Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Certified Professionals

Professional Certification attests to your knowledge, skills, and education. Many industries provide (multiple) certification programs for their workers, allowing them to better serve their customers. Following is just a small sample of the types of professional certifications available:

Beer Judge
Pool & Spa Professional
Help Desk Professional
Aviation Industry Professional
Project Management Professional
Security Professional
Computer Technician
Pest Control Professional
Ergonomics Professional
Law Professional
Barber, Hairstylist, & Hair Color Professionals
Organizing Professional
Construction Professional
Mold Inspector
Insurance Professional
Dental Assistant
Pharmacy Assistant
Veterinary Technician
Residential Planning
Hospitality Management

Monday, October 29, 2007

1950s: Wine & Cigars Diverge

The Sommelier Society of America opened its doors in this country in 1954. This educational and certification institution has helped create the public perception that wine is a sophisticated and enlightened human pleasure which enhances one's quality of life. And it is precisely that "Public Perception" which protects the wine industry from the type of hysterical crusading that is hurting the luxury tobacco industry today. In our society, luxury tobacco is perceived no differently than "Big Tobacco". And this is our single greatest challenge! Because the reality of our industry is far more positive than the public perception.

It was also during the 1950s that Homogenized Tobacco Leaf (HTL) was developed and commercialized. This non-premium amalgam of tobacco leaf, chemicals, stems, and other additives allowed for the homogenization and mass commercialization of non-premium cigars. Today, more than 90% of cigars sold in this country are non-premium products and use some form of HTL. This has made the cigar industry much more similar to the cigarette industry than wine. From a purely capitalistic perspective, this business model makes perfect sense: cigar companies were looking for growth, economies of scale, mass distribution, and more profit, so they followed the lead of the cigarette industry. Sadly, we have spent the last 50 years paying the price for our industries' similarities.

The last decade has truly been the most difficult and destructive time for the luxury tobacco industry, with one odd exception. Just before the spread of anti-smoking laws and the rise of draconian tobacco taxation, there was the release of Cigar Aficionado (CA) in the early 1990s. CA helped position the cigar industry in a completely new light with class and sophistication, as a luxurious pursuit and savoring of time. But this shift was more of a trend than a substantive change. And the reality of anti-tobacco crusading completely overshadows any of these positive facts. Any Tobacconist can tell you that the "boom" years were filled with "image smokers" who wanted to smoke cigars to look like the fancy and cool people on the pages of CA. But those customers are long gone now.

The effect of CA on our industry has been extraordinarily positive and dramatic, but it is far from being enough. To project culture and sophistication is not the same as having it, or earning it, or being accepted and embraced. So here we are.... still fighting S-CHIP, anti-smoking laws and absurd taxes.

"Nobody can give you Freedom. Nobody can give you Equality or Justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it." - Malcom X

By "take it" I mean: We must EARN it. We must educate ourselves on our products, history, traditions, and enlighten those around us. To change our reality, we must first change ourselves and then the world around us. The fight for our survival is about educating our society and carving out a viable place for us to thrive and contribute. If you believe any of this, then you must get Certified to help us take back our dignity and preserve the luxury tobacco industry for generations to come. Certification is just the beginning of a Foundation of Credibility. Just like Sommeliers prance around as the darlings of our modern society, perhaps Tobacconists will one day get their deserved respect.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Keystone Is Keystone

Keystone, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is "something on which associated things depend for support" and "the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place". Without the "keystone" in the latter definition, the structure will collapse. This is also the case with our industry's Keystone Margin: without retailers having the ability to make a reasonable markup, we will collapse. Retail Tobacconists cannot make enough money to sustain themselves without a reasonable markup on single cigars. Anything less than Keystone results in the commoditization of our products, declining margins, and ultimately 'going out of business' sales.

As a retailer, I do not sell any products that are not Keystone, nor am I interested in supporting any company that does not support my ability to make enough money to survive. Obviously, mail order and internet operations thrive on non-keystone products and deals: they exist to thrive on and undermine the brick and mortar (B&M) keystone marketplace. And our economy proves this is a viable strategy for growth - just look at the big box retailers and discounters in every community. But this market thrives on reducing quality and diversity in exchange for cheap homogenized products. One of the worst and most damaging examples I can think of is the Shop-Rite supermarkets here in NJ, where they have a large selection of premium cigars at retail prices that are unbelievably cheap. I, of course, refuse to shop there. But I am not single-handedly able to make any kind of impact on their bottom line. Obviously manufacturers should refuse to have their premium handmade products sold next to shaving razors and tampons. So what are they doing about it???

