An Interview with Woody Brown
By Larry Wagner
Most of today’s retail tobacconists were not born into the trade. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, with a few second- and even third-generation tobacconists in our industry, but clearly most retailers came to the business out of a love for cigars and pipes, along with the simple enjoyment of tobacco. Perhaps it was the firefighter or police officer who enjoyed the gentle art of smoking and, upon retirement, decided to open a store. Maybe it was someone seeking a change of career or someone who just had an epiphany that they were in the wrong line of work and were always drawn to the tobacco business. But few have traveled as varied, colorful and dynamic a career path as Woody Brown, a dual-outlet retailer and manufacturer representative supreme.
A gifted athlete in high school, Brown was pursued by several colleges. Having grown up outside of Detroit, when he was recruited by the University of Michigan’s football program, he knew he had found his home. Brown went on to play defensive safety during his four years at Michigan, excelling on two Rose Bowl teams and one Orange Bowl team under legendary coach Bo Schembechler. As talented as he was, Brown realized his future lay in business rather than professional athletics. While preparing to enter law school after his senior year of college, Brown’s path took an unusual turn. Although he had already been accepted in a joint MBA/JD program at Duke University, he found himself pulled in a different direction.
“I was in the business school and I had an elective my senior year, so I thought, what would be a fun, one free class that I could take, such as a drama class,” Brown recalls. “So I went and took that class—and I was terrible at it—but there was something I really liked. When the class was over I asked the professor, ‘Do people do this for a living? How do you do it?’”
His professor advised him to go to New York, apply to drama school, learn how to act and then head for LA. He followed that advice and started getting parts in local plays and commercials. Soon after, Brown signed with an agent who got him an audition for a national TV ad, and that led to parts in several soap operas and eventually a role as Skipper Weldon in the TV drama Flamingo Road, which ran for two seasons (1980–1982). Eventually Brown acted in well over a dozen TV series and soap operas, including Love of Life, The Love Boat, Knight Rider, The Facts of Life, JAG and Roswell during a 15-year career in theater, television and film, including an appearance with Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster in The Accused. Brown says it was a great run, and he found himself among the fortunate few who worked on a steady basis, that “rarefied air of the 2 percent that make all the money—I was part of that group.” But then at some point he realized, “I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I was just working to get a paycheck.”
When the acting bug finally left him, Brown took a few months off to assess where he wanted to apply his talents next. He was considering entering law school when a friend told him he was doing extremely well selling cars and that he ought to try it. To his own surprise, Brown found himself interviewing with the general manager and getting the job, rising within a year to become the top salesman at the dealership. But as good as he was, he says he realized that his success was based on hustling people, at times selling cars for more than they should sell for, and violating the trust of the people he was endeavoring to help.
So he eventually left and started selling customer relationship management software to car dealerships, initially for another firm and then founding his own company. But then the recession hit and the automotive industry crashed, with dealerships no longer spending resources on information technology (this would turn around completely in the years to come). He pulled the plug on that business and had the luxury of not having to work for the next couple of years, principally spending his time in cigar stores, as cigar smoking had become a passion. One retailer with whom he became friendly kept mentioning, “‘This company’s looking for a rep, and I think you’d be the right kind of guy.’ I pooh-poohed it, figuring they’ll hire within, because I didn’t know anything other than I liked smoking cigars.”
Eventually Brown did apply and was offered the position. Seven years later, Brown is still at it as western region business development manager for Xikar, one of the top manufacturers of cigar cutters and lighters. His natural affability and acting skills, in addition to Xikar’s appealing products, have enabled him to expand the reach of the brand to nearly every account in his territory. Since his start in the industry, Brown was also able to add several high-end cigar lines to his portfolio of brands, including E.P. Carillo, AJ Fernandez and MBombay, allowing him to establish himself as a popular and highly regarded independent broker.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Brown then seized on an opportunity in 2015 to purchase a successful cigar lounge, Marty’s Cigar and Divan in Glendora, California. His natural entrepreneurship helped build the clientele and re-establish Marty’s as one of Southern California’s premier full-service tobacconists.
Marty’s was one of the first all-humidified stores in the state, creating a spacious, inviting ambience where the seating areas are surrounded by open boxes of cigars, neatly displayed on three walls. Then, in 2016, Brown acquired another highly regarded retail store, ShamLux Cigar Lounge in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Granada Hills. The store features a large built-in aquarium in a lounge setting reminiscent of a traditional speak-easy, complete with a bar, muted lighting and plush sofas, as well as chairs, tables and several big-screen TVs. The large, well-stocked humidor features hard-to-find boutiques in addition to respected traditional brands. And, of course, both stores offer a wide selection of Xikar lighters, cigar cutters and accessories, including their acclaimed gel-crystal humidification devices.
As a successful retailer and manufacturer representative, Brown has good reason to be concerned about the looming Food and Drug Administration regulation, as well as California’s newly enacted 70 percent tobacco excise tax. And yet, possibly due to his self-discipline as a collegiate athlete, or his years of training as an actor, he exudes a calm confidence when discussing what the future holds for the business.
Given that optimism, would he look to continue expanding? “Absolutely. As a businessman, I’d be remiss not to look for favorable opportunities, and I think the powers that be will come to realize that we’re a viable business, and that we’re here to stay. We just need to be flexible, be smart and make adjustments, while still standing up for our rights. But there’s no value in being negative.”
With that attitude, one can imagine Woody Brown will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the industry. I can only deal with what I can control.Despite the taxation and legislation of our business, I believe there will always be a culture that enjoys fine cigars and the camaraderie that goes with that enjoyment.