With just seven staff, Maori Tabacs has created a hotspot for lovers of Cuban cigars in Andorra – a little tobacco-lover’s wonder in the microstate hidden away between France and Spain. The fact that there are special conditions with regard to tax in the non-EU state and that bargain hunters of luxury goods will find ideal conditions here fall well short of explaining this success.
It can, rather, be traced back to an early brilliant business idea on the part of José María Cases. Decades ago he set up a factory in his homeland to wrap cigars in cellophane for the first time and thereby increase their chances of surviving outside a humidor. “I started this as a trial for the reasonably priced José Piedra, which I discovered in Cuba for the European market,” he says.
As a transit country we have adapted perfectly to the needs of our customers.
The president of Maori Tabacs, who was born in 1942, long ago handed the operational business over to his son Ricardo, but it was José María’s creative strength as an entrepreneur that set the decisive course for the company. “At the end of the 1960s I took over as Habanos representative for Andorra, and in 1975 I set up a small office in Cuba,” he says. “This enabled me to cut out the middle man in Madrid.” José María Cases did not deal solely in tobacco, but positioned his company on a broad base. It was a wise decision. “When the iron curtain came down in 1989,” he explains, “and the sugar island found itself in danger of sliding into ruinous shortages, I was among the five European businesses that were there right at the start and supplied Cuba with the goods it needed to survive, including dealing with tobacco farmers who needed pesticides and fertilizers.”
Cases’ friendship with Heinrich Villiger, who today represents the 5th Avenue empire, Germany’s exclusive Habanos distributor, dates back to this time. Cases says of Villiger, “Alongside Nicholas Freeman of Hunters & Frankau in London and the Lévy family from Geneva, he preceded me as the decisive trendsetter for the quintet of European pioneers who stirred things up in Cuba’s tobacco industry.”
Cases proudly shows me the certificate with which Cuba honored him for his 25-year-long business relationship with the country. In 1999, this was joined by the coveted Hombre del Habano trophy. “That comes from the time when we had opened our Casa del Habano and then, a bit later, The Cigar Shop.”
The latter quickly became established as the top specialist tobacco shop, which trumps anywhere in Europe with the biggest and best stocked walk-in humidor. Anybody stumbling across the personal photos with Fidel Castro while flicking through Cases’ Cuba album will understand that his lively business acumen has always been accompanied by deep human sympathy.
“As Andorra’s exclusive Habanos distributor we are proud to be able to supply more than 200 reference products for the ten biggest specialist dealerships. Even ten years ago, we surpassed what was on offer from the leading Habanos markets of Spain and France,” states Cases, who enjoys smoking Cohibas and has a private collection of 400 humidors. In Andorra no counterfeit goods ever cross the counter – and that with a considerable distribution network of 500 customers, with whom Maori Tabacs works.
The exemplary service philosophy of the family firm guarantees that every cigar is sold to the customer vacuum wrapped, if desired. “As a transit country we have adapted perfectly to the needs of our customers,” opines Cases, adding with pleasure, “In spite of the financial crisis, we were able to maintain our sales figures at a pleasing level.” And that in spite of the fact that crisis-plagued Spaniards constituted 75 per cent of their customers.
“French cigar lovers are our second most important clientele group. Since they can buy goods at around 30 per cent cheaper than at home, we continue to do good business with these direct neighbors.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2014. Read more