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The Son of Montecristo

The Son of Montecristo Peripatetic Benjamin Menendez has left his imprint on nearly every cigar-making country
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 2)

At first glance, the cigar looks like any other, a cylinder of silky tobacco the color of pale leather, a circle of white ash as thick as a quarter growing at its foot. A thin line of blue smoke rises from the foot, while a serpentine column of brown smoke leaves the head, which has been slice-cut by a guillotine. But look closer: there on the side of the cigar are a ew words, written carefully with a Montblanc Rollerball some hours ago: Binder, Cameroon. Wrapper: Indonesia. Filler: Dominican, Brazil. Benjamin Menendez was here.

Most people in the cigar business take notes on cigars, but perhaps only Benjamin Menendez Toraño, the senior vice president of premium cigars for Altadis U.S.A., writes on the cigars themselves. It's his personal way of test-smoking. He instructs a cigar roller to create several cigars of varying blends, then he takes his Montblanc -- a present from Ashton brand owner Robert Levin -- and marks the cigar with its ingredients, in small letters. He can't see the words unless he looks hard, and that's the point. He wants to be kept in the dark about the cigar's contents until after he's made his decision on the worthiness of the blend. "I don't want to know what I'm smoking," he says. "You really have to look for it. I do a blind test."

Writing in tiny letters on a round, fragile surface is hard for Menendez. Numbers are easier, especially one in particular, forever seared in his brain: November 26, 1960.

"It's like a brand that cattle have," says Menendez, now 65. "I went to the airport and left Cuba. I left with my wife, three kids and $7 in my pocket."

Two months earlier, Menendez had been the heir to the largest cigar company in Havana. Now, his cigar holdings belonged to the Castro government, his safe was padlocked, and the Cuban pesos he and his family had saved for this terrible day were all but worthless.

It was one of the worst days of his life.

The cigar industry is rife with tales of loss and exodus, but few cigarmakers can match the stories told by Menendez, a bespectacled 65-year-old man with a thick head of carefully parted dark hair. He has thrived and struggled across the globe at the helm of some of the best-known cigar brands: Montecristo, Montecruz and Macanudo. He has made cigars in virtually every country known to roll tobacco, from Cuba to the Canary Islands, Brazil to the Dominican Republic, and Honduras to Nicaragua. Today, coming full circle, he works for Altadis, a company that makes the Dominican version of Montecristo, the Cuban brand that Menendez's father made famous. It also imports the Cuban version of the Montecristo to France and Spain. He lives a comfortable life and is once again an instrumental force in the cigar market. Yet the lessons of the past are as fresh in his mind as if they happened yesterday.

Born March 11, 1936, in El Vedado, an upper-class neighborhood in Havana, Menendez says he grew up "just like any other kid." And he had to earn his stripes in the cigar factory -- even though he was a son of Alonso Menendez, the majority owner of the largest cigar factory in Cuba, H. Upmann. The Menendez family owned 66 percent of Menendez, Garcia y Cia. Alonso was one managing partner, the other was Jose Manuel Garcia, known to everyone as Pepe; the Garcia family owned the remaining 34 percent of the company. Garcia focused on sales, Menendez concentrated on processing tobacco and making cigars.

Young Benjamin (known to friends as Benji) grew up in the typical fashion of a son of a cigar industry leader. He played in tobacco bales, and visited Cuba's Vuelta Abajo and his grandfather's farms in Havana and Partido. He was educated in Aurora, Illinois, at the Marmion Miltary Academy, and upon his return to Cuba, at age 16, he went to work for his father, first as a translator for American mechanics who were installing cigar-making machines.

"I went back to Cuba and started working on the packing floor, packing cigars. I went through all the departments. I had to be proficient in each of them before I was sent on to the next one," says Menendez. "In Cuba at that time, the unions were very strong. Even I, the son of the owner, had to get a permit to learn the job." He was paid one half the salary of the lowest paid employee in the particular department where he was working. "That was my father's rule," says Menendez. "He said, 'You give money to young people and they will not spend it wisely.' He was a very wealthy man, but he felt I had to earn my money."

