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The CA Interview: Austin McNamara

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CA: Did General Cigar abandon too early its efforts to grow a wrapper in the Dominican Republic, and basically, years later, has the Fuente family shown it could be done? Do you find yourself at a disadvantage in that you don't have a Dominican wrapper that has been successfully grown in the Dominican Republic, and if that is so, do you have any plans to become a wrapper grower there?

McNamara: I don't see any disadvantage right now. I mean, we can sell everything that we can make. We have developed our brands and have brands in the pipeline that are just as exciting. Cohiba is a good example. It's an unbelievable blend for us. Your own ratings have got it as very positive. Do we want to experiment with different wrappers? We plan to and we have.

CA: Are you successfully growing Dominican wrapper now?

McNamara: Yes, we are.

CA: Is it on any of your cigars?

McNamara: No, it is not.

CA: Why not?

McNamara: We haven't met the standards that we want for any wrapper.

CA: What happens to it? Is it just sold as binder, or filler?

McNamara: We use it as binder or as filler, or whatever.

CA: Do you foresee being able to grow wrapper successfully in the Dominican Republic in the next few years?

McNamara: We're continuing to experiment with wrapper in a number of places. We experiment in Connecticut. We're experi-menting in Cameroon now. We are experimenting in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Because we do have the expertise in wrapper, we would love to have different tastes from different locations around the world.

CA: General Cigar has some of the best people in the cigar business, and they've been one of the great proponents of experimenting with tobacco in the Caribbean. Do you see this as giving you a competitive advantage over other manufacturers, and if so, why?

McNamara: The Cullman family has been in the tobacco business for almost 150 years and we've only been in the cigar business for 30 or 40 years. They recognize that the quality of the cigar begins with the quality of the tobacco. We are almost obsessed with the quality of tobacco and we will continue to experiment with it and to continue to invest significant funds in the development and production of those tobaccos. We believe that the taste of Macanudo is directly related to the fact that we are vertically integrated and produce our own tobacco. We have special procedures.

CA: What are your guidelines regarding how many years forward you will hold an aged inventory of tobacco?

McNamara: On that I could say, in Connecticut shade two years is the minimum that we usually try to use. In vintage, it's even longer, and we go through a very costly and laborious process of aging and rebulking winter sweat. Which means that it travels to the islands and then it comes back to Hatfield, Massachusetts, and then goes back to the islands. Because we believe all of those steps are directly related to the taste of Macanudo.

CA: How did you design the taste of the Partagas 150, given such a unique find of aged tobacco, aged wrappers from Spain? Do you know what the origin of that tobacco actually was?

McNamara: No, we don't actually know where it was. Except that it was in the inventory of Tabacalera and that they had no use for it. Alfons Mayer heard informally about some very old Cameroon tobacco and went to look at it and it was unbelievable. It was a thousand bales of beautiful aged tobacco, 18 years old.

CA: How many Partagas 150 cigars did you make?

McNamara: Oh, I think we made about 900,000 cigars in total.

CA: And are they all gone? Are they all sold?

McNamara: We've put some aside. Very small quantities for special events. For instance, if we have a special auction or something like that, we have a few boxes that we give away. But we don't have any more to sell.

CA: What did you do for a living before you joined General Cigar five years ago?

McNamara: My career really started at Procter & Gamble where I ran a number of brands. I also worked for Chiquita Brands International. You probably could characterize me as a consumer package goods marketer. I worked on brands like Tide and Scope and Pert shampoo.

CA: What caused you to even consider going into an aging, troubled industry like the cigar industry that, based upon the past, was on a steady decline in the United States?

McNamara: The thing that really attracted me was the challenge. When Edgar Cullman Sr. and Edgar Cullman Jr. talked to me about taking this job on, they said, "We have a very profitable, successful company in a tough industry and we want to know what to do with these brands and what we should do with this company. And we want your help, if you could come, to figure out what the future looks like." The assignment changed somewhat. Because within a year, the core company was right in the middle of the firestorm of the cigar boom. For the last five years, we've just been able to take advantage of the business in front of us. But we do have a broader look for the Macanudo brand to extend well beyond just cigars.

CA: How does your view of the company and the opportunity to build the company differ today than five years ago?

McNamara: I believe that the opportunity is as different as you could imagine. It's an unbelievable opportunity. These are very powerful brands. Particularly Macanudo. But Macanudo, Cohiba and Partagas all have very powerful images beyond the cigar and we believe that there is a tremendous opportunity to link this cigar-smoking habit to a larger luxury lifestyle business. Club Macanudo and the small effort that we have made in logo clothing and the like and some of the accessories we have introduced have all proven that these brands can go well beyond cigars, and we are excited about that. We are prepared financially and management-wise to commit to making those brands bigger then ever.

CA: What is it like working in a public-private family business that is controlled by the Cullman family?

McNamara: The Cullman family is a great set of leaders. They have been in this business for a long time and so the amount of experience and passion that they have for their product permeates the entire company. Long before "total quality management" became business buzzwords, they had a company with a top-quality, job-focused effort. The Cullmans were doing that. They have a personal family passion of commitment to the consistency and quality, and the commitment to that quality I think is unequaled in the industry. But also, we have an incredible well of cigar talent in the company; it is one of the most experienced sets of managers working in the cigar business. There's Frank [Llaneza] and Danny [Blumenthal] at Villazon, and we have both Cullmans, plus Alfons Mayer and Daniel Nuñez on the tobacco side. It's an amazing power base.

CA: Are there many instances where you and Edgar Jr. might take one side and Edgar Sr. the other, or you might take one and they take the other? Or do you pretty much function as a group that you guys jointly agree on the things that matter?

McNamara: I think that what is great about them is that there is an extremely open, healthy dialogue with any issue. When we have a different point of view, everybody gets an opportunity to speak their mind. But then once we realize we have to make a decision, we work very hard at coming to a consensus. They are very easy to work for and they have a lot of knowledge for someone like me coming into the company to pick up quickly.

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