Alex Svenson: Hello Doug. Thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions today. Our readers may not be aware of your history and story, but it is an interesting one so I am happy you are willing to share it. Let’s dive right in. Being in the cigar business was not what you intended as you set out to start your career after college. How exactly does a music major find his way into the cigar industry?
Doug Wood: After graduation, I taught music in the Indiana public schools for five years. As much as I enjoyed it, growing up in a small town and teaching in a small town just did not offer any opportunities. I moved to Los Angeles in 1978 where I worked in motion and television production for eighteen years. I held a long-time interest in cigars and opened a lounge with actor George Hamilton named “Cigar Bar at Hamilton’s.” I hired musicians for jazz nights which kept me involved in the music scene.
AS: How did you end up teaming up with cigar master Carlos Torano Sr.?
DW: I have known Carlos for well over twenty years. He has been a mentor to me. He taught me not only about cigar production, but more importantly, guided me through the business part of the industry. That was very helpful in setting up my company. One distributor recently told me that my association with Carlos was the longest, successful affiliation in the industry. I guess most of our colleagues only last a couple of years before they part ways.
AS: Your brand is one of the few boutiques around during the boom that survived and is still as popular as ever. What was your secret to staying relevant in the market?
DW: The secret during the boom years is the same as it is today. You have to provide customers something that they can’t get from the corporate cigar giants. That something is the constant attention to detail. Even though our numbers were small, we took pride in the consistency of our cigars. It was a tough time early on but I was determined to succeed.
AS: Speaking of thriving when times are tough, after the new Federal Excise tax increase, when most cigar makers were forced to raise prices, you took a different approach and lowered yours. What was your philosophy?
DW: My cigars were always $6 to $8 when everyone else had pricing of $4 to $6. Because of the tax, everyone was raising prices. I saw this as a tremendous opportunity to occupy these lower price points which most makers would not be able to sustain. To compete, I decided to take a major hit in profit and simplify the packaging as much as possible. My hope was to earn the end consumer’s trust and loyalty even more so than before. It paid off as sales have spiked and continued to rise since the tax passed.
AS: Speaking of packaging, I see you are making another round of changes soon. The new designs you showed me are beautiful.
DW: Thanks. Yes, we are redesigning the Black Pearl line. To make the new price points work, we really had to pull back on the packaging. While it was successful, I think it took away from some of the iconic imagery the brand is known for. So we will be repacking Black Pearl in a traditional wrap set box. This will still allow me to maintain my aggressive price points but also fully take advantage of the brand’s look. The new packaging should start shipping later this year.
AS: Your new La Perla 1515 has been a huge hit. What can you tell us about the blend and the significance of this project?
DW: I’m glad that we were able to introduce La Perla Habana 1515. I’ve been planning this release for six years now with different presentations and finally decided on one last year. The label references the founding year of the capital city of Cuba. 2015 celebrates Havana’s 500th anniversary. I intend on adding more lines under the 1515 series featuring different profiles to commemorate this occasion. The blend is a knockout. It is one of the only cigars on the market to use both wrapper and binder from Ecuador.
AS: Is there anything else new you are working on that you can share with us?
DW: I’m sampling different cigars using a special Connecticut blend. I have been saving this blend for several years, waiting for the right opportunity. We’re putting the final touches on the graphics. I hope it will be ready for the holidays.
AS: Residing in the Beverly Hills area, you are also a member of the esteemed Grand Havana room which is arguably the most exclusive cigar club/ lounge in the country. Most people never get a chance to look inside. What is it like in there?
DW: The Grand Havana Room is truly a sanctuary for the cigar smoker. It is one of the few places in California that you can eat and smoke. Each member has a named humidor for cigar storage in one of two climate-controlled rooms. The main lounge includes a bar, casual seating areas, and tables for meals. There is also a private salon for dinner parties and card games. The membership list is kept confidential to protect the privacy of the associates. Each member has a key to access the club. Being in Beverly Hills, the roster includes many celebrities and business executives who enjoy a good smoke among like-minded aficionados.
AS: Where do you see the La Perla Habana Brand in 5 years?
DW: Five years goes by quickly. I think we will continue to add to our cigar portfolio making sure that every new line is the same high quality for which we are known. We were deliberate and somewhat cautious in introducing new cigars twenty years ago. We wanted to guarantee not only value and quality, but the support of our customer base. We continue to value everyday smokers because we are everyday smokers. We’ll never introduce a cigar that doesn’t meet the standard of La Perla Habana. That is the one way to assure continued success.
AS: Is there anything else you would like to add before we wrap up?
DW: I’m just grateful for all the loyal supporters we have. They’ve stuck with us through good times and bad over these past twenty years. Customer loyalty is perhaps easy to define, but the many variables that cause this allegiance is much harder to put into words. I simply appreciate our customer’s conviction.