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An Interview with Carlos Fuente Sr.

A discussion with the head of Arturo Fuente Inc., one of the world's largest producers of premium hand-rolled cigars.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

Carlos Fuente Sr. has been in the tobacco business his entire life. His Cuban-born father started a factory in Tampa in the early 1900s, and over the years the family has owned cigar factories there, in Honduras and in Nicaragua. Today, in the Dominican Republic, he and his sons operate a huge cigar-making operation. In fact, the company, Arturo Fuente Inc., has become one of the world's largest producers of premium hand-rolled cigars. With a third factory coming on line this year in the Dominican Republic, the Fuentes had expected to produce nearly 30 million hand-rolled cigars in 1995.

However, the week after this interview, one of the Fuente's tobacco warehouses in the Dominican Republic was consumed by fire. Several tons of aged, high-grade filler and binder tobacco were lost in the early-morning blaze. The Fuentes acknowledge that the fire has set back their expansion plans for 1995, and it will slow the development of the new factory due to the loss of tobacco. It's the sixth fire in the Fuente family history; the previous fires destroyed factories or warehouses in Tampa, Honduras and Nicaragua. But the Fuentes said that the fire "would make them stronger" as they dealt with the adversity.

Three years ago, the Fuentes also attacked one of the long-standing myths about the Dominican Republic: You can't grow shade wrapper there. Today, the family has three vintages of shade-grown wrapper in its inventory, and, Opus X, the new cigar that carries the wrapper, will hit the market this summer. The project, conceived and directed by Carlos Fuente Jr., required a multimillion-dollar investment, everything from acquiring the land and the materials for a shade-wrapper growing operation to building three new tobacco barns for curing and aging. In the final analysis, the Fuentes already have changed the way the cigar industry thinks about Dominican tobacco.

In a wide-ranging interview about the state of the cigar industry today, Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, asked Carlos Fuente Sr. about where he expects his brands to be five years from now. Fuente also talked about the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the cigar market, and his hopes for making Arturo Fuente cigars a top brand in every market in the world.

Cigar Aficionado: One of the most noteworthy events in the Dominican Republic's cigar industry is your courageous attempt to produce wrappers there. Could you tell us a little bit about the history of wrappers in the Dominican Republic and why you decided to experiment?

Carlos Fuente Sr.: There's been a history of people trying to grow wrappers in the Dominican Republic. We had always heard that a certain type of wrapper could be grown there, but we didn't need it at the time. But the Olivas [tobacco growers Angel Sr., John and Angel Jr.] were growing filler tobacco successfully in the Dominican Republic. In 1991, the Olivas grew another type of tobacco on one farm, a piloto Cubano, which was Cuban seed. My son [Carlos Fuente Jr.] saw the tobacco. It was mostly for filler and binder. But he saw the possibility in the tobacco.

As you know, we were raised off and on in Cuba, and we knew all about Cuban tobacco. When we went to Nicaragua, we used to love that type of tobacco, the Cuban seed tobacco. So when my son saw the possibility of the Olivas' tobacco, he recognized that there was a future in that type. He suspected that there was a good chance that--despite what everybody used to say and what everybody had tried before--we could grow wrapper there.

I have always been the type of person who told my sons and my daughters that in life, to be successful, you have to be able to do something that you really like--you have to try. And when he came to see me about the Olivas' tobacco, and told me about it, he was so excited. So naturally, I had to let him go ahead and try it.

My son is the one who decided to buy the farms, but he also bought the whole crop that year from the Olivas. Then he started the project, and after I saw the tobacco was growing, I figured, too, that it could be done. If my son had the love and care to grow the tobacco, then you have to be willing to invest the money. A lot of people have invested a lot of money in tobacco in the Dominican Republic, and lost a lot of money, and I guess they gave it up as a result. It's not that we knew more than anybody else. But the love and care that my son put into it have made it a success. Like I told him from the beginning, if he was going to grow wrapper tobacco, and make it successful, you got to give it what it takes. You can't grow tobacco for financial purposes, like a lot of people do, that they have to grow to resell it.

C.A.: Today, you own that farm? How many acres are planted to wrapper tobacco?

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