A CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS FERDICO AND SCOTT JANSEN FROM WARFIGHTER CIGARS
Several years ago, former military combat men Chris Ferdico and Scott Jansen, both veterans of the 101st Airborne Division, met up at the Shot Show in Las Vegas and decided to combine their passion for cigars with their dedication to fellow service people. The two brought in a small band of military colleagues as partners – George Patton, Jon Simons, Bryan Bettey and Vincent Vargas (soon to be seen in the Sons of Anarchy spin-off Mayans MC) – and launched Warfighter Cigars, a brand marketed to members of the service but also targeted to firefighters, police officers and first responders.
At first, the Warfighter line was deployed on the internet only, but after a year of robust sales, the Nebraska-based crew is expanding its tour of duty to include brick and mortar stores in the US. Ferdico and Jansen sat down recently with Cigar & Spirits Magazine to discuss how a righteous band of “sheepdogs” is making its own unique mark on the cigar industry.
Not many cigar companies have an actual ethos. But you guys are really guided by principles, not just sales.
Chris Ferdico: That’s right, and it’s why I realized we could be successful in the industry. In the military, almost everybody I know has smoked a cigar at one time or another. I’m a big cigar smoker. We smoke cigars for different reasons than the average cigar smoker. I realized that while a lot of people market to us, nobody really understood us as consumers. So what we wanted to do was create a company by warfighters for warfighters, and we’ll speak directly to that market.
Scott Jansen: All the owners are veterans. We know the military and we speak the lingo. We have ethics, and we try to do the right thing all the time. If we say something, we mean it. We try to be charitable. Even as a new company, we tried to do charity work when a lot of people told us not to – “You’ve got to be profitable first.” But we support our community, and we’ve certainly gotten a lot of support from it.
Chris Ferdico: We all know that cigars are a luxury item, and cigar marketing is often done at the luxury level. But when you’re a warfighter – a soldier, veteran, firefighter or policeman – you don’t picture yourself with Ferraris and Rolexes. To us, cigars aren’t about luxury; they’re about camaraderie. So we focus on that lifestyle aspect.
What was your experience in the cigar business?
Scott Jansen: Not one of us had any, but it hasn’t impacted us. [Laughs] From some of the experiences I’ve had in other businesses, I knew I wanted a consumable product that I could brand. I wanted it to be, you know, “manly” – I didn’t want to brand soap. Funny thing is, before I got involved in this company I wasn’t an avid cigar smoker. Now I’m a big smoker. I love to go down to Nicaragua and work on blends.
You ask somebody in the military if they smoke cigars, and they’ll say, “Yes.” Ask them which brand they smoke, and they have no idea. We wanted to give a brand back to our community. If you ask them what they’re smoking, they’ll say, “Warfighter.”
Chris Ferdico: We didn’t find the business part of it hard. The technical part of it, obviously, presented a learning curve. The thing about warfighters and what we refer to as the “sheepdog community” is that they’re very loyal. What’s more, they can spot a fraud. People can market to us, but if you’re really going to communicate to the community, you’ve got to be legit. You’ve got to be from the community.
Were you looking to emulate any particular brand’s success?
Chris Ferdico: The answer is yes, but it wasn’t a cigar brand. We were looking at the other veteran owned businesses that had done well. We were trying to emulate companies like Article 15, a clothing line Vince Vargas owns part of. We were trying to emulate Black Rifle Coffee. These are successful veteran-owned businesses. Strike Force Energy – that’s an energy drink company. We weren’t worried about Gurkha and Padrón.
What was behind your idea to sell over the internet first?
Scott Jansen: We wanted to prove the concept first. We felt like it wouldn’t make much sense to go to brick and mortar stores without any kind of success story behind us. We started out with one factory, and once we got success online we outgrew that facility, so that’s why we’re now with Plasencia in Nicaragua. Now we know what we’re doing. We have a great social media following.
Do you all agree on what makes a good cigar?
Scott Jansen: We tend to agree. There’s a lot of trust between everybody. This goes beyond just “What makes a good cigar?” though. As veterans, we all understand and trust one another. I can say, “Hey, that’s a stupid idea,” and nobody will take offense. Chris Ferdico: We all have our preferences. It hasn’t been difficult to pick our blends because I think we all legitimately like the cigars that we’ve made. Some we like better than others, but that’s not unlike any other product. Good cigars come in all sorts of shapes and colors and varieties. I think we’ve all been able to say, “Hey, we want to have a cigar kind of in the range from mild to bold for every taste,” understanding that not every single person was going to like every single one of our cigars for preference reasons.
Being military guys, do you have a chain of command?
Scott Jansen: [Laughs] I don’t know how that works with us. Nobody’s had to pull rank yet, so I think we have a smooth-running team.
Where would you like to see the company in a few years?
Chris Ferdico: We’re going after an extremely loyal client base, one that we understand intimately. It just so happens that, because of the current nature of the conflicts that we’re in, it’s also a relatively young client base. About 80 percent of our clients are 34 years old or less. I think that bodes well for us long term. It’s also why I think we’re going to be successful going into brick and mortar – we can drive traffic in that demographic. Veterans want to find fellow vets in their community. They want to support veteran-owned businesses and products. I think we can be a big part of that in the future.