An Interview with Christian Eiroa
The man behind Camacho, La Fontana and Baccarat cigars from Honduras.
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In June, senior editor David Savona met with Eiroa in Miami to discuss his reluctant entrance into the family business, his company's struggles to recover from production and inventory problems and his quest to bring Camacho Corojo back to the forefront of full-flavored smokes.
David Savona: Your father, Julio, is the patriarch of the company. When did you decide to get into the family business?
Christian Eiroa: I got my master's in '95. Then I was working for a friend of my father's in the finance business, and that company was sold. I never wanted to work for my father. June 28, 1995, I went there for what I thought was going to be six months.
Q: You went to Honduras?
A: Yeah, to be involved in production, the factory. I figured my father and I weren't going to get along very well. So what I ended up realizing was that something was happening in the business. One of the first arguments my father and I got into was trying to locate tobacco. He had the same two sources he always had, and we had our farms, but I then started looking.
Q: He was short on tobacco?
A: Everybody was. You couldn't get tobacco anywhere. So eventually we start finding tobacco, and then I realized that I liked it. Because there were things that he could do, and that I could do, and we didn't necessarily need to cross paths.
Q: Why didn't you want to work with your father?
A: Family businesses are always hard. It's never easy. And my brother tried to work with my father, and that didn't work out very well.
Q: What happened there?
A: Just father-son stuff. They couldn't get along. Too many arguments.
Q: Your brother is…
A: Justo. My older brother. He's currently in the bottled water business.
Q: So based upon his problems, you were leery about working with Dad.
A: Yeah, and I didn't know if I wanted to be in Danlí [Honduras]. I had been in Miami for six years. One of the biggest concerns that I had was making a name for myself in this business so I wasn't just the old man's son. Trying to get respect. So I began to focus heavily on purchasing tobacco. I traveled to places all over the world.
Q: Tell me which places.
A: Mexico. Indonesia. I almost ended up going to Bangladesh to buy tobacco. Italy. This couple shows up to my office and they bring this one little leaf wrapped in a piece of notebook paper. And they open up the leaf. It's black. It's beautiful. And I said, "Where did you get this?" They said, "Oh, Panama. Are you interested in this kind of tobacco?" I'm saying, "Oh, you know, tobacco from Panama…." Meantime, I call the secretary, say, "Book me on a flight to Panama with these people." So I show up in Panama, we contract out the tobacco, and I end up flying there about six months later with a cashier's check for a quarter million dollars. I started buying tobacco like crazy. Then of course, we ran into 1998, when we didn't need tobacco from anybody.
Q: Were you caught with big inventories?
A: Yeah, we were caught with some containers in transit. We were able to get out of those.
Q: Take me back to the beginning of Caribe.
A: '89 is when my father takes over the company called Fumas Tobacco and starts Caribe Imported Cigars.
Q: What brands did Caribe have in 1989?
A: I think it was just Baccarat and National Brand. Then we started one brand in Miami called Don Felo. It's a cafeteria cigar, a cheap cigar, it [sold for 20 cents then, today it] sells from a quarter to 33 cents. And that was about it. Then Sal [Fontana] comes back in [in 1992] and starts La Fontana. And the boom's happening. The aspect of the business changed. I remember my father saying that if he was making two or three million cigars a year, he was happy. Then all of a sudden we get our production up to 17, 18 million cigars in '97. I think in 1989 Caribe had $120,000 in sales. I think we capped out in '97, which was the best year, at $17 million.
The growth wasn't a very controlled growth, it was just growth. We weren't focusing too much on the little things. We tried to organize as best we could, but at that rate of growth you're thinking, I have to satisfy these customers or someone else is going to take care of them. Of course, with my inexperience, I never imagined it would come to an end.
Q: What was it like as a youngster growing up in Honduras?
A: I was born in Honduras. My mother's father, my grandfather, was the local landlord there in Danlí, a wealthy Arab guy. I was born when we moved to Jamastran, where the farm is. We eventually moved to Danlí. Diagonally across from my house is Estelo Padrón's place [who works for Villazon], and Plasencia lived there. So I grew up with [cigar makers], and to me this business was always second nature. My father was more in the leaf business then than cigars.
Q: How did your father get into tobacco farming?
A: He gets a job working at Perfecto Garcia [in Tampa, Florida, around 1963]. And that's when [Angel] Oliva said, "This embargo thing is really screwing things up. Do you want to go to Honduras and help process tobacco?" So my father goes down to Honduras, and I think the second or third year he split off from Oliva and starts doing it himself. His big partner then was Corral Wodiska [the company that owned] Bering. But [one of the principals, Jimmy] Corral kept trying to squeeze my father for prices, and he kept switching suppliers to government-owned farms. So my father bought farms from the government, and he starts taking bigger risks, and UST gets him to grow a lot of tobacco. And that's when things go real well. He had a joint venture, they had a great relationship for almost 10 years, until my father had the accident in 1977, and he had to semi-retire.
Q: Tell me about that. He was flying the plane himself when he crashed.
A: That road from Tegucigalpa to Danlí was a dirt road before. So it was a four-hour drive, but a 15-minute flight. So it made sense to fly. And you would fly more than you would drive at that time. Fuel was about five bucks a gallon. And just like you have a car, you don't check the oil. He had water in the fuel and he took off and the plane crashed. The engine shut off as it was taking off.
Q: So he was taking off from Tegucigalpa Airport?
A: It was an area where there weren't that many openings, a lot of trees. I was five. I remember listening to it on the radio.
Q: And what happened after the crash?
A: We moved to Tampa. He bought Perfecto Garcia in Tampa. We were there for a few years, and in '83, '84 we moved to Honduras again. In '87, I came back to the United States. I went to military school, Riverside Military Academy.
Q: Where is that?