Ultimately, the Keystone Margin is that which B&M Tobacconists 'depend on for support'. And if we want to see our industry get new customers, introduce new and innovative products, and survive, we must protect B&M Tobacconists, which means protecting our margins.

This year the Supreme Court ruled that manufacturers do in fact have the right to establish a minimum retail price for their products. Lets hope our vendors have the chutzpah to protect their retailers, sacrifice a little in the short-term, and preserve our industry for generations to come.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Butcher, S-CHIP, & Our Future

I pulled up to the butchers (Joe & Emil) today and noticed the driveway and landscaping had been completely re-done. It was refreshing and beautiful so I assumed they must have taken on a female partner, or something otherwise evolutionary must have happened. Since they lament the difficulties of finding good help and the future of their family business (they have no children), I don't expect major face-lifts or cosmetic upgrades at this special little country butcher shop. Yet, when I walked in I couldn't help but notice how much fun they are now having with a new vacuum sealing machine they recently purchased. They are invigorated with ideas and opportunities to package and brand their meat products; it is quite the sight to see. So, I asked about the face-lift and it seemed only natural to them to invest in their business. While they have limited their shop hours to four days a week, they continue to honor their customers and products with every fiber of their being.

I realized today that I go to the butcher for many of the same reasons my customers go to my stores: they are my 'Tobacconists'. When I was in college I used to ride the bus to Georgetown Tobacco every Saturday. It was the highlight of my week back then, but now that I am a Tobacconist, I go to the butcher. It seems there must be a deep need in me to connect with people who honor traditions, products, and their customers. Hand crafted products and artisans share special values and community; and this is one of life's greatest joys, in my opinion.

So, I learned a few lessons today, but the most pertinent comes on the heels of the recent S-CHIP vote. While the battle has really just begun, it is never too late to re-invest. This is the just the beginning of our fight for survival as Tobacconists; but that is OK. The first Sommelier organization did not come to America until the 1950s, so Tobacconists are not that far behind. Over the next few weeks Tobacconist University will have some dramatic and historic announcements, so NOW is time to start crafting our future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Planning A Future (part II)

I employ about a dozen retail Tobacconists, most of whom are Certified and the others are apprenticing. I provide health insurance for those who need it and I consider it my responsibility to help my Tobacconists develop as people and professionals. An organization is only as good as its people, so this is an easy investment to make. The best reward for this is that my turnover is 3 years, so I keep happy employees for a long time: that pays for itself! Additionally, I have had many employees move on in the industry and go to work for prestigious companies, so I sometimes feel like we are making a positive contribution to the industry. But, when Tobacconists ask me what I think about them opening up a retail store, I tell them they are CRAZY!!! Now let me qualify, 9 out of 10 people want to own their own business, but probably 1 out of 10 are capable. So I am partly trying to filter out 'talkers' from 'doers'. Running a normal business is hard enough; running a retail tobacco business can feel like guerrilla warfare.

But recently I felt a little guilty about my position on the matter. Isn't it two-faced to do all that I can to "Preserve Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come", and then discourage talented individuals from becoming retail Tobacconists? Perhaps... I just want to make sure there is a bonafide future in it for them. There are many retail Tobacconists that are semi-retired with plenty of money in the bank that don't care if the industry succeeds or not, they just want to partake in their hobby. And there are plenty of wealthy hobbyists in the industry as well. In fact, most of the industry is made up of middle aged, affluent men. This is no surprise, but it does not bode well for our future. We need young blood. We need more passionate men and women in their 20s and 30s coming into the industry.

So on Saturday morning I am sitting in the shop, talking with a cigar salesman who I like and respect. I'm looking at him thinking "thank God for young guys like you coming into the industry". But danger lurks in the shadows. I have seen this before. Will he leave in six months to go sell HP printers or telecommunication services, or whatever? I have seen them leave us before. How do we keep young talent? How do we inject enough innovation and credibility back into this industry to preserve it for generations to come? If we can't keep our best and brightest, we will certainly fail.

There is far too much taxation and legislative uncertainty in our world to promise anyone a bright future. This must change. The industry must rally behind a plan to promote our acceptance and credibility in society. We must stabilize the hemorrhaging and strengthen our foundation while projecting our credibility. We must focus on getting young, innovative, passionate souls into this industry NOW!!! And work on giving them a future with hope and promise instead of fear and uncertainty.

I'm on it. Are you?

PS: remember, retail Tobacconist Certification is free.

