NICK HAMMOND takes one for the team – and agrees to a cigar interview on an idyllic Caribbean beach. Tough job. But someone had to do it…
I’VE interviewed a lot of people, in a lot of places.
I’ve interviewed Prime Ministers in hockey stadia, Royalty in English Gardens, the homeless by the kerbside and the wartorn in Bosnia.
I’ve had good interviews, great interviews, bad ones and disasters (I was chased up the road, reversing my car as fast as I could, when one went spectacularly awry).
But interviewing Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard under awning on a Dominican beach (when I’m wearing only a pair of old swimming shorts, a T-shirt and some sunglasses) perhaps takes the biscuit.
What’s more, not only do I have the relaxed and amiable company of the head of multi-million dollar cigarmaker, Oettinger Davidoff, there’s a large open humidor on the table in front of us, stuffed with the finest smokes the Swiss-based company can offer. My only concern is, last night’s rum is still performing the Meringue in my stomach and I haven’t been able to contemplate breakfast.
‘This is breakfast!’ booms the great Dane with a laugh as he reaches for his first smoke of the day. What a guy.
I watched him closely yesterday at an event to celebrate Davidoff’s support for Caribbean artists at Altos de Chavon in the south east of the island.
Despite sweltering heat, he donned a suit and tie and performed a friendly meet and greet with artists, the charismatic art school curator, Stephen Kaplan, and even the students themselves, as well as a gaggle of international journalists, of which I was one.
He switched between English, German, French and Spanish mid-sentence with seeming ease and was never flustered, ill at ease or stuck for words. He’s a remarkable man and in the space of the last five years, has spearheaded a stratospheric change in direction for this venerable old tobacco company.
Later in the evening, as thunder cracked overhead and squalls of rain drove us indoors to a loud live band and drinks reception, he was on fine form; telling jokes and making sure the canapés from three-Michelin-starred Basel chef Peter Knogl reached me before they were all snaffled by dancing Dominicans.
Back to this morning, where pelicans glide against a cobalt sky and we lounge under linen. And talk cigars.
‘The company wanted to change direction slightly, to reflect the way the market had changed,” Hans-Kristian is telling me.
“Davidoff always had loyal consumers who loved the brand. But we needed to move our focus more from the product – the cigars, if you like – to the brand itself and what it really represents.”
Hoesjgaard was headhunted to lead the company into the light and he set about a restructuring and refocusing, which has seen extraordinary success in just five short years.
Traditionally known for its well made, but light and mild Dominican cigars (Davidoff’s association with Cuba ended in the early 1990s) the company has recently made its first foray into Nicaragua – a crucial step, as the country is fast becoming the eye of a New World cigar storm.
“We will never forget the Dominican Republic,” Hans-Kristian says with meaning. “We have significant operations and investments here and we remain committed to the island and its people. But the world market is changing and we are changing with it.”
Does this mean Cuba is back on the cards? Hans-Kristian has been surprisingly forthcoming about this too.
“Yes. We will go back,” he says simply.
“It may not be in the immediate future, but with such great raw material there, of course we’d be interested in returning in some fashion. Why wouldn’t we?”
Davidoff has also shifted significant reserves and attention to the Asian market in recent years – targeting its love of collecting and hoarding. The 2016 Year of the Monkey release is the latest in a line which has been aimed specifically at China. There is considerable interest in a previously untapped market here.
Davidoff’s slogan, Filling Time Beautifully, is a classic example of the small, seemingly simple steps, which have transformed the brand.
Davidoff is now selling a lifestyle, not just a cigar.
“Time is our most precious possession in today’s world,” says Hans-Kristian.“What we choose to do with it is important. That’s what we wanted to get across.”
It’s worked perfectly. Davidoff’s restructuring of old lines, the introduction of new ones and its considerable expenditure on marketing and packaging is reinforcing why people love a good cigar; for the camaraderie and the joie de vivre it proclaims; for the punctuation it adds to our life experiences; for the pause it offers in busy lives.
Once our interview is over, I dip my feet in the gentle waters and let the sun work on my winter-taught muscles. It won’t be long before there’s another chance to admire Mr Hoesjgaard at work – always with a smile and whenever possible, with a cigar.
Beats poring over annual reports in a Basel boardroom any day.