Cigar Lifestyle

From Russia with Luck: Zino Davidoff, the Early Years Pt. III

Did you miss Part II? Click here to read it.

Learning how to run a business was exactly what Zino Davidoff did, and he did it with much aplomb. Now that he was settled into a career, it was only proper that a successful young man take a wife.

One night in August of 1931, Zino attended a private party thrown by a cousin.

“I have just the woman for you,” said his cousin.

“Who?” asked Zino.

“She’s standing over there,” said his cousin, pointing to a comely young woman across the room. “Would you like to meet her?”

“Very much,” said Zino. “What’s her name?”

“Marthe. Marthe Fromer. Her parents have a coffee-roasting business in Basel. Come with me.”

A few seconds later, Zino and his cousin approached Marthe, who was chatting with another girl.

“Marthe, I’d like you to meet my cousin Zino. I think you two would make a lovely couple.”

The girl hesitantly raised her hand. Zino took it gently, and with a slight bow and a smile, looked directly into her eyes and said, “My pleasure.” He was instantly smitten with her, though Marthe appeared reticent and somewhat embarrassed by his cousin’s remarks. She thanked him, but before Marthe could say another word, Zino said, “I will marry you.”

Three months after their first meeting at his cousin’s party, Zino and Martha were wed in November 1931, and were inseparable for more than 60 years. Forty of those years were spent working together. They opened their first tobacco shop in Lausanne with a prime location situated in the heart of the city.

In 1936, three years after the birth of their daughter, Sonia, Zino and his family moved back to Geneva. Almost immediately after their return Zino and Marthe began working in the new tobacco store his father, Hillel, had opened several years earlier on Rue de la Confédération. Still in his father’s employ were Zino’s brother, Joseph, and sister, Helêne. The location of the store couldn’t have been better, since Rue de la Confédération was the city’s central shopping boulevard.

Soon Zino began to take on more responsibility, especially in the areas of purchasing and marketing. He had a vision and was determined to take the business to an entirely new level.

“We need to start building our Cuban cigar inventory,” Zino insisted during one of their family business meetings.

“Why do you keep bringing up Cuban cigars?” said Hillel. “The cigarette business is good.”

“You can buy cigarettes at any corner store these days,” Zino argued. “Look at old Max Oettinger’s company in Basel. He was selling Cuban cigars even long before the War.”

“Yes, but Max, may he rest in peace, almost lost his entire business after the war,” said Hillel.

“And since Huppuch took it over, the company is even stronger. Remember Max’s credo? ‘Every smoker seeks to find the best supplier from whom he can purchase the highest quality smoking wares at a reasonable price.'”

“Maybe his prices were too reasonable,” said Joseph.

“Cuba has the best quality tobacco, the best quality cigars, and I’m certain we can bring them in at a nice profit,” said Zino. “Either we expand our inventory, or we may end up like old Max. Are you with me, or not?”

“Business is good. I suppose we could try it,” said Hillel. Joseph and Helêne nodded in agreement. “But I’m holding you accountable.”

Now that the Davidoff store was importing Cuban cigars, Zino took on a challenge that would dramatically change the cigar business forever – keeping Caribbean-made cigars “factory fresh.” Based on his experience in Central and South America, Zino knew that handmade cigars required a certain acceptable range of temperature and humidity to stay fresh, especially during Geneva’s cold, dry winters. This task would take a considerable amount of ingenuity.

By the latter half of the 1930’s, homes and businesses in Europe were being equipped with heating systems. They were good at keeping rooms warm, but the air was also constantly dry, and that’s bad news for cigars. To help find a solution, Zino sampled cigars that were “fresh off the boat,” compared them to identical cigars that had been stored in Europe, and found that the Caribbean-stored cigars were markedly better in quality and flavor. Zino needed an environment that could simulate weather conditions in Central America. After some further investigation he decided the best location was the store’s basement. Though few, if any, details are available on exactly what materials Zino used to build the world’s first climate-controlled humidor, we can presume that the basement was cool and relatively damp. We can also surmise that he found a way to force a controlled amount of heat into the cellar to get just the right temperature and humidity mix. However he did it, the new “air-conditioned” space worked like a charm.

September, 1939. WWII is now in full swing. Hitler’s troops invade Poland, which capitulates to the Nazis in short order. Within days of Poland’s surrender, England and France declare war on Germany. In May of 1940, the Germans continue westward, overtaking Belgium, then France, with little resistance. The Germans were occupying western Europe at such a fast pace, they were virtually unstoppable. Times were scary. Hillel Davidoff was reminded of early life in Russia. Fortunately, Switzerland remained neutral. At least they would be spared a Nazi offensive…for now.

Shortly before the Germans marched into France, Zino took a phone call from Paris that would prove to be one of the most prophetic in his career.

“Bonjour…Yes, this is Zino Davidoff.” On the other end of the phone was a manager from SEITA, the French tobacco monopoly.

“Bonjour Monsieur Davidoff. I’m calling on behalf of our Cuban partners who asked me to contact you.”

“They asked you to contact me?” asked Zino.

“Oui. They insisted on it,” the manager replied. “We need your help.”

“How can I help you?” asked Zino. “Do you want me to join the French Resistance?”

