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Their Man in Havana

Manuel Garcia of Habanos S.A. combines his love of cigars with a vast knowledge of the marketing and sale of his country's national symbol.
From the Print Edition:
Arnon Milchan, September/October 2008

Nobody knows the modern Cuban cigar business like Manuel Garcia, the commercial director of Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars in Havana. The 50-year-old Cuban has been working with Habanos (formerly Cubatabaco) for nearly 20 years. Each year, he spends about 220 days crisscrossing the globe promoting the quality and uniqueness of Cuban cigars and visiting Habanos agents and merchants.

Habanos distributes Cuban smokes in more than 160 countries, not including the United States, of course—or at least not legally. The majority are sold through Habanos's 52 official distributors as well as its nearly 140 franchised cigar shops, Casa del Habanos. Estimates of annual sales of cigars from Cuba range from about 130 million to 150 million, which have remained in that range for the last six to seven years.

Garcia says that Habanos is not overly concerned with unit sales figures, but rather it is sales revenue that counts. He adds that last year's revenue was up about 11 percent. "That's impressive considering the problems in the global market such as the antismoking campaign," he says.

We met last June while I tried a Cuaba Piramide Edición Limitada 2008, one of three new Edición Limitadas that are coming to market this year. He was smoking a Cohiba Corona Especial, his favorite cigar.

The Edición Limitada range includes some of Habanos's most popular premium cigars, he says, as well as the recently launched regional-edition cigars that are made for specific markets. He said that next year a new factory in Havana will be opened that will produce only limited-production cigars, as well as special humidors. It will be in the former El Rey del Mundo factory, near the Romeo & Julieta factory. "It will need some new machinery, new things," he says. "The investment is approved, the investment is ongoing, and we expect that the factory will be working during the first part of 2009."

We sat in his offices in the neighborhood of Miramar for the better part of two hours and covered a lot of ground, from quality control in cigar factories to developing new markets to innovative packaging.

Garcia was born and raised in Havana. With a degree in foreign trade from Berlin University, he started his career working in Germany for Cubatabaco in 1989 before coming back to the main office in Havana in 1996.

His family has no direct ties to the cigar business, although he says that his father and uncle were always smoking cigars. "When I came to study in Havana, I stayed at the house of my uncle who took care of me as if he were my father," he says. "And he smokes four or five cigars every day, always. He still lives with me. He is 83 and still smokes."

But the topic I was really interested in was America, especially considering the evolving political and economic changes in Cuba and in the United States. Many Cuban cigars sold abroad already end up in the hands of Americans. I personally know that a significant percentage of Cuban cigars sold by top cigar merchants and airport shops around the world are purchased by Americans. I know cigar merchants in London, Paris, Madrid, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Tijuana, Cancún, even Auckland, whose sales of Cuban cigars to Americans range between 20 and 40 percent of their total sales each year.

This doesn't count all the "real" Cuban cigars that are bootlegged over the border from Mexico and Canada and sold to eager Americans for a premium price. It's pretty easy to score a Cuban smoke in major cities close to the border. Just look at my video blog from Los Angeles this past May.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Luke Beaudry April 29, 2011 1:22pm ET

Their man in theSLAMMER!

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