WRITTEN BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH
“The best cigar is the one that you like,” says Andrew Lee ‘91. “Cigars are like flowers in a garden. There are roses, violets, daisies… and they’re all beautiful. But he who is wise will try them all.”
Shrewd words from someone who owns his own cigar store. Lee’s new North Side shop, Executive Cigars, features an impressive 300-square-foot humidor with thousands of stogies, as well as a lounge with plush leather furniture and flat-screen TVs where he and his customers can enjoy luxurious smoke. It’s a sophisticated yet contemporary space where cigar lovers can enjoy their favorite blends, and it’s the result of Lee’s vision and dedication
His journey to success was a winding one, and one that was rife with challenges. Lee first studied computers at the University of Pittsburgh, but he soon realized how isolated a computer career could be. “I was like a monk,” he says. “I love people. I’m not a cubicle kind of guy.” Lee knew that if he wanted to deal with people on a daily basis, he had to get into business. That’s how he ended up at Robert Morris University.
After earning his B.S.B.A., Lee held various jobs before engaging in volunteer work with inner-city kids at Mercy Hospital. Soon he was recommended for community outreach with Mercy Behavioral Health, where he worked for seven years. Through the Pittsburgh Public Schools, he developed a program to bring kids from rival gangs together and set them on the right path.
Next he tried his hand as an admissions counselor for the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, but after six months they let him go. “It was the best thing that's ever happened to me,” says Lee. He formed his own catalog suit business, Executive Styles Mensware. Each day he would walk around the city, approach men in suits, give them a business card, and offer to come to their office and tailor a suit for them. Business was good. So good, in fact, that in 2003 Lee opened a store at Century III Mall.
Nine months later, however, disaster struck. Flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan destroyed over $100,000 of Lee’s inventory, which was in storage for a fashion show, and he was forced out of business. He tried flipping houses, but when the real estate market started to head south and banks began to tighten their loan requirements, Lee had to try something else. He took a job with a legal services company, quickly becoming one of their top sales executives. But when one of his best employees left and took his clients with him, once again it was back to the drawing board for Lee.
Then, at a promotional event at a local cigar store, he met Sam Lacia, a salesman for Oliva Cigars. After speaking with Lee, Lacia recommended him for a position as a regional sales rep with Oliva. Soon Lee was covering a territory that stretched from New York to Kentucky. It wasn’t long before he began to think about opening his own cigar shop. He bought an old pizza shop on the corner of Suismon and East streets, renovated it, and in November, Executive Cigars opened for business.
When Lee first told people about his plans, few believed he would succeed. “People told me I was out of my freakin’ tree,” he says. “But I knew I could make it happen. I’ve been a trailblazer my entire life.”
Lee credits much of his success to RMU, where he says his instructors challenged him. When his organizational behavior professor gave him a C, even though he had gotten all A’s on all his tests, Lee questioned him. “He told me I’d never get better than a C in his class unless I showed up on time, all the time,” he says. “That was big. It made me understand the importance of the little things, both in school and in business.”
When it comes to being an entrepreneur, Lee has plenty of advice to offer. “Unless you own your own business, you really don’t understand what all’s involved,” he says. “There’s a lot that you have to learn on your own, but you also have to listen to others who have been there before you.”
Most of all, he’s grateful for the guidance he received while at RMU. “That’s when it started getting serious for me,” he says. “That’s when I grew up. RMU was the pivotal turning point in my life. It was all about business there.”
STOGIE DEFINITION - The cigar slang word, "stogie," comes from Conestoga, in southeastern Pennsylvania, which besides being the place where a type of large, horse-drawn freight wagon was invented, was a major cigar manufacturing center in the 19th century. Originally, the term stogie referred to the cheap cigars that Conestoga wagon drivers smoked as they hauled their loads between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.