looks like a Europe from times gone by. Cattle at peace in their pastures, low farmhouses and barns in the clear green distance, an earthy purity: this is The Netherlands, bordering close to Belgium, just south of the city of Eindhoven. It is also the heart of Dutch cigar production and, by that reason, a capital of global cigar manufacturing, distribution, and marketing.
One of the companies here celebrated its 100th anniversary - a feat that earned it a ‘Royal’ appellation for Royal Dutch Agio Cigars - or simply ‘Agio’ as it is known around the world. Despite its bucolic situation and the Tolkeinesque name of its hometown - the village of Duizel - Agio is anything but quaint. It has ever in its history, and most particularly in the past 30 some years, been an aggressive cigar market player. Agio is the world’s sixth largest cigar manufacturer. The past decade’s growth has been compelling: from 600 mn units sold in 1998 to more than 700 mn in 2003. While this year Agio will make, sell, and distribute more than 800 mn pieces to consumers in about 100 national markets.
When completed, the extensions to the current Agio Westerlo site in Belgium will recreate it as Europe’s largest cigar factory and certainly one of its most technically advanced. This ‘new’ facility will feature, but for one example, total humidity control throughout the factory.
Agio brand names are renowned. Balmoral, Meharis, Panter, plus those marketed under the ‘Agio’ trademark itself, such as Agio Tip. This range offers an inclusive array of cigar sizes and formats from cigarillos to coronas, all of natural tobaccos, regular and aromatized, unfiltered and filtered. Packaging variations add even further choice to the Agio display of products. The company packs its wares in wood with cedar, in tins and plastic cases, in board boxes too. The cigars are offered in packs of five, ten, and 20 units.
While Balmoral is maintained as the premier brand family, the company’s expansion has been led by the impressive successes of its Meharis and Panter. Meharis has been Agio’s number one selling brand family for years. At 30% larger than a standard cigarillo - although now also available in some markets as a Minis version - Meharis remains the best selling large cigarillo on the market. The main Meharis family includes five entries; Meharis Java, Meharis Brazil, Meharis Ecquador, Meharis Sweet Orient, and Meharis Sweet Orient Filter. The Java, Brasil, and Ecquador differentiations refer to wrapper origins. The Meharis Sweet Orients are a naturally, vanilla sweetened blend, formatted as small cigars with a signature, ripe Java wrapper.
As for Panter - the line branded with a poised panther, draped sensually along the length of the cigar - it has become a true class-act trademark in cigarillos. Appearing as Panter Mignon, it can be found in both a black plastic pack as Panter De Luxe, and as Panter Mignon Sweet in a maroon case. The Panter name offers four main entries that come in tins: Dessert (coffee flavored), Small (the classic Panter cigarillos), Arome (vanilla), and Blue: a milder cigarillo distinguished by its shade-grown wrapper. Sprint and Tango complete the Panter family line.
Agio Tip, launched back in 1967 to a great reception, remains one of the company’s take-off successes. To this day the brand holds 8% of Agio sales.
The pride of Agio, is still foremost in its Balmoral brand. Made as Senoritas, Panetalas, and most especially as Coronas, Balmoral is an upscale product whether it be machine made from select tobaccos (Balmoral Dominican Selection) or hand rolled (Balmoral Royal Selections). The Royal Balmoral Selections are the company’s only longfiller cigars, made at the Agio factory in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.
The company’s investment in producing longfillers in the Caribbean, dressing them to suit the demanding premium cigar market, is the definition of its ambitions, which might best be summed up in the word ‘style.’ Agio is keen to show its dedication to both the traditional dry Dutch cigar of classic Java and Sumatra origins, and now too to those of the islands, moist and rolled by hand. To Agio both styles, while utterly different, are equal as to pleasures offered; and in standards requisite to yield these pleasures. The ambition is to make both styles with as much style as is commercially feasible.
|Stephan Qarimi, one of Agio's four Regional Export Managers
To this end, Agio - a true daughter of the Dutch tradition - bases its all on buying, processing, and blending a wide selection of upper grade leaf types from around the globe. Yes, its Dutch taste tradition demands loyalty to the tobaccos of Indonesia - from where the first Dutch tobacco blenders honed their expertise - but also it continues to experiment (and succeed) in blends, binders, and wrappers, from other origins, producing smoking flavors that go beyond the great original ‘tradition’ to meet changing market demands. Thus one finds now too Agio cigars with Brasil Arapiraca wrappers, Connecticut shade-grown wrappers from Ecuador, and with filler blends including Cuban varietals grown in the Dominican Republic.
The strategics of producing a vast array of cigar types and styles are daunting. Cigars such as Agio produces are a globally-sourced consumer product of awesome complexities. For Agio this means operating five factories, one at headquarters in the Netherlands, two in Belgium, and in both the Dominican Republic and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka facility in Bigayama, for example, is solely a bobbin factory for sourcing Agio with an incredible weight in reels of binders and wrappers. Agio actually introduced the intricate binder/wrapper bobbin system to cigar manufacturing, a particular contribution to the industry that the company takes pride in having sourced. Cut from prime leaf, the bobbins are air-freighted frozen to Europe to retain their fullest integrity.
While France is its largest national market outside of The Netherlands, other strong markets are Germany, Belgium, Spain, and Italy. Agio is currently expanding in Central and Eastern Europe, in the Far East, and as well as in Canada and the US. For certain national markets Agio has established its own sales offices, while elsewhere it relies on a worldwide network of importers/distributors.
Agio was founded by Jacques Wintermans in 1904. It is still owned by the Wintermans family; four generations of the family are now working in the company. Commercial Director for Agio is Marcel Michels. Export area managers include Gertrude Stormink, Hans Van Gemeren, and Stephan Qarimi - based at headquarters in Duizel - and Hans Van Rijfkogel, responsible for the Far East and with offices in Singapore.