Planning A Future (part I)

Judging from this picture (taken in Disney World) my mother recently sent me, I was a young aspiring Tobacconist as early as the 1970s. But it wasn't until the 1990s that I started fighting against the first wave of smoking bans in Princeton, NJ. Like the rest of those battles throughout the country, we eventually lost. Just like we lost the battle against ever increasing cigarette and cigar taxes as well. I can count a handful of last minute tax increases which were followed by letters to my retail company telling us we must pay 'x' amount of floor tax on whatever arbitrary date the legislators picked. Could this ever happen to Microsoft or GE? I doubt it. But they say small business is the heart of America...

I can't imagine any other industry having to deal with such unpredictable and debilitating legislation. But retail Tobacconists have persevered around the country. Somehow, we have weathered each of these storms as well as the internet/mail-order age and not disappeared off the face of the earth. It seems miraculous, and I don't know that this would be possible in any other industry! We are lucky to have loyal and passionate customers. Unfortunately, we do not have enough loyal and happy customers to effect serious taxation and policy change at the state or federal level. This is not because we are not a morally, intellectually, or politically righteous group, but rather because of the hysterical and reactionary nature of the times we live in. I call it a "Shock & Awe Society". Eventually, I believe we will be able to undo much of the hysterical legislation we have had imposed on us; after all, nothing is permanent and eventually we will all have to agree to respect each other and live together, both smokers and non, big and little business, and politicians and civilians. In our society there must be room for all perspectives and individual freedoms. At least, these are my hopes and dreams...

On Thursday, Oct. 18th, we will see if we have to face yet another repressive and life-threatening tax hike. I was going to write this after Thursday, but I realized it doesn't matter when I write it. Tobacconist University will continue to move forward no matter what the S-CHIP fiasco turns out to be, just as I will move forward with my retail company, no matter the outcome. I decided long ago to stick with the ship, and go down with it if necessary. My worst case scenario ambition is to be the last Tobacconist standing. Perhaps I am an idiot. But I would like to think that I am a man of conviction. I would like to think I fight for what I believe in, and in this case that is "Preserving Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come". And above all, I believe in leaving the world a better place than when I found it.

It was past midnight this Saturday morning and I was in the shop with a few Tobacconists and a famous cigar maker. I was talking about the saga and strife that retail Tobacconists have suffered through, and our lack of PROACTIVE help and solutions. I found myself getting very emotional, another few seconds and my eyes would have teared up. I was talking about a future for Tobacconists. We may be the most challenged industry on the planet and it is a terrifying landscape. Frankly, I think we get very little help, and the first time I have ever seen the whole industry rally against a tax was when S-CHIP was announced; that is the first and only time I have ever seen cigar makers rally together to fight a tax or any anti-tobacco legislation. I suppose it is darkest before dawn.... so maybe they are ready to wake from their slumber. But for many retailers, it may be too late; and this probably suits the mail order companies just fine.

Recently I learned that one of the owners of the largest mail-order cigar businesses in the world doesn't even smoke cigars. When he purchased the company, decades ago, someone told him it would cloud his 'Business Judgement'. So he never smoked, and over the years he grew his company into a powerhouse brand, which I will not mention here. This mentality and lack of honor and passion for our products is part of the problem. This is why our industry has had its head buried in the sand for years, while hiding behind 'Big-Tobacco', waiting for them to do something... But 'Big-Tobacco' has no credibility, nor should they. Instead, they focus on their profit and loss statements, quarterly dividends, and growing in the 2nd and 3rd world. If you've owned their stock over the last decade, you have done very well.... congratulations. But during that time, Tobacconists have suffered a great deal, and consumers are losing their rights and places to smoke.

to be continued...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Outlaw Tobacconist Genius

I liked the last blog so much (Education vs. Information) I was thinking of never adding another entry again, but I can't help but highlight one of the smartest and most impressive Tobacconists I have ever met. Let me clarify "met". I was standing in the line at Starbucks in the Houston convention center and I thought I recognized the face in front of me. It was Kendall Culbertson; founder of The Outlaw Cigar Co. in Kansas City, Mo. I had just read an article about the Outlaw Tobacconist in a trade publication and was impressed with his promotional hi jinks and retail philosophy. So I said 'hi', .... blah, blah, blah... 'nice to meet you'. And that was about it.

