Fathers and Sons, Part 2
The second part of our look at the important generational partnerships that define a large part of the cigar industry
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
(continued from page 1)
Young Carlito grew up surrounded by the cigarmakers. "I was born in the business, and as far back as I can remember I sat on cigarmakers' laps, and watched them roll in the back of my grandmother's house," he says. "It was a family business, and I thought everybody was family. I lived inside the factory until I started going to school."
Now that he was running the family cigar business, Carlos Sr. started to buckle down. He began traveling to Miami to extend the realm of the company, and sold on credit for the first time. The business was moved from the home to a proper factory, then to a larger plant. Carlos Sr. never seemed to stop working. "One time it was three weeks without coming home. Three weeks. So my wife came with Carlito on one side and a bag on the other side, and said, 'Well, if you're not coming home I'm moving in here with you.' " He had little time to pause, as he did many of the jobs himself, including maintaining the machinery. "Now, there's nothing in the factory I can't do."
When the boss knows everything about a business, he can be hard to please. "I wasn't easy to work with a lot of times. I used to have sort of a temper, and I liked things to be right." Carlito smiles, and offers a correction. "Perfect," he says, drawing a grin from his father.
One day in the early 1960s, when Carlos Sr. visited the factory, he grew incensed at the poor quality of the cigars. "I threw them against the wall," he says. "I got my keys. I told my father, 'You keep the damn business—I'm leaving here.' I said, 'Close the place.' I told everybody, 'Get the hell out of here.' Everybody."
Carlos Sr. eventually returned to the factory, and rehired the crew. Quality improved. With Carlos Sr. working such brutal hours, the amount of time Carlito spent with his father was limited during his childhood. "My father would be working 18 hours a day," he says. "My grandfather [acted as] my father. He would tell me stories about Cuba."
The A. Fuente brand had always been made by hand in Tampa, but with rising labor costs and a shrinking pool of cigarmakers in the United States, Carlos Sr. tried producing Flor de Orlando and other brands offshore in the mid-1970s, with poor results. In Nicaragua, their factory was burned to the ground, and fire also claimed a factory in Honduras. Carlos Sr. tried training young cigar rollers in the 1970s in Tampa, but he and his son couldn't retain the labor at the prices they could afford to pay. "I saw there was no future [in Tampa]," says Fuente Sr. The only future we got is handmade cigars, or go totally mechanized. And I don't like that, and that's not our trade. We had to move. My son told me, 'I want to stay in the business.' I said the only way we're going to go is as a family. We'll keep it in the family business."
In 1980, the two left the comfort of Tampa for the wilds of the Dominican Republic, which was a far rougher place then than it is now.
"There was nothing here," says Carlito, who left behind a Porsche and a Jaguar when he moved. His father left his house, which was paid for, and sold everything he had to fund the new business. "I cashed in my insurance, mortgaged my house, then I asked my son, 'How much you got?'"
Carlito had spent time in the Dominican tobacco fields during the mid-1970s at the behest of his dad. "When I started in the business, I learned what it's like to manufacture, but I wanted my son to go further than I did," says Fuente Sr. "I wanted him to work in the fields."
In the Dominican Republic, the two worked side by side. They ate lunches together every day, smoking cigars and drinking Beefeater Martinis, and strategizing.
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Robert Martin — Flushing, New York, Queens, — September 30, 2011 6:46pm ET
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