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Edgar Cullman Sr., Cigar Industry Giant, Dies at Age 93

David Savona
Posted: August 29, 2011

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Edgar M. Cullman, the man who led General Cigar Co. for decades and made Macanudo one of the best-selling brands in the history of the premium cigar business, died yesterday afternoon. He was 93 years old. He passed at his home in Connecticut surrounded by his loved ones.

"Edgar Sr. was a giant and a visionary. A legend for more than 45 years in America's premium cigar industry," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine. "This is a sad day."

Cullman, who was known as "Sr." to many in the cigar business, had a long, storied list of industry achievements. He was the chief executive officer of General Cigar and Culbro Corp. during the 1970s and 1990s, and shaped General Cigar into one of the world's largest producers of premium cigars, building Macanudo into a global powerhouse. He negotiated a deal for the U.S. rights to the Partagas cigar brand, bought Villazon & Co. (makers of Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey), and was among the pioneers in advertising cigars. At one point his company owned premium cigar factories in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Cullman loved the cigar business, and was particularly proud of the rounded style of head General Cigar became known for, a type of construction he dubbed "the Cullman cap." He is also a member of Cigar Aficionado's Hall of Fame.

"He was an incredible man and gentleman,” said Dan Carr, president of General Cigar. “He had a large space in his heart for our industry, the people within it, and all those that enjoyed a fine cigar. It was an honor for me to know him, and learn from him. He will surely be missed for a long time by so many people.”

Cullman's great grandfather was a tobacco dealer in Germany. He immigrated to the United States. Cullman's father, born in the United States, bought tobacco from around the U.S. and the world. "Dad started in the tobacco business buying Havana seed, Connecticut broadleaf, some Cuban tobacco—actually very little—and tobacco in Wisconsin and Ohio," Cullman told Cigar Aficionado during a wide-ranging interview that appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue of the magazine. "He also imported Sumatra tobacco from the Dutch East Indies. He would go to the auctions in Amsterdam for the wrapper tobacco from Indonesia."

At one point Culbro Corp., the Cullman family company that later became the parent company of General Cigar, grew 1,800 acres of cigar tobacco in Connecticut, far more than is grown in the entire valley today. Cullman's brother Joseph Cullman III was the chairman of Philip Morris from 1967 to 1978. Cullman's son Edgar Cullman Jr. worked alongside his father at General Cigar Co.

A veteran of the Second World War, Cullman learned how to roll cigars in New York City in 1944 at H. Anton Bock, a cigar company located at Second Avenue between 65 and 66 Streets. "I would go there at 6 a.m. and set up at the bench. First, I learned how to sort the tobacco, how to shake the tobacco, the Cuban tobacco that came in, how to open up the bales, how to then case [moisten] the tobacco so you could use it. How to count the leaves. Then I had to sit down at a bench and learn how to roll a cigar," he said to Cigar Aficionado in 1994. "I never made money or my living out of that, but I learned how to roll."

In 1961, Cullman and a group of investors purchased General Cigar Co. for around $25 million. At the time General made inexpensive cigars selling for nickels and dimes: White Owl, William Penn, Van Dyck and Robert Burns, among other brands. In 1969, Culllman bought the Temple Hall cigar factory in Jamaica. "It was a very small factory, very unimportant. They made Creme de Jamaica," Cullman said in 1994. It also owned a tiny brand called Macanudo.

General Cigar created a new blend for Macanudo, coming up with a well-aged Connecticut-shade wrapper, a mild mix of filler and binder, and got the cigars into top restaurants and began to promote the product in the 1970s. "We started to advertise Macanudo very strongly," said Cullman. The slogan called Macanudo "The Ultimate Cigar." It worked, and sales took off. Macanudo was the largest cigar brand sold in America before the debut of Cigar Aficionado magazine, and sales only got stronger after the magazine was published. At one point during the cigar boom, General had to temporarily stop making Macanudos due to shortages of the aged tobacco needed to make the cigars. They couldn't make enough.

Cullman's storied history with General Cigar began to end in 1999 when General Cigar sold its mass-market cigar business to Swedish Match AB. In 2000, Swedish Match acquired a controlling interest in General Cigar and in 2005 it bought out the remaining shares in the company, which put an end to Cullman's management of General. He never completely severed ties to the industry he loved so dear, however, and had a cigar made in his name.

A graduate of Yale, Cullman served on the Yale Development Board, and loved his Yale football games. He enjoyed games of tennis and fishing for salmon. He was a trustee of the Mount Sinai Medical Center, the Hotchkiss School, served on the boards of Bloomingdale Properties Inc. and Griffin Land & Nurseries Inc., and was a director on many corporate boards, including Mutual of Omaha, Companion Life Insurance Co. of New York, M. Lowenstein Corporation, U.S. Rubber Reclaiming Inc., Studebaker-Worthington Inc., and Centaur Communications.

Cullman is survived by his wife of 73 years, Louise; their three children, Edgar Cullman Jr., formerly the president of General Cigar, and his wife Ellie, Lucy Cullman Danziger and her husband Mike, and Susan Cullman and her husband John Kirby; six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

To read much, much more about Edgar M. Cullman, click here for the interview he did with Marvin R. Shanken in 1994.

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