started as a partnership over 40 years ago, combining one man's desire to deliver fresh, hand rolled cigars with another's ambition to build a solid future for his family in America, has blossomed into an international business. Today, Puros de Armando Ramos, Ltd., is on the cutting edge of high-end cigar production as well as agricultural experimentation with tobacco, often importing seed and developing hybrid strains on its home turf in Ecuador. More often than not, the resulting innovative blends resonate with consumers. On the business side, the company is equally innovative, producing over one million cigars per year and maintaining a thriving private-label business while diligently forging new frontiers-not only in tobacco experimentation but in tobacco enjoyment as well.
"We're small enough where we can still have fun in this business," says Paul Magier, company president and co-founder with the now legendary Armando Ramos, who at 86 still watches and tastes nearly everything coming out of the company's Guayaquil, Ecuador-based factory. Its U.S. base is in Woodbridge, N.J. and Ramos continues to pledge to "put his hands and heart in every cigar," although today their cigars are going further and further from home as, among other things, they're aiming at international markets and emerging countries such as China to supplement their strong North American base.
In 1964, Magier and Ramos assembled a consortium of Cuban-born rollers from the New York City-metro area and opened a storefront rolling shop in New York. A political refugee from Cuba, Ramos had some 30 years of rolling experience in the Cifuentes/Partagas factory in Havana. Magier, an advertising industry creative veteran with stints at industry heavyweights Benton & Bowles and Saatchi & Saatchi, joined Ramos in 1995, sharing the vision of delivering fresh-rolled cigars and still oversees sales, marketing, and strategic functions for the steadily evolving company.
While his Madison Avenue experience gave him exposure to the high-stakes, fast-paced world of blue-chip marketing, could he apply those lessons learned to a start-up company in a tradition-laden industry? Twelve years later, the answer is a resounding yes.
Eventually the partners closed the retail cigar shop to instead focus on serving retailers and today they breed, grow, age, blend, and roll tobacco, producing some of the most unique cigars in the marketplace. "At that time I was filling up the trunk of my car and driving across the northeast to deliver them to retailers," notes Magier, who adds that he designed the original cigar bands himself and, after printing them off his desktop computer, had his children cut them out with scissors. He also assembled the cigar boxes in his garage during the early days when every sale was crucial.
|Inside the Ecuador factory (from left to right), Paul Magier, president; Armando Ramos, founder; Luis Ramos, grandson of Armando Ramos; and Carlos Aray, president of ArmaPuros Leaf Production.
But the lessons he learned in hand-to-hand marketing were not wasted and in fact served to expand his education as they provided key communication periods with retailers-the very individuals who would prove vital to getting their cigars into the hands of customers. The retail cigar business is a tough environment to break into-it's clearly a case where many are called but few are chosen. Getting onto tobacconists' shelves can be challenging and those who survive almost always demonstrate perseverance, imagination, and a good partnership which provides the foundation for potential success.
When the company decided to close their New York factory and move production to Ecuador in 2000 , it was considered a radical move in the industry. "There's a long tradition of growing wrapper in Ecuador, but no cigar culture there," says Magier, who makes six to eight business trips a year to the country.
With essentially no experienced cigar workers available in Ecuador, the factory relied on expertise from personnel imported from Cuba and Honduras. Like the tobacco they use, much of the original crew was handpicked by Armando while equipment, such as molds, was purchased from other companies that could not make a go of it in Ecuador. Today they cultivate some 40 hectares of tobacco farmland; annually process about 400,000 pounds of tobacco; have 60 rollers making cigars; operate their own cigar box factory; and have begun exporting to emerging-market countries such as China.
"China has an emerging middle class with some expendable cash for the fist time in its history," says Magier. "We have a small distribution channel there. They wanted a cigar for member-only private clubs in Shanghai." The brand is called Lucky 8 as eight is considered to be the most desirable number in Chinese gambling legend. The 6 x 60 cigar features an Ecuadorian Cameroon wrapper. It is scheduled to be introduced in the U.S. market as the first cigar with this unique wrapper at the 2007 RTDA trade show. It will retail for about $6 and be available only in tobacco shops.
To this day however, what they grow on their "experimental farm" remains strictly for use by Ramos who is producing an "endless variety" of hybrids and cross-breeds that can often trace their origin to Cuban, Connecticut, and Sumatran seeds. Its Hoya de Pantano is a wild-grown tobacco cultivated on select acreage near the swamps of Babahyo. Its South American Cameroon is described as a thicker, more robust version of its African cousin while its Ecuador Corojo is smoother and more refined than Central American varieties. The Criollo Maduro is a sun-grown Criollo seed displaying a unique intensity. With the ECU Connecticut, these make up the "Flagship Line." While not quite a mass-market cigar manufacturer-and if the company has its way it will never become one-the Ramos product line is generally admired by retailers and smokers alike, appreciating its special attributes in a world of look-alike, taste-alike offerings.