They were glory days of Cuban cigars. Six large cigar manufacturers were operating at the time, and hundreds of smaller ones, remembers Menendez. With its 1,100 workers, none was larger than the H. Upmann factory, and its most prized brand was Montecristo. Menendez, Garcia also owned the much smaller Por Larrañaga factory.

Cigar rollers in those days had surprising power. "If they didn't like the conditions of the tobacco, if they found it too dry or too wet, they would start meetings," says Menendez. "If they didn't see progress, they might strike."

These were the days when a lector -- a professional speaker -- would sit in front of a microphone, reading the newspaper each morning and a novel in the afternoon to the workers. But the mike was available to the rollers, too. "If someone was unhappy, they could use the microphone. Anybody could get up and give a speech." Visitors to Cuban cigar factories might still be honored by the slapping of chavettas, the Cuban cutting knives, on the wooden boards used to roll cigars. A roller holds the edge of the crescent-shaped knife and slaps its flat side against the wood. In Mendendez's day, speechmakers who struck a popular chord would be rewarded with a round of slaps; but when the message wasn't warmly received, the workers would throw their knives in disgust at the wood instead. "It makes a totally different sound," says Menendez.

Cigarmaker pride was the mortar holding the factory together. "There was something in Cuba that I haven't seen anywhere else in the world," says Menendez. "It was the pride in making a size. We had an area on the cigar floor called the Senate, because only the highest-priced [cigar] sizes were made there. And it was a matter of pride. I have seen a man cry because he was demoted from a No. 1 to a No. 3."

That attitude changed after Fidel Castro marched into Havana on New Year's Day, 1959. The year before, Menendez had assumed his father's job of negotiating with the unions. Soon after Castro's forces overthrew the Batista government, the spirit of revolution swept through the H. Upmann factory. "The main thing I did every day was meet with unions," says Menendez. "Those last few months were very difficult times. There was so much revolutionary fervor."

Menendez remembers one talk with a union leader. "This fellow said, 'What we're looking for is the intervention, the confiscation of this factory, so that the profits are divided amongst the workers. I want a piece of this pie.'" Menendez turned to the communist delegate who was part of the meeting. "I said, 'Will you explain the concept of this revolution?'" The communist told the union worker that he was mistaken -- the goal was to take the factory and divide the profits amongst all the people of Cuba, not just those particular workers.

The end came quickly. On September 15, 1960, the Cuban government nationalized the country's tobacco industry. At H. Upmann, the militia arrived at 5:30 in the afternoon. The troops sealed the safety deposit box and forbade the owners from entering the factory. All bank accounts, company and personal, were frozen. The next day, when Alonso Menendez arrived at the front door, soldiers made him sign an affadavit. "One of the claims they made was that the owners had fled the country," says his son. "That was not true."

The Menendez family lost everything. The Cuban government took not only Menendez, Garcia, the company that owned the two cigar factories and a cigarette factory, it took the other businesses completely owned by the Menendez family, including an insurance company and a peanut oil company, the latter of which the family had planned to take public on the New York Stock Exchange. Money sat stockpiled at home for an emergency, but it was in Cuban pesos. Devaluation made them nearly worthless.

Life in the United States was difficult at first. The first Christmas Eve in Miami, Menendez's landlord came by "to wish us a Merry Christmas," he says. It turned out differently. He was living there with 11 other family members. "She sees all of us in the house, and she asks one of my younger brothers, 'Are you all living here?'" He said yes. The lease was for six people, not a dozen. "And she said, 'You have one week to get out.'"

Menendez sold cigarettes for Philip Morris in Miami, then moved to New York and trained in a Brooklyn foundry that made cigar-making machines, but he yearned to get back to the cigar business proper. In 1961, with his father as an investor, Menendez opened Compania Insular Tabacalera S.A. in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. There, Menendez created what would become one of the best-selling premium cigars on the American market: Montecruz. Packaged with a crossed sword logo and with all of four letters different from Montecristo, Montecruz was an unapologetic copy of the brand that had been taken away from the Menendez family.

