YEAR OF INITIATION: Fall 2003
CHAPTER OF INITIATION: Eta Chi (University of Alabama)
PROVINCE OF INITIATION: Southwestern Province
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science in Marketing
COLLEGE/UNIVERSITY: University of Alabama
In a world where regulations prevent anything truly new from being released within the cigar industry, what does the term “innovation” even mean today? For George James, the owner and founder of Vorieo Cigars, innovation is not experienced in a product but rather in a process. There are two sides of innovation, he says. There’s an idea, and then there’s a vision. Businesses must begin with an idea before they can proceed to turn that idea into a manufactured process.
This is how James built his unique premium cigar brand. “I started with the idea,” he explains. “The idea was, ‘Hey, I can start my own company because I’m very intuitive.’ I understood the flow of business, but I also knew how to build relationships as well. When it comes to communicating with people from all over the world, I can communicate with anyone. I just took that vision and explored opportunities. That’s what I did with Vorieo Cigars—I came up with the idea, saw the vision and executed it.”
Part of the execution involves keeping his focus on his own company rather than concerning himself with what others are doing. James focuses all of his efforts on perfecting Vorieo to the best of his abilities. This is done by monitoring the feedback he receives from retailers and consumers and making that his primary concern. Sometimes even the small things—such as changing the shape of his boxes to stand out more in the humidor or updating the hinges on the boxes—lead to better traction in the market.
Taking Care of Business:
James grew up in a small town located outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After graduating from the University of Alabama in 2006 with a degree in marketing, James went on to work for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company as a trade marketing representative. In this position, James was responsible for developing territories, leading the company’s go-to-market strategy and consumer engagement. This job gave James a good understanding of how the tobacco industry really operated and how a company as big as R.J. Reynolds gained and maintained market dominance, something that would help him later in life when he launched his own company.
In 2010, James started working for a smaller tobacco company that produced cigarillos and premium cigars. Here he assisted with territory management, go-to-market strategy and training, and he also oversaw the development and advancement of distributors and wholesalers. In 2014, James made another occupational change when he left that company to start his own premium cigar brand, Vorieo, which was inspired by his love for premium cigars as well as his childhood.
“Vorieo is a childhood name which means ‘King of the Sun.’ Anything involving the sun causes things to grow, and if the sun is not there, or if it’s not available, then things won’t grow,” he says. “So when I was looking at the tobacco industry, I thought, ‘Tobacco requires sunlight and requires good sunlight.’ So that’s where the name ‘Vorieo’ came from.”
James runs his company based on his experiences of working within corporate America. This includes understanding the metrics that many corporations use to manage their business, such as the flow between domestic and international businesses. He also had a vision for what success looked like.
“I was reading about Robert L. Johnson. He started BET and various companies with a holding company. He was a billionaire—a Black guy that started his own business. He was my inspiration,” says James.
From the start, James’ main business objective was to establish a good working relationship with distributors and wholesalers alike. His past work experience had taught him the importance of figuring out and establishing good pricing, distribution and logistics early on. The early days of Vorieo involved him doing his due diligence and collecting all of the necessary information before releasing a single product. His biggest task at launch was establishing Vorieo’s brand equity, which is defined as the perceived worth or value of the brand name, not just the value of the actual product.
“When it’s a new company, people are very skeptical about bringing the product into the humidor. Plus, that humidor is already kind of at its maximum, says James. “So what I had to do was formulate a SWOT analysis—that stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. When I had that SWOT analysis, it gave me a clearer vision of focusing on quality over quantity.”
Every retailer is different and has to be viewed as a new opportunity. Understanding this and the importance of communicating the value of your brand to retailers is crucial for every company, especially those that are newer to the market. “You have to reestablish the relationship or rapport with those individuals, and you have to sell them on your brand equity,” he says.
Once he had some samples in hand, he had a panel smoke through them and provide him with feedback. That feedback helped him make adjustments to the blends that weren’t considered ready for market until the entire panel gave their approval.
