Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Puro Integritas

A hybrid of Spanish, Latin, and double entendre, PURO INTEGRITAS refers to 'Pure Integrity' and 'Cigar Integrity'. It speaks to our Vision & Mission and guides all of our actions. If words have the power to shape and transform lives, then this is Our Motto.

Background & Perspective on TU

I am spending hours per day responding to emails from Tobacconists and Consumers alike. Its amazing how popular an unpromoted endeavor can be. I fully understand why there are so many questions and I would like to take this opportunity to give a little Background & Perspective.

Above all, TU must be a transparent organization. While most of our services are free, we do (or will) disclose all of our income(s) to maintain our independence and credibility. We do not accept advertising and sell or certify products. Currently we are working on a Product Placement (PP) revenue model which will allow photos/specs of products to be placed in the Academic Curriculum by credible industry members - these are not advertisements. PP are intended to be an equitable and affordable 'service' that allows all industry members to share in TU. (I will write more on PP in the future - still in development.) While PP are intended to pay for the internet site(s) and maintenance, eventually we will have Sponsors which will fund Content Development (i.e. content previews) and Certifications (however, we are Certifying now without Sponsors). That's the plan...

To date, including time and money, I have invested at least one million dollars in TU; while we have had $100 in income from our first CST. It has been my full time job for 5 years and I have drawn from my staff of 12 Tobacconists to do it. And now we have a Academic Administrator to help with everything I can't do. In addition, there have been legal, administrative, computer, programming, art, design, printing, travel, and many more costs. Sadly, there is no guarantee that I will get any of that money or time back. We are working with a completely new economic model (i.e. no ads, free services, etc...) but I have always believed that if we create New Value & Opportunities, that everything financial will work itself out . That's the plan...

Currently we are doing our *Pilot CRT Certifications and CST Certifications. We are building a grass roots movement of Credible Certified Tobacconists. While I would rather be spending 'Sponsor' money at this point, we must first prove to our industry that a demand truly exists. As Tobacconists, we demand respect, credibility, and support; through Certification we are showing that we are willing to earn it.

The following email gives a quick rundown on many common questions, so I will simply cut and paste it here:

"Dear ----;

Almost everything you want to know is on our websites: check out the Certification, Certified Tobacconist, and Academic pages. And there is also supplementary information on my blog. We have been Certifying Tobacconists and Consumers since 1996, but the Certified Tobacconist webpage only lists those over the last two years, since that is when the Tobacconist University Code of Ethics & Standards, and other materials were used as part of the Certification. Before that we Certified just under 200 Tobacconists and Consumers under the Cuban Cigar University name: that was a program I used for my retail stores and customers - the development of Tobacconist University started full time in 2003 and that was intended to benefit the whole industry.

I am sorry that the Certification information on the site is not more succinct. Over the next year, as we get funding, we will streamline the Certification information and make it easier to digest. Currently we are doing Pilot Certifications while we refine our Email Seminars and the infrastructure to Certify Tobacconists throughout the country. We are transitioning from a research, development, and publishing organization to a Certification driven organization, and that will take some time. This is an exciting period for us, since over the next 30 days we will add 20 Certified Tobacconists to our family. Certifications will double every 3 to 4 months after that. Right now our focus is on CST and CRT. By 2009 we will be much better equipped to Certify Consumers (CCT), since we will have Certified Retailers in place to recruit and administer the test.

In addition, the development of TU has been intentionally quiet; we have avoided press and promotion in order to focus on our foundation and fundamentals.

If you would like to look at the Certification contracts (CRT), the username/password is Tobacconist/Pride. There is some technical information there you may find useful. In brief, CRT Certification is Free, and the CCT cost is $200 for a lifetime.

Currently we have 5 retailers going through the Pilot Certification programs. The first step towards Certification is accepting the Code of Ethics & Standards. They receive E-Seminars twice a week for six weeks and then schedule to take the final exam. Hopefully, later this year the E-Seminars will be available online ,for free, for you to see/receive at your leisure. As we get Sponsors, hopefully this year, we will begin Certifying at will and our growth will be exponential. The main challenge/bottleneck is that the test must be administered by a Certified human being, it cannot be taken over the internet, so that poses some challenges we are preparing for now.

I hope this answers some of your questions….

If you happen to live near a Certified Retail Tobacconist, then they will be able to Certify you as a Consumer….. but you may have to be patient. If you are ever in Princeton, NJ we can Certify you ourselves.