Now, the latest issue of Tobacconist magazine has arrived and I have read another article about Outlaw Cigar Co. (by Stephen A. Ross, page 51). But this article is infinitely better than the last one I read; highlighting the real genius of the Outlaw Tobacconist. I can't stop repeatedly reading the article because there is so much helpful and amazing information. Kendall is a revolutionary and brilliant Tobacconist and businessman so I would like to quote a few excerpts and ideas here. I believe there is something valuable to learn from almost every Tobacconist: there is so much information, knowledge, and wisdom in retail Tobacconists!!! We have far more in common than we tend to think... But I think i have found my new Guru...

- "If you do a good job of creating a cigar smoker, you're growing your own business as well as others. Grow the pie; don't worry about the size of your slice. If the pie grows, your slice automatically gets bigger." (I could stop writing now, because this says it all)

- "An aged cigar is better and it's unique. I try to convince people to age cigars themselves because they are so much better." (this is good for business and customer appreciation)

- "How much better does the cigar taste with the story..." (Sidney Frank, entrepreneur behind Grey Goose said: "Americans want to pay more, you just have to give them a good story")

- "You've got to get people interested in your business ... show them that you are having a good time" (Amen)

- "Why are cigars in convenience stores, liquor stores and grocery stores? They're not going to create new cigar smokers .... haven't you just sold out the cigar industry's ability to gain cigar smokers?" (Hallelujah! and shame on those manufacturers that bypass their retail Tobacconists to generate simple revenue instead of lifelong and loyal customers)

- "A guy is not going to get passionate about the cigar he's smoking by buying it in a grocery store"

- "I believe that I'm in the health business. Whats the number one killer of men? Stress. What can you do to relieve stress? You can't just tell someone to relax. A cigar is a great way. When a guy smokes a cigar for an hour and a half or two hours and has fun with the other guys, he's relaxing. What is unhealthier - the smoke that he gets from the cigar or the stress that he would have if he didn't take it easy for an hour and a half each day? I think its the stress by far. I'm saving your life because I'm relieving your stress. A cigar a day can be a big relief and it paves the way for more downtime." (Savor Your Time and focus on Your Quality of Life)

- "You must hire people that are already passionate about cigars" (the main ingredient of any great Tobacconist is Passion!)

And there is soooo much more. I almost regurgitated the entire article, so I will have to stop here. To me the lesson is, Care about your industry, your profession, and your customers, and you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Outlaw Cigar Co. does amazing events where they have even brought in Apache helicopters to amuse their crowds... While this is totally absurd for most of us, the principles, ideas, and values they espouse are applicable to all retail Tobacconists, and immediately actionable!!! So, Get to work.

PS: (shameless self promotion) you can read a little about Tobacconist University on page 31
PSS: What's going on in Kansas City, MO....??? Between Xikar and Outlaw, there must be something special in the water... we should have a convention there!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Education vs. Information

I have been wanting to write this particular blog for years and now the thoughts seem to be percolating, so the time is right. The differences between Information and Education are at the heart of Tobacconist University values and our vision/mission.

Distinguishing between the two can be the difference between just living and a life well-lived.

Information is typically what you get when you watch the evening news and hear sensational sound bites about Britney Spears, obese Americans, or when you hear politicians spinning their language about S-CHIP, anti-smoking statistics, and a myriad of other things. Information is data, often sensationalized for our limited attention spans. And it is indisputable that we live in the Age of Information. Between the internet, cell phones, tv, print and broadcast media, we are always being bombarded with information. Information is the nutritional equivalent of a twinkie; it may taste good but there is relatively little substance or value in it.

Information is about Quantity, while Education is about Quality.

Education is Information put into context with a perspective grounded in values and principles: and that is what Tobacconist University is about.

This topic is resonating with me right now because we are making a big push to enhance our already unparalleled glossary and turn it into a multi-media encyclopedia. We have endeavoured to find every tobacco glossary (in the English language) and make sure we don't miss a thing. In that process, we have discovered an overwhelming amount of Information, opinion, and/or subjective interpretation. When we find words worthy of the TU glossary, we go through our library of books, cross-reference (3x), call experts, and then re-create the most valuable definition possible: after all, we are trying to create a timeless educational curriculum.

But, I am astounded at the amount of crap/information in the marketplace. There is very little content created with a long-term vision and an eye towards Quality. Much like the world we live in, Quantity often trumps Quality, so people don't even attempt to create accurate and compelling content. Fortunately, you can rest assured that TU will never take this easy way out. Sadly, this trend carries through most of the Information we find on the internet. Even emails/newsletters I receive through the industry are full of erroneous or absurd information. I get a handful of so-called "expert" emails on a regular basis and they are always filled with incorrect information. Many of these so-called "experts" (I will call them "Fakeperts") are merely pontificators trying to position themselves as thought-leaders in an effort to sell you products: that is one of the reasons TU does not sell any products or advertisements. And ultimately, these Fakeperts are doing harm to our industry and consumers while they try to make a quick buck.

