Swisher President Talks COVID-19, Innovation

John Miller spoke to CSP following the tobacco company’s reorganization
Photograph courtesy of Swisher

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Swisher International Inc. recently rebranded to Swisher and reorganized its business to reflect its broad product portfolio. The changes were in the works for a couple of years, Swisher President John Miller told CSP Daily News, and not necessarily a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Miller

“It’s a little problematic for a company when you have a relatively diverse portfolio in the tobacco category, but you're only known by a single brand,” Miller said. “It limits your ability to expand into other product offerings.” 

Most people knew Swisher International for its Swisher Sweets branded cigars—but being known as a company that only makes a cigar brand limited Swisher on going deep into innovation in other consumer goods, he said.

Now the brand is organized into business lines including Swisher Sweets Cigar Co. (large and little/filtered cigars), Fat Lip Brands (smokeless), Dre Estate (premium cigars), Hempire (hemp products) and Rogue (modern oral nicotine). It also is planning to focus on innovation, Miller said.

Miller spoke with CSP Daily News about the company rebrand, challenges brought on by COVID-19, where he sees cannabidiol (CBD) and hemp fitting into the convenience-store space and more.

COVID-19 and Out-of-Stock Cigars

COVID-19 created problems for cigar out-of-stocks. Several of Swisher’s facilities closed due to the virus, and while the company had contingency plans in place for natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, the pandemic wasn’t something they could prepare for, Miller said.

“I don't think anyone projected that business would be interrupted for so long,” he said. “We have not laid off a single employee. We have not furloughed a single employee. None of our union people lost their jobs. We just kept going.”

Out of stocks turned into a supply issue more than a demand issue, he said, with demand for cigars at an all-time high, driven by people working from home. Many of Swisher’s products are manufactured in the Caribbean, which has been hit hard by COVID-19.

“We've had to create a safe environment at all of our facilities, and it's incredible what's been done in the Dominican Republic to keep the people safe,” Miller said. “But it is a very difficult situation. We have experienced higher absenteeism due to the elevated infection rates. They don't have some of the benefits we have in the medical system. So, there's no doubt supply has been affected across the board.”

Flavor Bans

Swisher, like other tobacco companies, is facing challenges due to bans on flavored tobacco products.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Aug. 28 signed a bill into law banning the sale of flavored tobacco products from the state. However, opponents are collecting signatures to qualify for a referendum that could ultimately overturn the law. The city of Chicago in September also decided to ban the sale of flavored vaping products. Sale of other flavored tobacco products are still allowed.

Large cigar use by teens is low, Miller said, adding that legislators are trying to solve a different problem—teen vaping. Grouping all products together is the wrong approach, he said.

“Industry tends to overcome and deal with challenges, but I don't believe it's going to stop in California, or Chicago or Massachusetts,” Miller said.

Innovation in Hemp, CBD

Where Swisher is going with innovation is still to be determined, Miller said.

“In terms of analysis, we're doing deep analysis into many different categories. Some of the analysis is also service and systems driven, it's not just product,” Miller said. “And so that's all down the road.”

One potential area of focus: Hemp and CBD.

Currently, the Hempire business is only a paper-based offering, but Miller said Swisher didn’t get involved with the brand just to be a paper company.

“The hemp industry, and everything within the hemp category, all things that are happening within hemp are on the table,” Miller said. “So we're evaluating, [and] we're getting ready to launch a few products. Just not really ready to announce yet.”

Hemp and CBD could have a space in convenience, Miller said.

“They really have their fingers on the pulse of what consumers want in terms of new and exciting products, so I think it is a viable channel,” Miller said of c-stores.

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