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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.

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?
Fuente: This year it's over 65 acres.
C.A.: What does that acreage represent in terms of potential production? When the crop is harvested, what will that represent in terms of potential cigars?
Fuente: This year we are growing about 30 acres shade for wrappers and the other 35 acres sun-grown to get binders and things like that. Of the 30 acres of shade-grown, after sorting out the top grades, you can probably get, roughly speaking, about 1,000 pounds to an acre, and half of that, 40 to 50 percent, would be wrappers. That's depending on the crop and things like that. It's hard to figure the exact amount, but we've been seeing about 40 to 50 percent of good wrappers [per acre] from that farm.
C.A.: At one time, your competitors thought the wrapper venture was just folly, but it is now drawing serious attention. Do you have plans to sell this wrapper ultimately to other cigar manufacturers in the Dominican Republic, or is it primarily for the Fuente family?
Fuente: It's for the Fuentes.
C.A.: Has there been talk of the other manufacturers getting into wrapper farming because of your new success?
Fuente: I'm sure that they will. Once we come out in the market--and it is going to be successful--there will be no doubt about other operations starting up. I'm sure if they are not already experimenting by now, they will be. Of course, when we first started, we used to have a lot of friends come and tell us we were crazy, that it couldn't be done. A lot of people tried to discourage us. But when we set our minds to do something, we put all of our effort into it.
C.A.: In the area where you're growing this wrapper, I assume that there are other properties that could be developed. Is land availability an issue here?
Fuente: No, definitely not.
C.A.: It's really a question of whether or not others are willing to make the investment and take the time to be competitive. What is there about this wrapper that makes it special? You've been buying Cameroon wrappers for many, many years and you buy Connecticut wrappers. But you are clearly going to be shifting a certain amount of your production over to this wrapper. What is there about the taste?
Fuente: It's a different animal; it's a completely different taste and color and texture. What the wrapper reminds me of is something that I used to see before the embargo--in many ways, not all. That's what really tricks me, because it reminds me of Cuban tobacco way back then. But it's still a different animal, and to me, it's better.
C.A.: Is there a different aging process or a different fermentation process?
Fuente: No, we still do everything using the old manufacturing methods. We still do things the old way. We still do our curing and everything much the old way.
C.A.: What is your investment in the Dominican wrapper operation?
Fuente: We just purchased more land. We already built eight tobacco barns, and we are going to build more tobacco barns. We even have an option to buy another property there, about another 25 acres. We already own 85 total acres. [20 acres are not cultivated.]
C.A.: What is the game plan in terms of which of your cigars will end up having the Dominican wrapper?
Fuente: The Opus X.
C.A.: Strictly the Opus X?
Fuente: For now, it is. For now, that's the purpose.
C.A.: Won't there be excess production?
Fuente: Then we might make other brands with the wrapper. But right now, the main goal is the Opus X.
C.A.: The future for the wrapper is really undecided?
Fuente: No, we haven't decided yet what else to put out in the market. We won't change the classic Fuente line. We won't change anything that already exists. We are big believers not to change anything that does well. I was taught by my father, if it's good, if you're successful, don't touch it. So, we will not change anything.
C.A.: Either it goes into Opus X and Opus X flourishes or you might have an additional brand or two with the same wrapper. Is that right?
Fuente: We probably will have other brands that will get the top grades of wrapper like the Opus X. Then we have other lower grades that will probably go in other cigars, other brands.
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