Magier and Ramos' partner in the farming and breeding operation in Ecuador is Carlos Aray, whose grandfather was the first to grow cigar tobacco in Ecuador commercially. Aray's father carried that forward through the development of Ecaudorian Sumatra and Connecticut. Today, Carlos is a full partner in the Puros de Armando Ramos operation with total control over the experimental plantation. There, the company creates new cultivars-such as South American Cameroon, Ecuador Corojo, and Criollo Maduro-and conducts all of its leaf production including tobacco planting, growing, and processing. While some tobacco is sold to a number other larger cigar manufacturers, Puros de Armando Ramos keeps the most unique and exclusive tobaccos for its own cigar production.
|At the Ramos farm in Guayaquil, Ecuador (left to right): Fred Lockwood, publisher, Smokeshop magazine; Puros de Armando Ramos partner Carlos Aray; factory manager Don Filipe; and farm manager Lupe Ramos.
"Armando Ramos cigars have a distinct, definitive taste," says Harry Hunt, proprietor of Captain Hunt Tobacconist in San Diego's Seaport Village and a 19-year retail veteran who deals largely with a tourist trade. "They're well constructed and generally full bodied."
Every cigar is draw-tested before capping and each is "unconditionally guaranteed." They hand bunch and roll cigars in both the "booking" and "entubar" methods. They manufacture toro, Churchill, belicoso, robusto, and gordo sizes and are introducing six new products at this year's RTDA. New for 2007 has been the Quadrado, a box-pressed cigar offered at bundle pricing. It's blended from eight-year aged fillers and binder with an Ecuador-Sumatra wrapper. "We pay a lot of attention to what the retailer wants in a new product," says Magier. "We're very attentive to every detail."
Ramos' sales representatives are armed with brochures and samples when they introduce a new product. The company also promotes itself by trade-publication advertising, sponsoring local tastings and events and generally supporting the retailer in every sensible way. "Driving business to the store creates a better environment for the both of us," says Magier. "We're not interested in solely promoting our company. We want to promote the retailer too." Ramos has a captive sales force of three representatives plus various independent agents stationed across the country. "Independent reps often have a lot of good connections with retailers. We like to let them work their connections."
Drawing on his marketing background, promotion has always remained an active area for Ramos. Its private-label program offers five different blends plus an assortment of labels and packaging options including paper-wrapped, cedar-ply "dress boxes" as well as custom boxes made entirely to the customer's specifications.
Consider their Hecho Fresco experiment where it established a new U.S. rolling facility for the express purpose of rolling fresh cigars and quickly distributing them to retailers nationwide. While it represents only a tiny facet of the company's work, the program illustrates the partner's ability to "think differently."
"The Hecho Fresco concept is utterly unique," noted Magier. "We brought some of our best, most experienced rollers from the factory in Ecuador, along with a collection of our very finest Ecuadorian tobaccos. We're rolling to order, vacuum packing the cigars in dated wheels of 50 right off the tables, and shipping them to our customers the same day." To further ensure that the cigars offered by retailers are truly fresh, the company only ships a maximum one-week supply.
"As anyone who has attended an in-store rolling event or visited a small rolling shop knows, smokers love fresh-rolled cigars," notes Magier. "While aged cigars have their virtues, the aroma, burn, and flavors of a cigar fresh off the roller's table offer an appeal all their own."
In days past, smokers would stop by their favorite roller's shop, pick up a few fresh smokes and maybe a box to lay down for aging. Today, this particular pleasure is rarely available outside of South Florida or a few other select areas. And in-store rolling events by big manufacturers are a nice attraction but only last a day or two.
"There is a special magic to have come so far and grown so much, and then return to just what we were doing 40 years ago," says Ramos. Hecho Fresco cigars are available in Suave, Mas Fuerte, and Quatro Ligero blends, in robusto, Churchill and torpedo shapes.
It's not all about business at Ramos, however. Back when the company was buying most of its tobacco from Nicaragua, it took the unusual step of buying land and building houses in outside of San Ysidro, Nicaragua for a local farmers co-op. About 100 houses were constructed as part of the process, dubbed Calle Paul Magier.
"We're truly a boutique cigar company. We really do follow the beat of a different drummer and do not want to forget where we've come from," says Magier before noting that his firm now also does a great deal of private-label work for some of the "biggest names" in the industry. He expects this end of the operation to grow through 2008 with larger cigar companies submitting custom-label orders. "We've been very lucky," says Magier. "We've been able to grow into who we've always wanted to be which is not another cigar company but first-class nonetheless."
Puros de Armando Ramos, Ltd., 109 Green Street, Woodbridge, NJ 07095, Tel: (732) 634-4771, Fax: (732) 634-4767.