A Personal Message from Steve
I wasn’t born into cigars, heck no one in my family even smoked cigars that I know of.
It is something I was introduced to while enlisted in the Navy in 1984 and just fell in love with. And down the rabbit hole I went hard… And when I say hard, you have no clue. I traveled to fields and factories on my own dime for over a decade, hosted 4-day long cigar events for over 300 people for no profit, wrote endlessly about, started with friends the very first handmade cigar blog just for passion, bought everything, smoked everything, and talked to every grower, cigar maker, company owner that would give me a moment. I was a sponge, I took it all in. I have hundreds of pages of amazing notes that I scrawled by hand: show me this, show me that, why this, why that from dozens of legends who I admired and still do. I was such an eager puppy.
In 1999, Lew Rothman, the former owner of JR Cigars, gave me my first real paying job in the cigar business. I can’t exactly say he was a mentor in the traditional sense of the word; it wasn’t like that with him, because he was always thinking and always sharing his thoughts – there was something to be learned every time he talked. The decade before I was cobbling together info from hundreds of people, but that was tobacco, factory operations and cigar information, whereas with Lew, it was about the business side: the marketing, the branding, the strategy… he was the MASTER – period – ask anyone who knows and worked with Lew, they will universally tell you he was a Genius with a capital “G” because he was and still is. I was a sponge there to… I just sucked it all up.
In 2005, Jonathan Drew and Marvin Samel asked me to join their small, but growing company, Drew Estate Cigars, as a partner and their President. To be blunt, at the time, it was a step down and for less money. What a mess we were, so beyond our skis and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, but they gave me the power to really put into action all I had learned and experienced, yet with my “cigar geek” perspective. They gave me the reins to do many unique things and we all worked our asses off… The pace and the grind of it is really hard to explain to people who have never experienced it. Being in a start-up, growing out of control, burning cash quicker than you can borrow it, the battle royales, selling millions of cigars, yet always being on the brink of fiscal collapse, but we all kept working. We were shocking everyone in the industry, we went from this fledgling misfit of a company to become the #1 maker of cigars of in Nicaragua.
So when I decided to leave Drew Estate in 2013 it was no small decision.
We were finally not on the bankruptcy ledge, I had created the hottest brand in the market, Liga Privada, plus everything we were making was coming up golden. We could actually take a breath and enjoy our success a little – heck, we even started making some decent profit. Everything was looking beyond great and then out of the blue, I decided to leave.
There are many reasons why I made that decision. It felt right to me, it felt like “it was just time”. Both Marv and JD being my friends tried to talk me out of it: ‘Why leave? Look at all the amazing work we have accomplished as a team, plus we are finally making money. You know how hard it will be to start over again, you know how tough this business is, you know it isn’t the way those from the outside looking in think it is.’
They were right, I knew they were right, and honestly I don’t know if there is enough time left in my life to ever achieve as much as I did when I was part of the DE family. There is still a place in my heart for Drew Estate that will never be filled from my departure.
Of all the reasons for choosing to depart there was however one in particular: I was inspired by a farmer in the Jalapa Valley who had said to me offhandedly the year before, “It is better to be the head of a rat, than the tail of a lion”… those very words just kept rattling around in my skull and they felt right in my heart even though I knew it was a terrible decision for my career and for the quality of my life. Like I said, it was just time.
For what it is worth, this may be one of the very rare times a cigar company principle actually left on their own accord, not pushed out with some nonsensical PR story to save some face. Nobody in their right mind gives up being the CEO of a Cigar Company like Drew Estate in 2013. But I wanted to do something that was 100% my own, to make every decision about the leaf, the blends, the brands, the way the business was run and how we interacted with our customers. I wanted to put everything I had learned into creating my dream of “Puros Sin Compromiso”. So at 50 years old I wanted to start from scratch: no investors, no debt, no endless meetings with bankers, accountants, attorneys or marketing people and no partners other than my beloved wife, Cindy Saka.
6 years in… I know for the outside, we look like we are crushing it and yes, we are doing well, but not to the scale everyone assumes. We remain a small family company and burning the candle non-stop at both ends. We honestly have no life, only work. So much work and so many challenges it is impossible for me to even explain it to people, like I said, you cannot comprehend it if you haven’t had the start-up experience for yourself.
I am not complaining or asking for sympathy. I chose this and I knew it was going be difficult because I understand our business. I know how hard it is and right now with the level of competition, the market trend of consolidation, the continuing slow collapse of so many retail accounts and FDA regulation it is arguably the worst field of play ever in our industry.
Yet I know if we keep working, doing our best, treating our product and our customers with the respect they deserve… not pandering, but real respect, we have the potential to become something really substantial… not JR Cigar substantial, not Drew Estate substantial, but maybe “Head of a Rat” substantial.
So recently while reading a social media cigar group, I saw this question: “What was your first brand that you really fell in love with?” After adding my own answer of “Arturo Fuente”, I began reading the replies of others and I came upon a one from an unknown consumer who posted: “I’ve been smoking for 22 years and when Dunbarton came out that was love on a whole new level.”
Wow… you have NO IDEA how this made me feel.
This is exactly why I decided to walk away from being at the top of the mountain and to start climbing from the bottom, why I am going to keep grinding and why I pour all of my energy, time and love into our cigars. I wanted to make the best cigars possible, cigars for experienced smokers who not only can tell the difference, but can appreciate it. It is very unlikely I will get rich at this, but not everything even in business can be measured in dollars.
I really cannot express how deeply honored I felt when I read this gentlemen’s reply other than to pen this off the cuff, rambling message with the hope that it may convey my immeasurable gratitude to everyone who supports our small family company and my work.
And finally, please know I will never take your patronage for granted and that I will do everything I can to honor our customers with the respect they so graciously afford us – thank you!
Always smoke the best, smoke DTT!
Ps: And yes, it is true: I have personally smoked over 100,000 handmade cigars and I pour that experience into the soul of every cigar I craft.