Education requires research, perspective, and context. Consequently, Education requires vision, commitment, and integrity. These are the values that will help "Preserve Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come". Since we are an open-source Academic Curriculum, we encourage credible Tobacconists to contribute their knowledge to our institution. In that process we can help aggregate, promote, and strengthen the foundation upon which this industry is built: which is great Tobacconists! Without great, credible, and professional Tobacconists, our precious industry will die.

So, Educate yourselves!!! And help us Educate!!!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

TU vs. CCU

Internet traffic is a funny thing. Today I woke up to see that we got hundreds of visits from Sweden. Some days we are big in Europe, Asia, Latin America, but mostly our visitors come from the north eastern part of the United States. Since we haven't really marketed TU, we rely on word of mouth and passionate individuals to spread the word. But there is always a bit of mystery when people in the middle east or far off countries find TU. Fortunately, once they find us, they are hooked and we see them coming back regularly.

Between Sweden and the cigarfamily website today, I noticed we get lots of hits/links to Cuban Cigar University (CCU). Frankly, I'm just glad people visit, but I thought this would be a good time and place to clarify the relationship and differences between TU and CCU.

I started CCU as the in-house training college for my retail Tobacconists, following a research and educational trip to Cuba in 1996. It became so popular that we started giving public courses and Certifications to consumers as well as Tobacconists. By 2003, we incorporated CCU into TU and the TU website. CCU was cigar focused. TU is a much broader and more ambitious project intended to benefit ALL retail Tobacconists, consumers, and the industry. Ultimately, it just seemed selfish to hoard all of the CCU work just for ourselves, so the concept of TU emerged. Today there is a CCU website (address) and people all over the world find it and use it on a regular basis: I think the word "Cuba" carries a lot of weight in consumers' minds. But that site is really just the Tobacconist University site. So, in case you are wondering why the content is the same, that is because Tobacconist University emerged from Cuban Cigar University. And hopefully, one day, the word TOBACCONIST will carry as much weight as Cuba...

Monday, October 1, 2007


I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the Sponsors which have made the free educational, certification, and professional services of Tobacconist University (TU) possible. Our efforts to "Preserve Luxury Tobacco for Generations to Come" would not be possible without the intellectual and monetary contributions of our Sponsors. We are particularly proud of our no-advertising policy and open-source Academic Curriculum which ensures an unbiased, thorough, dynamic, and democratic learning institution.

Ironically, I am the only Tobacconist University Sponsor at the moment. Ironically, I have been sooooo busy over the last 4 years of development that I have barely leveraged TU assets for my retail company A Little Taste of Cuba (ALTOC); except for Certifying every Tobacconist. In the future ALTOC will have the entire TU website co-branded with our logo at the top left hand corner of every TU page. TU will be hot-linked to the ALTOC website ( , which I have also neglected) with quick-links to the FAQ, HOW-TO, Glossary, and Campus pages. All of this in an effort to provide our retail customers with the most value-added services possible. And always striving to enhance customers' product, industry, and Tobacconist appreciation.

But as they say, that is neither here nor there.... I really just wanted an excuse to show off the new Sponsor Logo. I will not use this for ALTOC because we are currently putting together our family of Founding Sponsors; they will be a distinguished group of vertically integrated companies. This is a slow process and we are at various stages with several extraordinary companies. Over the next two weeks the final batch of Sponsor Proposals will go out and then we will wait and see what the future holds.

Ultimately, this Sponsor Logo will be a Badge of Honor for those companies extraordinary enough to use it. The TU Sponsor Logo will be absolute proof that these companies are committed to Brick & Mortar Tobacconists, consumers, and our precious industry. Fortunately, we can accomplish a lot with very little; annual Sponsorship will cost less than a one page ad in Cigar Aficionado. By providing the free educational services and committing to higher standards we will usher in a new age of Credibility for this besmirched and maligned industry. Cigar & Pipe makers deserve a great deal more respect than they are currently getting; as do retail Tobacconists, since we are their ambassadors and the final point of contact for passionate consumers.

I hope you like the Sponsor Logo: it is a symbol for companies who 'walk the talk'. In the future, if you see a company using it to show their pride, you will know they are truly committed to their consumers and Tobacconists!