THE STORY OF THE ALU­MINUM TUBE

A LES­SON IN GE­NIUS MAR­KET­ING

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The tra­di­tional hand-crafted boxes have been around for cen­turies, but when did tubes first make an ap­pear­ance and who thought of the idea?

Thanks to the re­search I have been con­duct­ing into the his­tory of the Bri­tish Ha­banos dis­trib­u­tor Hunters & Frankau, which cel­e­brates its 225th An­niver­sary this year, I can an­swer these ques­tions with a sur­pris­ing amount of de­tail. In so do­ing I can re­veal a story that in­volves the ef­fects of world wars and busi­ness fail­ures as well as pas­sion, greed and, on one oc­ca­sion, al­most a case of at­tempted mur­der.

Much of the story takes place in Eng­land and in­volves a com­pany called J. Frankau & Co. Ltd, one of the prin­ci­pal fore­bears of Hunters & Frankau. It was founded by Joseph Frankau, who im­mi­grated from Frank­furt-am-main in Ger­many to Lon­don in the late 1830s. By 1840, he had set up his com­pany. Joseph passed the com­pany on to his son, Arthur, who in the late 1850s es­tab­lished links with another Ger­man émi­gré fam­ily—the Up­manns, in Ha­vana. He be­came the sole dis­trib­u­tor for H. Up­mann cigars in the United King­dom. J. Frankau pros­pered un­til Arthur’s pre­ma­ture death in 1904, when his son Gil­bert, aged just 21, took over the run­ning of the com­pany.

Gil­bert Frankau was a hot-headed young man, who rose to promi­nence not in the cigar busi­ness but as an au­thor of pop­u­lar nov­els. The com­pany sur­vived un­til the out­break of the First World War, when Gil­bert was called up to serve in the trenches as an ar­tillery of­fi­cer. His fam­ily then de­cided that the com­pany should be sold, and in 1916, J.frankau passed into the hands of a ri­val Ha­vana im­porter called Braden & Stark.

Otto Braden and James Stark, the part­ners in Braden & Stark, de­cided to run J. Frankau with its valu­able agency for H. Up­mann as a sep­a­rate com­pany. Otto Braden, a Ger­man by birth who had be­come a nat­u­ralised Bri­ton, was par­tic­u­larly con­scious of the value that the Up­mann brand would bring once the war had ended.

Things did not run ac­cord­ing to plan. Af­ter the Amer­i­cans en­tered the war in 1917, Cuba sided with the Al­lies and the Up­manns in Ha­vana, as Ger­man cit­i­zens, were in­terned. Their cigar fac­tory, which had run suc­cess­fully along­side the Up­mann bank for many years, fell into a par­lous state. Both busi­nesses man­aged to re-open when peace re­turned, but the bank went bust in 1922 af­ter the post-war boom came to a sud­den end.

In Lon­don, J. Frankau recorded in its minute book on 14 Septem­ber, 1922, that: “The Board has re­solved that Mr O.

Braden should pro­ceed to Ha­vana in or­der to as­sist there in the set­tle­ment of the af­fairs of the H. Up­mann fac­tory which has be­come in­volved in the fail­ure of the Bank­ing House of H. Up­mann & Co, in or­der to make cer­tain the con­tin­ued sup­ply of the brand and the re­ten­tion of the agency.” Things were get­ting des­per­ate and Otto Braden was au­tho­rised to spend a sum of £10,000 to­wards the pur­chase of the fac­tory in or­der “to se­cure the con­tin­u­a­tion of the sole agency of the Brand to this Com­pany”.

In Ha­vana, Otto was frus­trated by the ac­tiv­i­ties of an un­known mort­gage holder on the brand and had to re­turn for fur­ther ne­go­ti­a­tions in 1923 and again in 1924. Fi­nally, in May 1925 he se­cured the brand and the fac­tory and set up a Cuban com­pany called Com­pañia Frankau de Taba­cos S.A. to man­age J. Frankau & Co’s in­ter­ests.

With Otto as its Pres­i­dent, Com­pañia Frankau de Taba­cos re­stored the for­tunes of H. Up­mann and, when he died, in 1930, his place was taken by his 47-yearold son, Waldo.

Waldo Braden was an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter. Cen­suses re­veal that he had been a cigar salesman all his work­ing life, but his fa­ther’s com­pany did not in­vite him to join the board un­til 1922 when he was 39 years old. It ap­pears that his strengths lay in sales and mar­ket­ing rather than com­mer­cial ac­u­men.