Disclaimer: Posting this blog has saved me countless hours of emailing.... thanks for reading it.

*Writing this prompts me to release/post a couple of the Pilot CRT E-Seminars... stay tuned for that.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tobacconists - Human Assets: content preview

"The first sign of decline of an industry is loss of appeal to able people."
- The Daily Drucker (Harper Collins 2004)

Ultimately, a business is only as good as its people. The success of luxury tobacco retailers is limited by how many good Tobacconists they have - I know this because I live it.

The Human Assets of a company are the most valuable because you can always borrow money or lease a space, but great people are hard to come by: that is the essence of Tobacconist University. That is why we are not a retailer organization, trade group, or consumer magazine. We are focused and committed to educating, training, and developing the greatest resource in our industry: Tobacconists.

If you ask 100 people "who are the most important people in our industry (not including consumers)?", 99% will answer 'Cigar Makers'. But, they are wrong. Tobacconists are the most important people in our industry because they consummate the relationship between cigar makers and customers; they bridge the gap between producers and consumers. Where would the Fuentes and Padrons be without Tobacconists? They would be lining the shelves of supermarkets, convenience stores, and drug stores. I will live [ and die ] knowing that retail Tobacconists make this industry great. That is where I fell in love with luxury tobacco, and that is where consumers do too. You can't get to know real products through the pages of a magazine or on the internet.

If you own a retail shop you already know the greatest challenge is finding and retaining good people. Tobacconist University EDUCATES, TRAINS, PROMOTES, DEVELOPS, & INVIGORATES our industry's greatest assets - a historical first! All of these benefits increase employee Value, Commitment, & Retention, improving your business and competitiveness all at once. Leverage these resources to your advantage and you will succeed. Invest in your people and the long-term rewards will be exponential! Put people first and the profits will follow.

Hiring Tip: Hire Passion & Smiles. All Great Tobacconists are naturally endowed with a passion for the products and a genuine desire to share that.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nickname Theory

I've been thinking lately about my chronic habit of giving Tobacconists nicknames. As I think of it, giving people nicknames is a common Cuban trait. Cuban nicknames can be super-obvious like "Chino" for anyone of Asian descent, or bizarre, like "Miacere" which means a group of smelly monkeys. Whatever the case, nicknaming gives me pleasure. Over the years we have had Tobacconists nicknamed BIG, CRACK HEAD, SHAGGY, CHICHO, O.G., YE OLDE, STRETCH, SMOKEY, CHE, CRAZY EYES, and MUNCHKIN, just to name a few. Sometimes even customers merit nicknames, either created by Tobacconists or their peers.

The key to nicknaming is getting approval first; no one should be called anything they do not approve of. I have Tobacconists working for nearly a decade that never got a nickname, either because they wouldn't approve it, or because it did not come naturally; that is OK too.

So, what is the point of a nickname? Without writing a book here, I think a nickname is a form of affection. A way to share humor and bond. As any retail Tobacconist knows, our work is not all fun and games: things need to be cleaned, priced, displayed, maintained, and everything breaks, frequently. Retail Tobacconists actually have a lot of stress, so a nickname can help remind us not to take everything so seriously. While this is not a management theory like Tobacconist Whisperer, I believe there is a good lesson here:

Work hard, but don't forget to have fun and savor your time. Being a Tobacconist is serious business, but life is too short to be serious all the time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Favorite Cigar Holder

I'm not embarrassed to admit it, my favorite Cigar Holder is the crevasse between my windshield wiper blade and the arm. Admittedly, I'm a little rustic. While I highly encourage all cigar smokers to Carry An Unlit Cigar, occasionally the cigar must be lit - and then rested while venturing indoors. I understand that the windshield wiper may be dirty, but frankly, I don't care; that is my dirt, my car, and I don't mind it. On occasion I have forgotten about a cigar; and sometimes they make it all the way home in tact - Cigar Miracles Do Happen. So in case you have ever wondered what to do with a smoldering cigar while you are running errands, now you have an option.

Disclaimer: This is not Academic Curriculum or a Content Preview, merely a personal opinion. Tobacconist University does not recommend leaving a lit cigar either inside or outside of your car. We do encourage savoring as much time as possible.

