THE STORY OF THE ALUMINUM TUBE
A LESSON IN GENIUS MARKETING
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.