James Leavey's Corner
The Hoarse Whisperer

FORCES - Link to James Leavey's Corner Main Page by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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Howard Hodgson is the chief executive officer of Colibri UK Ltd, who in his relatively short time in the tobacco industry has become one of it's leading personalities.Indeed, Hodgson has been described by some pundits as the Robert Redford of the world of lighter - rugged, handsome and occasionally fiery.He was interviewed by James Leavey at Colibri's UK headquarters in Esher, Surrey, in, ironically, a non-smoking meeting room.

JL:When did you try your first cigar"

HH:I nicked one out of my father's box of King Edwards, when I was 12. At first, I couldn't draw on at all because I didn't realise you had to cut the end off.When I eventually bit into it by accident it made me feel absolutely sick and I was fairly determined that I would never try another cigar again.

JL: And when did you try your next cigar"

HH: I can't remember exactly but it was after a lot of cigarettes. Then in the Eighties I gave up cigarette smoking and just smoked cigars.

JL: What were you smoking"

HH: We used to smoke fairly small cigars then because they were like ciggies really.

JL: Did you gravitate to Havana cigars at that point"

HH: No, not at that time.These were little cigars, they looked a bit like a Twiglet…

JL: A Twiglet with ash on the end"

HH: Yeah, that's it.

JL: When did you move on to serious cigars"

HH: I stopped smoking little cigars as a thing to do and started enjoying finer cigars after dinner, which is when I smoke them now. My preference would be a fine Havana obviously and I don't really inhale them anymore, I just like the taste of them. I do associate cigars with 'let's have a good time'.A cigarette is like a disposable lighter I suppose and a fine cigar is like a wonderful gift lighter.

JL: Similar to the business you're in, i.e. finely crafted lighters versus disposable lighters"

HH:Yeah.Colibri's strongest market is in America and of course that has been very heavily influenced by the cigar boom. The result is a wonderful collection of cigar lighters - and I don't mean cigarette lighters that are used for cigars, I really mean cigar lighters that have double-edged cutters.That have eight-flames angled so you light the whole of the end of the cigar instead of just a little corner of it.

JL: Is there a link between your early experience of cremations (Howard used to be in the funeral business) and your current role in promoting gift lighters"

HH: Somebody once said that I spent the first half of my life burying people and the second half providing them with the things causing them to be prematurely buried.

JL: So if cigarettes disappeared tomorrow, what other purpose could you put a lighter to"

HH: I probably shouldn't say this but some of the Turbo lighters would make rather useful defense weapons.If somebody attacked me in a pub I think I'd probably stick one of our Turbo lighters in their ear and light it up. Joking apart, we have an extreme lighter which most outdoor shops say is a pretty essential thing to be carrying with you while hill-walking or rock-climbing because it's wind-proof,altitude-proof and water-proof - when I say water-proof I don't mean to say you can take it diving but it still works in driving rain.

JL:When did you first get involved with lighters"

HH: I was chief executive of a public company called Halkin Holdings which bought Ronson. By 1995, we were ready to relaunch Ronson as a male gifts line in terms of watches, pens and lighters. The relaunched company took off and did very well.Then Ronson had a fire…

JL:Ironic, that…

HH: It was terribly unfortunate because it started in somebody else's factory and then spread to the Ronson factory.I've heard all the funeral jokes on God's earth but I think I've heard almost as many fire jokes now because of that fire.So that sent Ronson back.In the meantime, Colibri - a lot to do with Ronson really - got itself in a large amount of trouble.Then Colibri of London was bought by Colibri Corp of the USA.I, in the meantime, had left Ronson and the president of Colibri Corp rang and said; "You took the damn business off us and I'd like you to go and get it back." So that's why I'm sitting here today.

JL: Some lighters are now very collectable…

HH: The British Lighter Club of Great Britain has many members who attend whacking great jamborees. Some limited editions, such as Art Deco lighters from the 1930s, can fetch up to £10,000.

JL:Do you have a favourite Colibri lighter"

HH: Well, it's like Paul McCartney's songs, I enjoy a different one each week. I tell you what I do with lighters much more than anything is play with them.They're great as worry beads.

JL: What do you think of the cigar aficionado purists who insist that you must use a long cigar match to light up a fine cigar"

HH: I don't agree.But it's up to them.

JL: One advantage of the lighter is that it maintains its flame a lot longer than you can with a match…

HH:For sure.People say you can get a taste of petrol - which is rubbish.You're much more likely to get a taste of sulphur through the cigar.

JL: Duty Free is an important market for gifts.What will happen when its abolished in 1999"

HH: I think the suppliers will be pushed to reduce margins and keep the competitiveness in favour of the airlines. Although Duty Free is a worldwide business it's largely British-dominated and it's always been dominated by fags, booze and fragrances and those things have to change or the market will suffer. In Duty Free the trading terms for gifts are much less favourable compared to high street sales. In a major department store like Harrods, they've got seven seconds to capture your attention span.When you're strapped to a plan seat for up twelve hours you'll probably flick through the brochure, which is a huge opportunity for brand exposure.That's how the airlines and Duty Free shops get away with the murderous margins.

JL:Do you see the interest in fine cigars continuing to grow in Britain"

HH: Yes.We're more consistent than the American market.The British market has gone up more slowly but we're continuing to ascend.It's still not like Miami where you can hardly bloody well see across the restaurant if you go in there after nine.

JL:Is the cigar market changing"

HH: I certainly think cigar smokers are becoming more discerning.

JL:Do you think the cigar boom has something to do with people wanting to treat themselves from that mountain of disposable income"

HH: I hope not because I think there's going to be less disposable income around shortly what with the recession that has inevitably got to happen because of the collapse of the Far East economies.

JL: So perhaps we should all stock up with cigars now, and lighters, while we can"

HH: Absolutely.

Copyright James Leavey, 1998.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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