"We did an enormous amount of Montecruz," says Ron Shapiro, the former owner of a 1960s cigar shop in Manhattan and now the co-owner of the International Cigar Factory Outlet in South Norwalk, Connecticut. Montecruz cigars were pricey for the time, selling for about $1 for a Churchill size, compared with about a quarter for many other cigars. "We were able to capture an entirely new business because of it," says Shapiro.

The Canary Islands success helped rebuild the ruined Menendez family fortune, and in 1972 it sold Insular Tabacalera to conglomerate Gulf + Western for around $7 million. Menendez stayed on until 1977, when he and his brother Felix opened a cigar factory in Brazil. It didn't work out as planned.

"I thought Brazil could be a very good place, but it doesn't have a name in the U.S.," says Menendez. "I personally lost money in Brazil." Inflation cut away "a pretty good portion" of what he had made from the sale to Gulf + Western. "Everything was like salt in water -- disappearing so fast."

A fourth life in the cigar business brought Menendez to a pair of new places to make cigars: Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. General Cigar Co. hired him in 1983, first as a consultant, then, a year later, as the head of its premium cigar operations.

At General Cigar, Menendez was working for a family that had done his father a great favor: the Cullmans, owners of General Cigar at the time. It was a Cullman who sold Alonso Menendez the American rights to the Montecristo name -- when the brand was in its infancy.

"In the early twentieth century, Joe Cullman Jr. went to [our] factory and saw my father making Montecristos. And he said, 'I own that brand in the United States -- do you want it?'" says Menendez. "My father said yes. And the price was whatever inventory of labels they had on hand, plus $1."

Menendez worked at General until 1997, when he took a job with the Spanish tobacco monopoly, Tabacalera. As the Madrid-based company's chief cigar creator during the most frantic time in the history of cigar making, Menendez was assigned to run the company's premium cigar operations for the U.S. market, overseeing factories in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. It was a challenging task given that tobacco prices were at all-time highs and competition for rollers and materials was fierce in the midst of the cigar boom. He bought large inventories of tobacco and created several brands, including VegaFina and Quintero, neither of which lasted on the U.S. market. He also expanded the Dominican Romeo y Julieta brand, which previously had been made by Menendez's closest friend, Manuel Quesada.

Tabacalera would later merge with SEITA of France, creating Altadis, the world's largest cigar company. Tabacalera has long had a close relationship with Cuba, being the largest importer of Cuban cigars, and Altadis has forged even stronger ties: in 1999, it acquired half of Cuba's Habanos S.A., the exporter of all Cuba's cigars.

Despite his new company's cozy relationship with Castro's Cuba, Menendez has never returned to the land of his birth. He came close in 1996. "I was almost ready to go," he says, "then they shot down those two planes." Cuba's attack on two aircraft flown by Brothers to the Rescue, the Miami organization that searches for rafters in the Florida Straits, froze the warming U.S.-Cuba relations, and kept Menendez at home. Now he feels that he cannot go back until Fidel Castro is no longer in power.

"We are one country divided by one man. If Cuba ever changed the system, I would be on the first available plane. But not to get anything back. I don't want anything back -- just to see how I can help my country. It is my country, and it will always be my country."

Working for Altadis is another step in what Menendez describes as a learning process. "I'm privileged to have had some of the best professors in the business," he says -- Alonso Menendez, Edgar Cullman Sr., Theo Folz.

The years at Altadis have brought a change to Menendez's daily routine. In the post-boom cigar world, the Dominican factory run by Menendez, TND, was closed, the Romeo brand moved to Tabacalera de Garcia. And Menendez took on a new, quieter role.

"I'm trying to slow down a little bit," he says. Gone are the days of waking up in cigar country, playing tennis with Quesada, and spending Monday through Saturday surrounded by tobacco bales and scores of rollers. Today he visits the factories on occasion, spends time with the sales force, and does public relations work. In December, Menendez moved from the Dominican Republic to Miami.

"For 49 years, 50 years, I got up every morning and knew I was going to the cigar factory," says Menendez. "Now I have to adjust to my new life."

The setting is different, the pace less hectic. But some things will not change. The test cigars will still be there, the Montblanc Rollerball ready to cover them with letters. The smoke will still rise from the cigars, Menendez judging them one by one, not looking at his tiny words until he is ready.

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