborne..." he offers as he scours his memory. To solve the problem of poor quality bands, Nathan invested in a massive nine-foot color laser printer that creates the precise printing one expects when staring close-up at your cigar band. A graphic designer creates each label, incorporating logos, graphics -- basically anthing you want...within reason, of course. The shaped labels are professionally die-cut on his own press.
The cigars themselves are produced in the Dominican Republic, a very flavorful but mild-to-medium strength blend that Nathan selected to please even the occasional cigar smoker. Calling an order in to Nathan by phone is more like a personal consultation; customers are guided to the most appropriate size and -- depending upon the intended audience for the cigars -- either a premium long filler cigar if they're intended for someone's best customers, or a more affordable medium filler blend that's ideal for occasional smokers. Corona Gorda is Victory's most popular shape, but corona, robusto and Churchill sizes are also available. A setup charge of $65 covers the costs of 100 cigar bands; boxes of 25 cigars start at $60 each.
"I knew that these cigars were going to events where people only smoked one cigar a year, and when you hear that the cigar was great, then you know that you did your job," says Nathan. Victory keeps an inventory of 125,000 cigars aging at the factory at any given time, for a minimum of 90 days.
"If two people come in and order 10,000 or 15,000 cigars apiece, you have to be ready to provide them," notes Nathan. Typically orders average about two to three boxes, and the minimum order is just a single box -- making this personal luxury accessible to anyone. As an added perk, on orders over 50 boxes, each spanish cedar box is personalized with a modified version of the label art.
The longer Nathan thinks about it, the more clients come to mind. "Johnson & Johnson, UPS, FedEx, Pizza Hut, American Express," he offers, rattling off just a few examples of the corporations, wineries, restaurants, hotels, private clubs, charities, and events that have tapped his services over the years. One of the surest signs of success has been the frequent reorders among existing customers.
But perhaps the most fun to be had is with the regular guys who want to feel important or hand out a great memento at a bachelor party, graduation, birthday party, wedding, or such. Even though Nathan has dealt with thousands of customers, it always thrills him when a new one discovers the mystique of seeing their own label on a cigar. Nathan recalls one customer who gave custom label cigars to her boyfriend, who told her, "That was the nicest present anyone has ever given me in my life." It's easy to take what he does for granted, Nathan notes, but to each customer, the experience is brand new.
"Everyone likes to see their name in print, their company's name in print," says Nathan, who's made it his job to exceed each customer's expectations and is proud of the personal service he provides for the personalized cigars. "I love what I do."