So it was when, in the early 1930s, Waldo struck on the idea that what the Ha­vana cigar trade needed was a way to dis­trib­ute and sell its cigars more widely that guar­an­teed their con­di­tion and pro­tected them against dam­age. He found that a process al­ready ex­isted called im­pact ex­tru­sion which, us­ing alu­minium, could pro­duce a seal­able con­tainer suit­able for cigars at an af­ford­able price.

His first dis­cus­sions with col­leagues did not go well. No­body be­lieved that the tra­di­tional Ha­vana smoker would tol­er­ate buy­ing a cigar iso­lated in a tube and not ma­tured along­side other cigars in a box. In ad­di­tion they were con­vinced that, if the tube could be re­sealed, smok­ers would buy just one con­tain­ing the gen­uine ar­ti­cle, an H. Up­mann for ex­am­ple, and then re­fill it with a cigar of lower qual­ity.

Un­daunted, Waldo set about de­sign­ing and patent­ing a seal for his alu­minium tube that would pre­vent it from be­ing reused. Called the “Solo-seel”, he cov­ered all the costs of its de­vel­op­ment him­self.

In Septem­ber 1933, he took his idea to the board of J. Frankau. Grudg­ingly the di­rec­tors per­mit­ted him to con­duct a test us­ing H. Up­mann cigars. They were launched in De­cem­ber 1933 just in time for the hol­i­day sea­son.

The re­sults were as­tound­ing. J. Frankau’s board min­utes in May 1934 state that “The pop­u­lar­ity of the Solo-seel now hav­ing been fully proved, the Chair­man ex­pressed the wish to dis­cuss a more def­i­nite ar­range­ment with Mr W. Braden.” Waldo of­fered the right to use his tubes ex­clu­sively for H. Up­mann for a pe­riod of five years in ex­change for a down pay­ment of £200 and a royalty of a half­penny per tube. It was ac­cepted unan­i­mously.

A year later, J. Frankau pub­lished an ad­ver­tise­ment in To­bacco Mag­a­zine (pic­tured to the left), that showed a graph of month-by-month “Solo-seel” sales. They were head­ing for the stars.

With such a coup un­der his belt, you would imag­ine that Waldo Braden was set for a glo­ri­ous ca­reer in the cigar trade. It was not to be.

James Stark, the Chair­man of J. Frankau, had been suf­fer­ing from in­creas­ingly poor health and the board con­cluded that the strain of run­ning the com­pany in Bri­tain and the fac­tory in Ha­vana was prov­ing too great. They looked for a buyer ready to take on the chal­lenge and found a highly ex­pe­ri­enced cigar man named D. G. Free­man of J. R. Free­man & Sons, a com­pany that, over three gen­er­a­tions, had be­come the sec­ond largest cigar man­u­fac­turer in Bri­tain.

In July 1935, the mo­tion to sell J. Frankau in­clud­ing Com­pañia Frankau de Taba­cos, was put to the board. Ev­ery­one voted in favour ex­cept one—waldo. Dur­ing a quick­fire se­ries of board meet­ings dur­ing Au­gust and Septem­ber, Waldo tried ev­ery trick he could think of to frus­trate the deal, in­clud­ing re­mov­ing im­por­tant share cer­tifi­cates from the of­fice and steal­ing the keys to the com­pany safe. Fi­nally af­ter he ad­mit­ted that he had charged an ex­tra, unau­tho­rised mar­gin on his “Solo-seels”, he was fired.

Although it is not recorded in the min­utes, at one of these meet­ings, ac­cord­ing the talk of the trade, Waldo pulled a re­volver on D.G. Free­man, which is how this story al­most in­cludes a case of at­tempted mur­der.

De­spite Waldo’s demise, his in­ven­tion has gone from strength to strength. D. G. Free­man ex­tended the range of H. Up­mann tubes to in­clude the Sin­gu­lares, the Royal Corona, the Coronas Ma­jor and the Corona Mi­nor, two of which are still in Cuba’s range to­day. Very soon, other ma­jor brands like Mon­te­cristo, Romeo y Julieta, Punch, Parta­gas and Hoyo de Mon­ter­rey in­tro­duced their own alu­minium tubes. Last year in the UK, just over 40% of all the Ha­vana cigars sold were in tubes and I sus­pect they hold a sim­i­lar share in other mar­kets, too.

Next time you slip a Ha­vana cigar out its alu­minium tube, may I sug­gest that you spare a thought for the un­doubted, if mav­er­ick, tal­ents of Waldo Braden.

Braden (sec­ond right) used his own money to de­velop the tubes

Above: Don­ald Ge­orge Free­man, Right: Otto Braden.

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