Philosophical Quandary: If you throw an unlit, premium, un-banded, all natural cigar in the grass, is that littering? or gratuitous fertilization?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Receiving Inventory: content preview

Receiving Inventory, particularly great cigars, is my favorite part of the business. I would rather have cigars in the humidor than money in the bank (- not recommending you follow this approach). Great Product is rejuvenating and the source of Retail Tobacconist Success. While an empty humidor can be demoralizing, a full humidor is exhilarating. A Retail Tobacconist with a stocked humidor has ammunition for success.

It is important to note that Receiving Inventory is not all fun and games. In fact, this is one of the most critical and technical functions of our retail business. The following is a list of general steps that should be followed to stock your store effectively and efficiently.

1. Neatly Unpack all product and organize on counter.

2. Cleanup and dispose of all packing materials - don't leave a mess.

3. Reconcile received product with Invoice/Packing Slip.
- notify vendor and manager/owner of any discrepancies

4. Enter Inventory into your POS/Computer.

5. Create new product skus (if necessary) & Price All Products Accurately.
- Double check all of your numbers - Perfection is Imperative.

6. Merchandise/Display all products. Anything not displayed is hidden money.

7. Restore Defaults: Bring the shop, counter, and displays back to their original position - i.e. leave the shop the way you found it!

Organization and a slow methodical approach is best when receiving inventory. Take your time and re-check all of your numbers. Inventory is the heart of our business and it must be treated with equal care and respect. Take your time and do it right.

FINAL NOTE: Don't forget about your customers - they are still more important than anything else you are doing. It is easy to get too focused on the product and forget to say hello or give great service. Admittedly, receiving orders can be high stress since there are so many technical issues, but Customers Come First.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Cigar Myths: content preview

There is enough magic and wonder in the world of cigar making and luxury tobacco, that lies, myth, and marketing exaggerations are totally unnecessary. But that would not seem the case since there are innumerable untruths in the marketplace and many of them have been propagated for decades by successful individuals and companies. Perhaps this is the case because marketers have determined what information consumers receive. Or because there has never been a credible institution dedicated to teaching, learning, and researching the impressive truths of our industry; but the days of biased romanticism and exaggeration should be coming to a close. Tobacconist University is committed to teaching the truth about our industry, not duping customers into brand loyalty and ignorant misconceptions.

Great cigars and luxury tobaccos are practically miracles in their own right. Our products take more collective skills and longer to create than great works of art, architecture, and furniture, yet their destiny is to be combusted and return to dust. Our products need no exaggeration to be fully appreciated; only to be honestly represented. The following is a list of cigar/tobacco myths which retail Tobacconists hear every day. In our efforts to enhance consumer appreciation, we must help enlighten our customers, not B.S. them.
Eventually this will be a multi-media component of our Academic Curriculum, but until then, this is a great place to start telling the truth.

Virgin Thighs
Myth: In Cuba, cigars are rolled on the thighs of virgins.

Truth: This is an absurd concept which sounds interesting and amusing to some, but is not grounded in reality.

Cuban Seed
Myth: Cuban Seed = Quality

Truth: Cuban Seeds, grown inside or outside of Cuba, can produce both good and bad cigars. There is no direct correlation between product quality and Cuban Seeds. There are far too many variables impacting the quality of tobacco and cigars, like soil, climate, rain, fermentation, blending, rolling, etc... This myth was started after the American embargo on Cuba when cigar makers wanted to enhance the perceived value and quality of their own brands.

Refrigerate Cigars
Myth: Keeping cigars in your household refrigerator will keep them "fresh" (or optimally conditioned).

Truth: Refrigerators are far too dry to keep cigars optimally conditioned and the more humid "crisper" drawer is also inadequate.

Spanish Cedar Necessary
Myth: Humidors and Cigar boxes need to be lined with Spanish Cedar.

Truth: Spanish Cedar is not necessary. It was historically and geographically convenient and practical. While it may be a valid taste+aroma preference, it is not required.

Cigar Licking
Myth: An entire cigar should be thoroughly licked/wet-down before being smoked.

Truth: This practice was common a century ago when humidification was not as accurate and consistent as it is today. Wetting the wrapper would help keep the cigar from unravelling, but it is not necessary when smoking a well conditioned cigar.

Angled Cut
Myth: Some people claim that cutting the cap/head of a cigar on an angle helps aim the smoke directly to the palate and enhances taste.
Truth: In contrast to a Perfect Cut, an angled cut jeopardizes the integrity of the cigar head and may lead to it unravelling. In addition, a mouth filled with smoke will taste the smoke, whether it is aimed at the tongue or not. The other down side of an angled cut is that the heat of the combusted cigar will be aimed directly at the tongue.