The Vorieo 1KVI:XXIX Gold maduro stands out as James’ personal favorite from his company’s portfolio. This particular blend was inspired by the Bible verse 1 Kings 6:29 that reads, “And he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, within and without.” Vorieo 1KVI:XXIX Gold maduro has a dark and oily wrapper leaf grown in Indonesia and long filler tobaccos that deliver a smooth, bold array of flavors meant to stimulate the entire palate. A popular Vorieo cigar in retail is the Junkanoo, which is named after a holiday and festival created by enslaved African American and Native American descendants.
“Junkanoo is very popular amongst retail,” says James. “It’s a barber-stripe pole Habano and Connecticut wrapper that has been combined together. I think it’s a middle ground for the novice smoker; that’s why it does well. On the other side, it does very well because you have connoisseurs who are looking for something that’s a little bit bolder but smoother at the same time."
Rounding out Vorieo’s premium cigar portfolio is the Duck & Sun and the Vorieo 1KVI:XXIX Platinum. Each blend can stand on its own, and together all of Vorieo’s products are priced to allow the retailers to make money. Part of James’ initial research was centered around pricing in the premium cigar industry. What he realized was that a lot of products were, in his opinion, overpriced and left the retailer with little opportunity to make money. That’s something he wanted to change with Vorieo.
“I just basically went around and did some due diligence, looking at what everyone was pricing their stuff at retail,” he says. “I decided that since [the retailers] are going to be the brand ambassadors, I want them to have something that they can make money from. A majority of the retailers make about 50 percent gross margin on my product, and 50 percent gross margin is pretty good in the industry, because on average, when they actually receive the product, it’s already like 40-50 percent, and then they have to tack on another 20 percent. It’s not like that with my cigars. They’re making a huge amount of money.”
Vorieo is also going to stand out in humidors because of its distinct branding. James grew up around Moundville Archaeological Park, which is located along the Black Warrior River in Alabama. Native American imagery could be seen throughout this area, and James wanted to bring some of those images into his cigar brand. He also was inspired by what he read in the Bible and what he saw during his travels to Egypt. To bring all of these designs and inspirations together into a cohesive design that would have an impact among cigar smokers, James turned to Humberto Areas, founder of Cigar Package Design, for help.
“It wasn’t easy at first, but he listened to what I wanted,” says James. “We established that I wanted to create a luxury but modern brand. I wanted something that would touch the heart of people but at the same time tell a story.”
Creating a strong brand that retailers and consumers would get behind was only part of James’ go-to-market plan for Vorieo. He knew that in order for it to be successful, he had to make sure the right processes were in place to support Vorieo’s growth.
Positioned for Growth:
James is very selective when it comes to which retailers he decides to partner with. Before bringing on new accounts, James interviews each retailer to make sure his vision aligns with theirs. This is key, he explains, because if you don’t establish a good relationship with a retailer and don’t define how you want your product to be presented and merchandised, it’ll easily get lost once it’s brought into a store. In addition to setting some clear goals and expectations at the start of any business partnership, James has also created different tools and resources for the retailers to use that will help them become more familiar with his products and will assist them in selling Vorieo in their stores. Part of this is accomplished through enhancing shelf talkers with the addition of QR codes.
Anticipating customers’ needs is how James stays competitive, and it’s also what adds value to his brand’s name. Social media and swag are additional tools James uses to create brand equity. Whether it’s connecting with consumers online or offering them a chance to represent the brand by purchasing and wearing a Duck & Sun hat, these actions all build awareness and make Vorieo an easier sell for both retailers and consumers.
“Brand equity” may not be a term heard often in the cigar world, but it’s how many of the industry’s biggest players have built their businesses. James understands the importance of building awareness around a brand and has put in place a strategic plan to make the world well aware of Vorieo and what it has to offer. From its distinct backstory rooted in Native American and Egyptian culture to its keystone pricing that offers retailers generous profit margins, Vorieo is established and positioned for growth.
This story first appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Tobacco Business magazine.