Cigar Weekly Interview with Chris Topper
Cigar Weekly: How long has Topper been in business?
Chris Topper: Topper started in 1896. I became CEO in 1997, after my father passed away. My father was president from 1962 to 1997, a little over 30 years.
CW: What changes has Topper seen in the last few years?
CT: The biggest difference is the onslaught of new smokers. In the early 90's we started seeing new smokers. Before that, it was a dwindling market. There was no Cigar Aficionado, no Cigar Weekly, Smoke Magazine. Nothing to draw in new smokers. There's a whole new market out there now because new people are smoking.
CW: How did you market your cigars before then?
CT: There were no new venues. You had an established clientele. My dad did as much as he could. Because it was a Connecticut cigar and we were in New England, that was primarily the draw.People in New England associate our name to a quality machine made cigar. They're not accustomed to seeing a 4-5 dollar price tag. The retailers will sometimes have to explain that we make both machine made and hand made cigars. We've been making hand made cigars for 80 years. So it's not like we're trying something new. But we had reps in different parts of the country. It was a different industry then. It was more difficult to open up new territories.
CW: Our readers have reviewed two of your hand made cigars. When did you come out with the Grande and the Centennial?
CT: The Centennial was launched in late 1995, just prior to our hundredth year. And the Topper Grande was around May of '97.
CW: Where are they made?
CT: The Centennial we import from the Dominican Republic. And the Grande we import from Nicaragua.
CW: Are you comfortable with the pricing ($4-5 dollars) of the Centennial and Grande?
CT: Yes. We try to keep them reasonable. The Dominican line should probably be more expensive that it is. Back when every shipment coming in was more expensive than the last shipment I didn't increase my margins. We try to keep them reasonable.
CW: Are you seeing a decrease in your costs at the manufacturing level for the hand made cigars?
CT: I see it leveling, based on the crops this year. The pressure is for manufacturers to have lower prices because there's a lot of product out there. We're paying more for tobacco and yet the pressure is to have a less expensive cigar.
CW: How much of your sales do the machine made cigars make up?
CT: Approximately 70% dollar-wise. 85% unit-wise.
CW: You have the Topper brand and also the Rosedale. How are sales on the Rosedale line?
CT: It not a big part of the business. It's an old brand from Hartford, Connecticut. Mostly in the Connecticut and Massachusetts area it's a strong brand. Other parts of the country it's a sleeper brand, not many people have heard of it. It's very similar to the blending of the Toppers. We use different percentages in the filler, but it's very similar.
CW: How are machine made cigars made?
CT: It's a short-filler. There's a binder layer and a wrapper layer that are put on by machine. There's a bin in the center of a machine where the filler comes down. The binder is rolled around the filler and then an arm pick up the cigar and puts it where the wrapper layer is laying and applies the wrapper. The machine takes it off and cuts the end.
CW: Is the binder homogenized?
CT: No. It's all natural. That's one thing that's helped our longevity. We've stayed with an all natural cigar. We didn't switch to homogenized binder in the 70's to save money like many of our competitors did.
CW: Is there any one cigar or line that sells substantially better than the others?
CT: There's three different sizes. The Breva, the Grand Corona and the Perfecto. Up until a few years ago the Breva was the sales leader and the Grand Corona was real close behind. After the review of the Old-Fashioned (in Smoke magazine) that is catching up.
CW: Is there as much skill involved in producing machine made cigars?
CT: Yes, there's still a lot of hand-on involvement. They're still working with the tobacco. They're using their hands to work with the tobacco, laying them on the machines and making sure everything gets set. Still a lot of skill and learning curve involved.
CW: How do you increase production with machine made cigars, do you think about adding more machines?
CT: It's certainly a big investment to add more machines. There are other options, whether to get a different type of machine. There are new machines that work differently. But, that's my cousins' business. They run the factory. I'm not involved in that part of it. We work together closely on scheduling how many cigars I'll get each year and what kind of increase I'll get.
CW: Do you ever see a point where you will only sell machine made?
CT: That remains to be seen. It depends on how the market goes over the next couple of years.
CW: How many retailers sell your products?.
CT: About 700.
CW: What do you do when you have a new retailer? What's your procedure for opening a new account?
CT: It will probably change this year. We almost had a waiting list this past year. We didn't need to do any special promotions. We just had to show up and people ordered cigars. Eventually that will slow down and there'll be a different way to approach it. We didn't aggressively look to open new accounts. We were growing as fast and as slow as possible.
CW: What kind of growth rate are you comfortable with?
CT: I'd say about 20%. Based on the first quarter I think we'll at least see that for the next couple of years. As long as we keep producing enough machine made. And I think our premiums will continue to grow as well.
CW: Do you have any plans to be involved in the Internet?
CT: By the end of this year we hope to have at least an informational web site. Mostly to service people to find the closest retailer.
CW: What's your take on the boom. Is it over?
CT: No, it's not over. There's still growth in the market. It will be a lot smaller growth. I'm still growing because I didn't have a cigar that was broadly marketed throughout the whole country.
CW: What has kept Topper around so long?
CT: A quality and consistent product.When my dad closed the factory in the early 60's the average employee age was 71. Then Cuban tobacco became illegal. That was his biggest challenge was changing from handmade to machine made. Switching to different blends from the islands. I travel around Connecticut and deliver product. That's about as old-fashioned as you can get. I get a lot of feedback from the retailers.
CW: What are you doing differently than your father did?
CT: The biggest thing is that we're going more national. What I wanted to get from the boom was for us to have a broader base when things level off. We're still working on it, we have bigger distributors on the west coast and some in the midwest.
CW: We've noticed that there are a lot more cigars in the stores now. Are you having trouble getting shelf space?
CT: I have some new sales reps that are probably having a harder time with the already existing customer base. The one good thing with our product, especially the machine mades is that it moves pretty quickly because it's so inexpensive. People aren't just buying a couple. Sometimes they're buying boxes at a time because it's affordable and they can do that. So it's something that has a fairly high turnover rate.
CW: Are you seeing any slowdown at the retail level?
CT: I see it slowing down. Mostly because of competition. 5 years ago in Connecticut you were lucky if there were 10 to 20 legitimate tobacconists. Now there's probably between 60 and 70. So I'm selling fewer to a lot more people.
Based on price, the machine made Connecticut broadleaf cigars are the cigars people are buying now. They want a cigar they can smoke everyday while saving the premiums for the weekend with their buddies. And that's where Topper comes in.
CW: Where do you see your focus in the future? With the premium hand made or machine made cigars? Do you thing the machine made will go through the same type of surge as the premiums did?
CT: Yeah, I think so. We're more known for our machine made cigars at this stage of the game.
CW: If there was one thing you could tell people as to the reason to buy Topper cigars over others, what would that be?
CT: Because of the Connecticut broadleaf, you get the taste of a 4 or 5 dollar cigar without paying that much. It's going to be a reasonable cigar. And you're going to get great flavor out of it. It's a great everyday smoke.
Another point I'd like to make is with machine made cigars you have far less problems. Less chance of human error. As long as everything is set up fine, they're very consistent cigars. Which is perfect for an everyday cigar. That's probably the main reason why we've been around for so long. It's always been affordable, it's always been consistent, and it's always been a quality tobacco.
CW: Thanks to Chris Topper for answering our questions.