“Truly the coolest smoking pleasure in my life was here at the North Pole.” Stephan Praetorius’ eyes shine as he shows me the photo as evidence. Against a bluish-green-glimmering ice giant, we see him on board an icebreaker accompanied by the wafts of smoke from his beloved Vegas Robaina. “I discovered the Vegas Robaina on one of my many visits to the tobacco island,” says the manager-in-chief, who has been steering Habanos Nordic AB on a successful course since 2003.
It is early morning, and we are sitting in the company’s headquarters in a suburb of Gothenburg. The exclusive distributor of Cuban cigars for northern Europe employs a staff of 13.
“Here in our warehouse we have, beyond doubt, the best-filled humidor in Scandinavia. We offer our customers a range of around 135 vitolas – that is practically the entire Habanos range,” says Praetorius. “Our market extends over 4,200 km – from Greenland via Iceland, Denmark and Sweden to Norway, Finland and on to the Baltic states.” Stephan Praetorius, formerly a manager at Häagen-Dazs, needs plenty of patience in the light of the strict rules within his small but fine empire. “The eight countries of our business territory have their own currencies and specific tax legislation.
In Finland and Iceland there is an absolute ban on tobacco promotion. We are required to manage a motley mix of warning signs, extending as far as shock images for Denmark. This is laborious, and for this reason I prefer to talk about the new market niches in the Baltic. We have three well-established Casas del Habano there. At the beginning of this year, we opened a branch and warehouse in Estonia. In Latvia and Lithuania, we work together with sub-distributors.” Praetorius concludes: “Our growth rate in Scandinavia between 2003 and 2013 amounts to an impressive 37% in volume.”
In the leather rocking-chair in his office, Praetorius adjusts his elegant Cohiba-design tie and adds, “It is not just excellent tobacco products that we sell, we also sell a lifestyle.” Habanos Nordic AB is operating in one of the most remote regions of our planet with considerable success, with the scientists fighting against the threat of the melting Pole just as delighted to have a regular supply of Habanos as many a NATO pilot on the Greenland base, and the cruise tourists who populate Greenland during the two-month summer season.
In the company’s warehouse, I am fascinated by a revolving mini-humidor made of Perspex, the design of which is based on an old-fashioned ship’s clock. “This vertical space-saving model is intended for the Holy Grail at the cash desks,” explains Praetorius. “In supermarkets, petrol stations and small tobacconists, Habanos in tubos sell particularly well. Because of the strict bans on advertising, the humidor is transparent.
In this way, the range of products is presented attractively to the customer.” The loud clicking of the machines in the warehouse that spit out an amazing variety of labels makes the huge problem of the different legislation in the marketing territory of Habanos Nordic all too clear. Pretorius uses outsourced labor to meet the latest challenge: sticking health warnings on by hand. Since 2013, warning notices must also be stuck on tubos in a number of Scandinavian countries. “In Sweden, 39% of our turnover is accounted for by cigars in aluminium tubes. Unfortunately, there are no machines that will do this work for us.”
Truly the coolest smoking pleasure in my life was at the North Pole.
That fake Habanos are of marginal significance for the Nordic market is demonstrated by Praetorius as we stand in front of the machine that applies a security code to each box, linked precisely to the invoice number. “In this way, we make life difficult for forgers. In addition, we have excellent contacts with the customs authorities. In the event of incidents, which mainly concerned the Baltic, we are contacted immediately and confiscate the fake goods.” Praetorius then invites me to the coffee lounge in the company headquarters, which does justice to Scandinavia’s reputation as a design stronghold. I’m surprised by an impressive cigar pillar in the black and yellow colours of the Cohiba.
I have never seen such an unusually styled corporate identity at any of the Habanos representatives’ between Hong Kong and Peru. When Stephan Praetorius enters the conference room with his staff for a photo under a mural sculpture with the legendary swords from the Montecristo emblem, the overall impression is perfect: at Habanos Nordic, esthetics are an entire concept.
Asked about his greatest challenge, Pretorius turns to his favourite topic, the cigar culture in Scandinavia, which he needs to develop further. “I’m thinking above all of clubs in the large towns for which we organize tastings and events. In Gothenburg, the Cigar Society collaborates with us to organize the annual cigar festival. Chris Solomou, from our most reputed retailer, Mellgren’s, is active there. The Habanos specialist has a 260-square-meter walk-in humidor with roughly 15,000 cigars, together with a luxury lounge for 30 people. The long-standing business dating from 1823 is well-positioned in the trade, since, alongside pipe tobaccos, it also has a national sales monopoly for Padrón cigars from Nicaragua.
“We are happy about retailers such as Brobergs in Gothenburg, which, as a Davidoff depository, sells increasing numbers of Habanos. In other shops, top quality coffee and chocolate are offered alongside Habanos in order to keep the balance sheet up.”
It is not just excellent tobacco products that we sell, we also sell a lifestyle.
Praetorius also insists on the importance of traditional gentlemen’s clubs. “Most of these have an elegant cigar salon, such as the highly reputed KC Kirjaclub Helsinki.”
And then the Habanos Nordic manager-in-chief comes to the real problem: “In our marketing territory, I can only name around 10 addresses where it is possible to smoke comfortably in public lounges.” The ban on the serving of alcohol is a limiting factor. “The revenue that this cost us, combined with the horrendous rents in city locations, put an end to our former Casa del Habano in Gothenburg.”
Stephan Praetorius was particularly delighted at the opening of the new Hotell Havanna. It boasts two cigar lounges and is located on an attractive sandy bay half an hour from Gothenburg.
As we enjoy a Northern Lights punch on the panorama terrace, Stephan Praetorius tells about a further impressive experience in Cuba over an Edición Regional 2009 petit robusto, a life-or-death struggle with a 100kg blue marlin that he caught on his line in the Marina Tarará just off Havana. “I fought for an hour and a half with a monster of a fish that reared up in front of me with such power,” remembers Praetorius. He then succeeded in towing the defeated predator into the port. “At that moment, all the bureaucratic obstacles in my Nordic Habanos empire appeared like administrative skirmishes, and I returned to Gothenburg with the feeling of having been reborn.”
KC Kirjaclub Helsinki
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2014. Read more