This last week we had the honor of interviewing Jon Huber of Crowned Heads. For those of you who don’t know, Crowned Heads is a company formed by former key players from CAO. When CAO was acquired by Scandinavian Tobacco Group in 2010 many of the old guard left the company to find their fortunes elsewhere, amongst that exodus were Jon Huber, Mike Conder, Michael Trebing, and Nancy Heathman, who went on to start Crowned Heads.
Since then the folks at Crowned Heads have been busy and hard at work to get their company operational and their first line out to the market. They wanted to do it right so they took their time and found the perfect partner for their first release, Ernesto Carrillo. The rest as they say is history, Crowned Heads and Ernesto Carrillo came out with Four Kicks and it has been gaining steady popularity and high praise from the public and the new media outlets ever since. So without further introduction our interview with rising star Jon Huber of Crowned Heads:
Cigar Brief (CB): What do you see the role of your company being in the current market place?
Jon Huber (Jon): I feel that Crowned Heads is a cog in a large wheel that continues to roll and gain momentum in the premium cigar industry; that is, the wheel of so-called ‘boutique’ brands. It’s all about a return to the basic values of quality, consistency, and customer service. As simple as they may seem, those three values seem so rare and infrequent in today’s business world. Our mission at Crowned Heads is to resurrect those values through the consistent quality of our cigars, and in how we take care of our retail partners.
CB: How would you describe your current lineup of cigars, and its niche in the market?
Jon: Our cigars (“Four Kicks”) are rich, balanced, medium in body, and full in flavor. We blended Four Kicks to be a flavor profile that can be appreciated by the novice smoker and seasoned cigar enthusiast, alike. I think that a ‘niche’ is something one carves out over time; since we shipped our first cigars in November 2011, I think it’s too early to say we’ve cultivated a ‘niche,’ per se. Right now, I’m just happy when I hear or read that someone’s tried and enjoyed our cigars.
CB: What were some of the challenges you faced when you switched from your role at CAO and Swedish Match/ STG to your new role at Crowned Heads?
Jon: That ‘switch’ was such a liberating feeling that I think it far overshadowed any ‘challenges’ I faced. It was a new lease on life and a chance at a ‘do-over.’ I suppose that in retrospect, if there were any real challenges, overcoming the association of being a part of CAO and carving out a unique and new position within the industry may’ve been a challenge. That said, I can honestly look back over the last 13 months and feel good that we were able to achieve just that. To be clear, I look back upon my 14+ years at CAO as a very special chapter in my life and I have fond memories of both my time there and the people with whom I was fortunate to work with. No regrets whatsoever. But I’ve moved along and the ‘new’ CAO has moved along, as well.
CB: Starting fresh and creating your own company from the ground-up in the industry must pose some unique challenges, especially in the current boutique saturated marketplace. What has been one of your greatest challenges to date?
Jon: The biggest challenge to us was finding the right ‘fit’ for us on the manufacturer level. From day one, Mike (Conder) and I agreed that the focus had to always be on the product–not the marketing, advertising, etc. I think the misconception is that creating a cigar brand is simple; you just contact the factory that’s making the cigars with the highest ratings, pick a blend and go. Contrary to that, we spent the first 6 months of Crowned Heads analyzing manufacturer opportunities, visiting factories, meeting with factory owners, and really finalizing where we would best fit in terms of going forward. It truly was time well spent as we could not be happier with where we are at (Tabacalera La Alianza, S.A.).
CB: Your first line “Four Kicks” came out to much acclaim and was a collaboration between you and Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. Can we expect your new lines for this year to be a continued collaboration between you and Ernesto again, or are you going to use different manufacturers for each line?
Jon: Working with Ernesto has been an amazing experience. I sum it up as saying that I earned my undergrad degree over the previous 14 years of my experience in the cigar industry, and now with Ernesto, I’m working on my graduate degree. I’ve learned a great deal about tobacco, selection, evaluation, processing, fermentation, and blending from Ernesto. On top of all that, he’s just a true gentleman and a good man. I know Mike would agree with me in saying that we wouldn’t want to work with anyone else. So to answer your question, yes we will continue working with Ernesto and Tabacalera La Alianza on Four Kicks and forthcoming projects.
CB: As a follow up to the question above do you have plans for a more vertically integrated company where you have your own factory and packaging operations or do you plan to keep in line with your current model?
Jon: During the early months of Crowned Heads, we explored the possibility of starting our own factory. We came to the conclusion that in order to do that properly, someone really needed to be at the factory 24/7/365. Mike and I both have strong family ties here and neither of us were ready to up and move to Nicaragua, Honduras, or the Dominican Republic. At the end of the day, we feel strongly that we have a great business model as it stands right now; that is, combining Ernesto’s 40+ years of experience with tobacco and cigar-making with our 40+ years of experience with the marketing-sales-branding side of the business.
CB: From your days at CAO what lessons or experiences have you learned from that shape your current approach to creating and maintaining brand consistency and loyalty?
Jon: What I took away from my previous years in the cigar industry was a firm belief in focusing on the quality of the product first and also in treating your customers as you would expect to be treated yourself. I also realized that it was important going forward to create an ‘umbrella’ company image under which we would have the freedom to create unique and different brands, as opposed to being locked-in to having to have every new brand have thematic consistency with the previous ones. Crowned Heads is like a band and Four Kicks is our first album/CD. The next release will ‘sound’ (look or taste) nothing like Four Kicks.
CB: What do you want a customer to walk away with after smoking one of your cigars?
Jon: If someone purchases our cigars–I’m grateful and would like to say ‘thank you’ for supporting our brand. If they enjoyed their experience with Four Kicks and feel they received not only their monies worth, but also had an hour or so of a relaxing and satisfying escape from their daily life, then I feel our mission was accomplished.
CB: Lastly, are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Jon: Mike and I are going to the factory with Ernesto this month to work on blending a new size extension to Four Kicks. This will be the fifth size in the line and we’re targeting an April/May release. We’ll also be continuing to work on a new blend that we’ve been playing with since last October. The blend is actually for the second Crowned Heads brand that will be released in 2013; however, our goal is to release one size of the brand this year at the IPCPR show in August. Production of this one size will be limited to approximately 25,000 cigars in 2012, and will be made available first to our original ‘starting 66’ locations we began with in November 2011.
We just want to thank Jon and the folks over at Crowned Heads for taking the time to talk with us and for helping us create the following contest below. Crowned Heads is an exciting company and one to watch out for this year as they expand their portfolio and customer base. We look forward to the months ahead as Crowned Heads continues their conquest of the cigar industry one smoker at a time. Read on to find out how you too, can win some Crowned Heads’ Four Kicks Cigars, XL shirt, and trucker cap.
*****Contest Rules & How to Enter: Entering the contest is simple. All you have to do is ask a question in the comment section and the best question will win a response from Jon Huber himself, and a four pack of the Four Kicks cigar, an XL shirt, and a trucker cap. You can enter as many times as you want, but only the most engaging and thought provoking question will win, so good luck! Contest ends on Saturday, February 10th, 2012****