A Conversation with Angel Daniel Núñez
The man behind Macanudo cigars—and the Connecticut shade tobacco grown to wrap them.
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Q: What does it mean to be the head of a company that makes a product for a consumer that has that level of passion?
A: It's a great compliment, and it's a lot of weight on my shoulders. Now that I'm more responsible for numbers, and the bottom line, I have to make sure that it's not compromised. If I do damage to the product and the image, I would feel guilty. I work hard to make [numbers for] the year, but if anything happened on that, I think I have enough to work harder and deliver whatever we are short. If we actually betray the consumer, I don't think I would ever forget that.
We have a great group of people. We are 52 at a management level. Sometimes I feel guilty, because I take the credit, but there are so many people. If something happens to me, nothing happens to General Cigar. Someone will step up. But before that, we need to have people ready to call the shots. We meet every week, and we talk, and we talk. I actually push them to the limit as far as getting ideas. And our meetings are loud. I love when people get passionate. For new product meetings—Cohiba Black, for example—we have six prototypes, and we have 12 people in the room. I push them to be critical, and they start fighting. We get it to six, then four, and from four to two, during four meetings, every eight weeks. As a matter of fact, I don't have a vote.
Q: You don't have a vote?
A: No. I have a veto. (Laughs)
Q: That's the most important thing! I know you don't want to talk about specific numbers, but I'd like to talk in general terms about the U.S. market.
A: We're doing fine. I'm very pleased, but it's early as you know, and we have two quarters to go. We're very optimistic.
Q: Last year was a very good one for the U.S. premium cigar market.
A: 2004 was even better. Let's remember 2000, it was depressed, and there was a lot of anxiety, and probably some mistakes were made again. Two big, big decisions were made by the Cullmans from a financial point of view: not to use the '98 crop, and to take that high inventory of tobacco we had, demote a lot of it to short filler, and take whatever was left to re-sort again and take whatever was not desirable out. And that cost huge money. We had nine years of inventory on hand, and we made a decision to continue growing every single year, and get rid of whatever was poor tobacco. Today we could say it was the best decision we ever made. We have five years' inventory, and I see the industry going into constrained supply while we are in one of our greatest positions.
Q: So back when the market was depressed, you got rid of mediocre tobacco and kept on growing?
A: And on top of that we bought Copata [a company in the Dominican Republic that grew tobacco], to meet our needs. That company, 100 percent of what it grew went to General Cigar, but we paid a management fee. In 2001, we bought it, brought in our technicians, and now we are growing to our specifications. We invested millions of dollars from 2001 to 2006 just in long filler in the Dominican Republic.
Q: That's a big investment to make.
A: Because we are looking to the future. I can assure you, in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, I was called the crazy guy in the industry. In Honduras and Nicaragua, I started in 2001 when long filler was being sold at $2 [a pound] and there was a huge amount in inventory. That's when we started new farms, new setups with Nestor Plasencia.
Q: That takes a lot of guts. Did you think the market would come back at that time?
A: My only thinking was to produce the best cigar. To do that, it's a simple thing. At the end of the day, all the improvements and big things in society have come after depression. Those who actually invest, put the money where it belongs, a few years later will be the ones who are happy. It's no time to roll back—those are the times to grow. You suffer a couple of years, make the changes, get the right people, train people.
Q: What's going on right now in the market? There are smoking bans everywhere, but despite the bans—
A: The business is strong. It's very strong. People are more knowledgeable, they're looking for better and better quality, and that has a lot to do with your company. [Cigar smokers are] more specific, they're more refined, and that's the time to provide something that has to be better, that has to be different.
Q: Where would General Cigar be had you not made those decisions?
A: I wouldn't want to think about it.
Q: You'd be short of tobacco?
Q: Would it be possible you wouldn't be able to produce enough Macanudo and Partagas cigars?
A: Yes. Put it this way—my average prices of tobacco now are lower than the market, and the quality is superior. And the quantity is as much as I need. If the market had another boom now, I would be in the position to say "How much?" With the right tobacco.
Photos by Jonathan Smith