Self Sharpening Cutter
Myth: Some Double Guillotines are believed to sharpen themselves.
Truth: This is untrue; the physics of metal sharpening have nothing in common with the way Double Guillotines function.

Packaging = Quality
Myth: It is natural to perceive and equate beauty with quality; this is a natural human trait.
Truth: Many cigars with the simple packaging are extraordinary and many cigars have extraordinary packaging which is not commensurate with the product.

Strength = Body
Myth: Full-Bodied cigars are Strong. And Strong cigars must be Full-Bodied.
Truth: A cigar can have a Full-Body and not be Strong. Strength relates to Nicotine intensity and Spice, but not necessarily profound flavor.

Cigars Attract Hot Women
Myth: While sexuality is used by many companies to lure customers to their products, this usually has nothing to do with the actual product. There are many companies that advertise and promote their cigars with attractive and/or scantily clad women - the implication being that 'these cigars attract women like this'.
Truth: Using sex and sexuality to sell cigars may get attention or momentarily make the product seem to taste better (see Emotional Taste Perception), but the effect is short lived.

Absolutes Depend
Myth: "This is the Best Cigar", "This brand must age _____ months/years" and any other Absolute Statements are typically wrong in the world of luxury tobacco.
Truth: Everything in the world of luxury tobacco DEPENDS on one variable or another. Every batch, type, and crop of tobacco leaf is different. There are no Absolute time periods for growing, fermentation, or aging. There are no Absolute ways to quantify or qualify taste. There are absolutely no Absolutes in luxury tobacco: Everything Depends...

Maduros Are Stronger
Myth: Dark Maduro wrappers give consumers the impression that Maduro cigars are stronger.
Truth: While Maduros undergo a longer Fermentation, they do not increase in strength, rather they become richer and a little sweeter, as the sugars develop.

Perfect Consistency
Myth: Perfect Consistency Exists.

Truth: It is impossible to create a perfectly consistent cigar and blend from one batch to another, much less from one crop/year to another. In addition, it is impossible to construct every cigar perfectly. The nature of handmade cigars requires some deviation. It is OK for a cigar to burn a little crooked and for cigars to taste a little different from batch to batch. In fact, the human senses cannot taste or smell perfectly, so we would not even recognize Perfect Consistency if it were possible.

Perfect Consistency is more likely to be found in the wine and/or spirits industry where the final product is a liquid. Liquids are much easier to measure, rate, and blend, so the final product is more likely to be consistent.

Lost & Found [Cuban] Tobaccos
Myth: The classic marketing story about a long lost batch of perfectly conditioned tobacco being discovered and used to create a 'once in a lifetime' cigar.

Truth: The 'Truth' is hard to find in this case. Discovering the how, what, when, and where of a 're-discovered' tobacco is difficult, if not impossible to prove.

Cuban Cigars Are "The Best"

This is the mother of all cigar myths, probably because it was true decades ago and can occasionally seem true today. Cuba is the birthplace of great tobaccos, seeds, and cigars, but time has moved us forward. Great Tobacconists and Consumers everywhere know that our 'Cigar Renaissance' exists mostly because of the efforts and products created by those outside of Cuba. Today, claiming that 'I only smoke Cubans' or 'Cuban cigars are the best' is the last bastion of ignorance, uneducated pompousness, or extreme prejudice; and of course, taste is subjective.

Romanticism plays a big part in the world of luxury tobacco. It is a romantic process to smoke a great cigar; sitting back watching the smoke, smelling the aromas, tasting the notes of flavor, and savoring your time. Luxury tobacco is inherently sensual and romantic. But real romance and pleasure need no embellishment. And the actual magic and wonder of luxury tobacco is enough, without the myths and lies. Enhanced appreciation requires Enlightenment, and that requires The Truth.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

University Means University

As we see it, the function of a University is to TEACH, LEARN, & RESEARCH, which is precisely what we do at Tobacconist University. In that process we are endeavoring to support Retail Tobacconists (B&M) and Preserve Luxury Tobacco For Generations To Come. Our educational platforms are absolutely free to consumers, Tobacconists, and the rest of civilization. In addition, we do not accept or allow any advertising, nor do we sell any products. Our Vision is to set the highest Standard of Excellence in Product Knowledge, Appreciation, and Professionalism throughout the Luxury tobacco industry. Our Mission is to Educate & Certify the most knowledgeable and honorable tobacco connoisseurs in the world. We even have a Code of Ethics & Standards for our Certified Tobacconists, and we expect it to be honored, or else...

