Regis Broersma was named President of General Cigar Co. back in 2015 and since his appointment the company and its iconic brands have undergone a youthful, exciting reinvention. In part 1 of Tobacco Business‘ feature on Broersma [read here], we explored his background in the tobacco industry. Now, we delve into his experience with cigars, his take on General Cigar’s portfolio of products and prediction for the cigar industry in the years to come.
Tobacco Business: You’ve worked in six countries. How do cigar markets compare globally? What have you learned from your international market experiences?
Regis Broersma: Having worked now in the U.S. (two times), the Netherlands (two times), the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Germany, the United Kingdom and Denmark, I have experienced the differences in consumer taste preferences and the way they are drawn to certain brands. Basically the difference with the U.S. is that many of the brands on the market have been made just for the U.S. market. In markets where Cuban cigars have been readily available, the consumer preference has shifted. In a market like Germany, the trends are very clear: Honduran, Dominican and Nicaraguan brands are winning against Cuban brands.
What I have learned most from my international experiences might not surprise you: Every country has its own uniqueness, its own culture, its own way of communicating and its own sense of design, brand connection and taste profile. What works for a Czech might not work for a German or for a Brit. With handmade cigars, we are in a unique position that we can tailor our cigars to those local needs, like we do in the U.S. I learned to adapt; I learned to listen and not presume that what works in one country will work in another.
Broadly, what do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for the company? The biggest opportunities?
I’m Dutch, so I’m very direct. That said, I’ll start with the elephant in the room. The FDA is a challenge, for us and for the entire industry, but the tobacco industry has always had challenges and opportunities. Considering our leadership position in the category, we believe that if we were to give up, the industry would decline. We’re certainly not going to let that happen. Compliance is vital, and with our resources, the risk is mitigated. We are in a very unique position, having a vast library of amazing blends released before the predicate date of [Feb. 15, 2007]. We are focused on surprising and delighting our retail customers and consumers, and by doing so will ensure an exciting future for the category.
Brick-and-mortar is a focus for us. This is an important point of consumer entry into the category, and we are intent on creating and enhancing our partnerships with retailers to support the sale of our cigars. It’s not just about selling a cigar into a shop—
it’s about putting the right programs in place to drive consumer pull at the retail level.
There is a lot of opportunity to flex our marketing muscle and to leverage the people we have on the street: sales, marketing and brand ambassadors. I have empowered my team to respond to retailer needs and to make decisions that allow us to support the brick-and-mortar channel. Building partnerships with our customers and driving excitement among cigar smokers is something my entire team is tasked with doing.
As far as my goals for 2017 and beyond, as demonstrated at this year’s [International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association] (IPCPR) show, we are continuing to evolve the perception of General Cigar and are changing the way people see us. We’ve righted the ship and are no longer seen as the corporate giant people once thought we were. We’re taking risks and evolving our brands and our culture. It’s now about a one-to-one dialogue with our retailers and building connectivity with consumers. We’re now known as a partner, an innovator and [a company] that works to protect the future of the premium cigar business.
What is your approach to reaching consumers who are continually bombarded with marketing messages?
The premium cigar business is built on relationships. This is true for retailers, and it is equally true for consumers. In this category, cigar smokers want personal connections to the brands they smoke. When a consumer goes into a cigar shop and is surrounded by a sea of brands, people make the difference. So we have recently made a significant investment by putting more people on the street to talk about our brands.
We assembled a group of people who embody the spirit of our brands and now have a team of seven brand ambassadors hitting cigar shops and special events. Each ambassador has a wide a range of experience in the category, yet all share a common trait: a true passion for our cigars. Rick Rodriguez was handpicked by Edgar Cullman Sr. to study under the legends of the business, including Benji Menendez, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Daniel Nuñez and Estello Padron. Yuri Guillen is the ambassador for La Gloria Cubana and studied under the very same tobacco men. He has been leading our cigar production for nearly 20 years and now spends one week every month at cigar shops across the country to spread the gospel of the brand.
Jack Toraño was practically swaddled in tobacco at birth and is our ambassador for Toraño. Sean Williams built his own cigar brand from scratch and has a serious passion for cigars. He’s also a consumer of all things luxury and is the perfect person to represent Cohiba. On Macanudo, we have Laurel Tilley, a dedicated cigar smoker [and] former cigar shop manager who can talk about everything from tobacco to motorcycles. Iris Hols is a refined lady who represents Macanudo in Europe and hails from our luxury Hajenius shop in Amsterdam. Rounding out the team is Justin Andrews, who has built his career in the cigar business and brings the hip millennial factor to the Time Flies and Diesel Grind brands.
We have taken the personal connection to another level by [ramping] up our collaborations with people who embody the ethos of our brands. Partnerships with Ernesto Perez-
Carrillo for La Gloria Cubana [and] A.J. Fernandez for Hoyo deepen the connection to our brands, and Benji Menendez’s influence on Rick Rodriguez was the catalyst for creating CAO’s Amazon Trilogy.
What do you think the cigar market will look like in five years?
I believe there will be consolidation in the marketplace, and the companies that consistently make quality cigars that meet retailer and consumer needs and build and support their brands will continue to thrive. It’s all about brand equity and being relevant. GCC will assure that.
– Story by Jennifer Gelfand / Photos by Robb Scharetg
This story first appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.