Grass-roots approach

| November 6, 2016

Don’t be too surprised if you get a visit from General Cigar’s president, Regis Broersma

By Stephen A. Ross

Since November 2015, there’s been a revitalization around the Richmond, Virginia, headquarters of General Cigar Company. The presence of that energizing rebirth is made all the more intriguing because the catalyst, General Cigar’s new president, Regis Broersma, is often away, traveling to the company’s three factories and traversing the United States  visiting premium cigar shops everywhere—diving into the trenches, so to speak, and talking about the cigar industry and General Cigar’s brands with the retailers who sell them and the consumers who enjoy them.

dsc_0456-webConsider his first week on the job after the announcement that he would assume the presidency of General Cigar Company. Broersma visited retail shops in Chicago, New York City, Richmond and throughout the state of New Jersey. It was a whirlwind reintroduction to the American premium cigar business for the 39-year-old Dutchman, who has been in the industry since 2002. Before returning to the U.S. last year, Broersma worked in the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Germany. Since his return to the U.S., Broersma has continued his intense education efforts, spending more time on the road than in the office.

“It’s a grass-roots approach,” Broersma admits. “I’m giving retailers a signal that we care about them. Brick-and-mortar retailers are extremely important for us because that is where consumers go and get the advice and make the selection about the cigars they want. I think we can be much stronger there, and that is where we can learn the most about what our consumers want. We plan to focus and invest to help our retailer partners grow their businesses.”

 

Broersma’s interest in getting out to speak to retailers and consumers is a refreshing change, which more CEOs in all manner of industries should adopt. It’s definitely been a change over the way General Cigar Company had been managed in the years immediately preceding Broersma’s promotion to president.

ftc-web“In the past it was more of a top-down approach,” Broersma comments. “Now we are basically going in the complete opposite direction. We’re listening to what the consumers and retailers want, and we’re empowering our brand managers to tailor our products to fill those demands. The shackles are off now, and we’re going to be seeing some great innovations from our brand managers.”

Normally, taking a tour of the General Cigar Company booth at the IPCPR show is always a fun endeavor. There’s usually a plethora of new products available for the company’s stalwart brands—Macanudo, Cohiba, Dunhill, CAO and Torano, among others. But this year, the excitement seemed a little more intense—and honest—than in previous years. To be sure, some of the intensity could be attributed to successfully reaching the finish line for introducing the new products before the Food & Drug Administration’s Aug. 8 substantial equivalency deadline, but it was more than that. The brand managers—folks like Rick Rodriguez, Ed McKenna and Michael Giannini—feel enthused and empowered that they are getting the support they need to drive their brands forward.

“I think we have a lot of great faces who can activate our brands and create stories,” Broersma says. “I’m not an expert on these cigars yet, but we have a lot of people who are. That’s part of the cultural change that is happening in our company now. People have freedom now. They can listen to the consumers and react. It doesn’t have to go through me. They are free to do what they think is best because I trust them.”

 

And this year, the output has been amazing. CAO is bringing back a classic cigar with a new name in Consigliere. There’s Partagas’ tribute to tobacco legend Ramon Cifuentes with the release of the Ramon y Ramon. There’s a new luxurious presentation for Cohiba with the release of Macassar. Macanudo is adding Mao, using vintage seeds that were in cold storage for years. And Foundry is continuing its heritage of innovation with the release of Time Flies.

dsc_0581-web“The new direction is exhilarating,” says CAO blender/ambassador Rick Rodriguez. “We have the large resources of a company the size of General Cigar, but we’re encouraged to give our brands a boutique feel. Regis and Alan [Willner, General Cigar Company’s vice president of marketing] are encouraging us more than ever to listen to the consumers and encourage them to tell us what they want.”

Gus Martinez, director of marketing for Macanudo, agrees. “This is a relationship business, and it’s important to have a humble approach to the products you’re introducing to the market. Without your consumers you have nothing, so their input is vital to the success of our brands. It means a lot to all of us to be given the sense of ownership for these brands but, at the same time, have the backing of the larger company and its vast resources behind you. Regis is a cigar guy and he’s an ambassador for all the brands. It’s an exciting time to be a part of General Cigar Company.”

Innovation has always been much more than just introducing new products to the market, and that is even more true since the FDA’s Aug. 8 deadline has come and gone. To gain an edge, cigar companies are going to have to work all the harder to keep the market fresh. They’re going to have to dig deep into their employees’ creative reservoirs to find ways to make their products rise to the top. Thankfully for General Cigar, Broersma has been thinking along those lines for some time now.

“A lot of things are already being worked on,” Broersma says. “We will see some great innovation beginning soon. For example, there will be keystone margins. We will support the brands more. We want our sales reps to work with retailers, and if something isn’t working out in their humidor, we will help them rotate it out and replace it with something else. These are things we have discovered talking to our retailers. Our sales representatives are there to share our insights, opportunities and take care of any issues that they may have. They have the real day-to-day experience of working in a cigar shop. I want us to be credible partners with them. Our philosophy is to make it happen. That is the way to go.”

Since taking over at General Cigar Company, Broersma has seen hard evidence that the new policies are paying off. More retailers are buying into the philosophy. Rather than take the credit, Broersma is quick to spread it to the entire General Cigar team.

img_5818-web“Alan took care of the company for three months, and quite a lot of things had improved,” Broersma says. “We know the direction we want to go. Our brands are strong, but there is room to make them stronger. General Cigar is in a very good position. I have heard retailers say that they weren’t open about General Cigar in the past but that they are changing their minds. If they have a problem, we will help them. We have the knowledge and we have to share it with our retail partners so they can make informed decisions.”

And he promises that, together with the retailers, General Cigar will continue to build stronger relationships.

“A lot of retailers are making more conscientious decisions about what they bring into their store,” he says. “We’re modest, but we have great brands and we want retailers to understand that these brands will fuel their overall growth. Right now, I think it’s important for me to get out to the shops and meet the retailers and consumers so they can get to know me. I give them my email address and encourage them to contact me if they have any  concerns. There are some great things to be excited about going forward, and I’m looking forward to working with our retailers in helping them succeed.”

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