All of this is completely new to our industry and it usually takes people a while to comprehend what we are doing: 'invest in education?', 'train Tobacconists?', 'what is a Tobacconist?', etc... Many people can't even pronounce the word Tobacconist, much less understand its significance. The reason it has taken over a decade to get to this point is because we are serious about our profession, industry, and building credibility. Tobacconist University is a value-proposition for a new generation. Perhaps it is the confluence of smoking-bans, hyper-taxation, and societal condemnation that requires such a distinctive institution. Or maybe it was long overdue: the first Sommelier organization did not open in America until 1954. Regardless of the reasons, OUR TIME HAS COME. We are currently Certifying Tobacconists through our Pilot Programs in over twenty States; and our growth will be organic and exponential.

With that said... I would like to officially proclaim my disdain with any company, either manufacturer, distributor, or retailer, who uses the words "College" or "University" in their name or web domain to lure customers while offering little or no substantive education. This shameful ploy has become more prevalent in our industry and it is truly disingenuous.

Every great Tobacconist I have ever known has sacrificed income and time to pursue their own passions, and then shared of themselves without hesitation. I can promise you that every Certified Tobacconist, including current Apprentices, have gone to extraordinary lengths to educate themselves and meet our highest standards; Standards which exist to honor this extraordinary industry and its consumers. In fact, a Certified Tobacconist, by definition [or default], is making sacrifices and giving of their time simply because it is the right thing to do: there is no paycheck or product at the end of our journey. Certification is the manifestation of great passion and conviction! So, rather than just condemn greedy, shady, and disreputable merchants, I would like to personally congratulate all of our current, past, and future Certified Tobacconists for 'walking the walk'. Ultimately, when we say we are Certified, it means something; and we are called Tobacconist University because that says it all.

"The great aim of education is not knowledge but action"
- Herbert Spencer

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Fundamentals First: Products & Customers

It sounds simple enough, "Fundamentals First", but it is paramount to success. My favorite cigar maker quote is from none other than Jose Orlando Padron; the simple translation is 'you must crawl before you walk, and walk before you run, if not you will fall on your face'. Truer words have never been spoken, in my humble opinion.

Sr. Jose Blanco has his 5 Keys To Retail Tobacconist Success, and I think those are powerful and accurate. But I also think Tobacconist success can be distilled further into only two necessary fundamentals: PRODUCTS & CUSTOMERS. Focus on Products, Focus on Customers and you will never fail. Those are the two fundamental principles for success: PRODUCTS & CUSTOMERS. That's all you need to know. Now, get to work....

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Personal Disclaimer

People often seem disappointed when they meet me.

I'm not that tall, skinny, or good looking ( I peaked around 18). To make matters worse, I'm hairy like a Cuban Gorilla (if there is such a beast) everywhere but where I have started to go bald. But that is only the beginning.... I started the business plan for my first retail Tobacconist at the age of 19 and opened it in 1995, at the age of 21. I was so 'green' when I first opened that I would fumble money at the register and drop things. I remember vividly how customers would walk in, chat me up, then realize I was the owner; their eyes and facial expressions said it all. It was almost as if people were disgusted. The negative reaction customers had to my youth was so bad that I didn't shave for years; I would do anything to look older, just to avoid the uncomfortable moments. During those initial years I was very defensive and had a lot to prove - insecurities which would eventually lead to the creation of Tobacconist University (a.k.a. Cuban Cigar University in 1996).

The composition of this picture (circa 1995) says it all: I am a man dwarfed by a customer in a half empty humidor.

Sadly, when I think of the "President" of Tobacconist University, I envision an older gentleman with grey hair, maybe a beard and glasses, or someone more rugged like a seasoned cigar maker. Perhaps this is what you have imagined....

Actually, the ignorance and idealism of youth have worked to our favor. When I started working on TU full-time over five years ago I knew it was 'now or never'. The effort is Herculean and only someone in their twenties could conceive of it. I promise you Blood, Sweat, and Tears have been shed for this University. And I don't think I would agree to do it all over again. But the hardest part of the development, research, personal funding, writing, travel, documenting, filming, programming, networking, learning, reading, un-returned phone calls and emails, and 100 hour work weeks is behind us now. Most of that was lonely and highly disciplined, thankless work. Fortunately, the worst is over and a very strong foundation has been laid for decades worth of development and progress. Cheers to that....