“Yes, in a way. Here in Paris there’s a shipment of two million Habanos locked-up in a Customs warehouse,” the manager continued. “The Germans will be here in a matter of days, and we don’t want the cigars to fall into their possession. Would you be prepared to purchase the cigars?”

“I would love to, but you caught me at a bad time. Last year we opened a store on Rue du Marché, and we’re stretched pretty thin right now. Certainly, that many cigars would be a sizeable investment.”

“We can work out the payment arrangements later. Right now, my main concern is that the cigars do not find their way into the hands of those Nazi bastards,” said the manager.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Zino. “But I’m curious. Why did the Cubans ask you to call me and not one of the big importers?”

“You have an excellent reputation among the Cuban manufacturers for promoting their cigars. They respect you and your knowledge of their product. You’re also an honest businessman. I don’t trust the importers; and besides, if the Germans seize the cigars, the Cubans will never get their money.”

“Well, I’m very flattered,” Zino replied, then paused. “We’ll find a way to make the transaction. The big question is the purchase price.”

After several minutes of negotiation, Zino and the man from SEITA agreed on a price that amounted to roughly one million French francs to be paid in installments.

Zino knew he couldn’t scrape up such a large sum of money without a loan, so the next day he paid a visit to his bank. Due to the amount he wanted to borrow, he was told that only the bank president could approve such a loan. Zino told him about the Paris phone call and explained why he needed to raise the money right away.

“One million francs Zino? I’m afraid the answer is no,” said the bank president, shaking his head.

“You know me,” said Zino, “You know my reputation in the business community. And you understand how important it is that these cigars get to a safe haven.”

“Alright Zino. Then tell me…what do you have for collateral?”

Zino paused for a moment to think. Finally, he looked the banker dead straight in the eyes and with all the confidence he could muster said, “My honest face.”

The banker was so astonished by Zino’s ballsy answer, he approved the loan and a handshake sealed the deal.

When he got back to his office, Zino phoned his man in Paris to tell him the deal was a go. Risky as it was, if he could get the cigars safely to Geneva, it would be a major boom for his business. Luckily, the cigars made it to the Customs warehouse in Geneva in the nick of time; for shortly after their arrival, as predicted, Paris fell to the Germans.

Since it was imperative that the cigars had time to settle under the right conditions, Zino’s immediate problem was getting the two million Habanos from the Customs warehouse into his store’s humidor as quickly as possible. But due to space constraints, Zino could only transfer so many of the cigars to the humidor at a time. So, he moved as many as he could, and as the store continued to sell-off its current inventory, Zino quickly replaced it with more Havanas from the warehouse. Eventually, they all made it into the basement unscathed.

During a war it’s common for there to be a lack of certain goods. When word got out that the Davidoff store on Rue du Marché had Cuban cigars, customers wasted little time lining-up to buy their Havanas. The majority of them were the more well-to-do customers, mostly Swiss diplomats, who were buying Hoyo de Monterrey and Montecristos by the case. Moreover, the Davidoff’s were the only tobacconists in the world that had Cuban cigars in stock right up until the end of the war.

It didn’t take long for the rest of Europe to learn that the Davidoff store in Geneva was THE place for the best and widest selection of Cuban cigars. As you will see shortly, had Zino not made that deal to acquire the Habanos during the war, chances are the Davidoff cigar brand would never exist.

After the war, Zino’s reputation invited even more good fortune. In 1946, during a tour of Europe to promote their cigars, a small Cuban delegation visited the Rue du Marché store to pay their respects to its proprietor. As their most successful customer, the other reason for the visit was to ask Zino’s advice on how to better market their cigars.

During a lunch meeting at The Globe, one of Geneva’s finest restaurants, Zino spoke to the Cubans about producing his own line of Cuban-made cigars. After much discussion about the blend, etc., they agreed to make five shapes, each of which would be named for France’s Bordelais estates – the finest Premier Grande Cru Classé. The name came to Zino in a flash as he was ordering wine for the table.

“So what will you call them?” asked one of the delegates.

“Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite, Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Château Yquem,” said Zino. “We will call it the Château Series. There’s just one more thing. The boxes.”

“Is something wrong with the boxes?” asked another delegate.

“The boxes of twenty-five cigars each are boring,” said Zino. “What if you made the boxes more square in shape and a little deeper?”

“What is the point of that?” said the delegate.

“The cigars will be able to breathe better,” replied Zino. “They could intermingle, so to speak, and wed their aromas.”

This made sense to the Cubans. The cigars would be bundled together in a mazo with a single silk ribbon, and placed in a square box made of unvarnished wood; in other words, a boîte nature box with a sliding cover that is still used for packaging Davidoff cigars today.

As we have learned through this series, there’s no doubt that Zino Davidoff had a major impact on the cigar business as we know it today. He treated his customers with respect and took a genuine interest in what they wanted, thereby creating the “model” for cigar stores to come. He invented and marketed both the cigar humidor and the double-blade cigar cutter. Additionally, his influence even changed the way cigars were packaged, and he was the first to establish a connection between pairing cigars with wine. The cigar industry owes him a lot, and as cigar smokers, we can all be grateful for his contributions, not to mention that winning smile.