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.
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C.A.: There are people in the tobacco trade, in the cigar trade, who come from Cuba. In your particular case, your family was involved in the cigar trade since the turn of the century. Could you give a little background about your family's origins?
Fuente: My parents were from Cuba originally. And my father's father used to grow tobacco in Cuba, manufacture some cigars and sell both cigars and tobacco in Cuba. Even on my mother's side, her father had a cigar factory, a small one that used to be called a buckeye. After the war [the Spanish-American War of 1898], they started coming to the States. My father moved to the States and was there in the early 1900s. Naturally, with his background in tobacco and his history, he went into the cigar business. Ybor City [now part of Tampa] was the cigar capital in those days, and my father worked in the cigar factories there. In 1912 he and a few friends were able to start a factory that was named A. Fuente and Company at that time.
Fuente: In Ybor City. It really started in the West Tampa area. But during one of my father's trips, in the mid-1920s to Cuba buying tobacco, the factory burned down.
C.A.: In Tampa?
Fuente: Yes. He lost everything. That was the end of the factory there. He went back to working as a foreman in other cigar factories. When he had the factory in 1912, he had partners. When it burned down, he said that although he wanted to go back into the business, he would not do it unless he did it as a family business; he would do it strictly for himself.
In the 1940s, he was able to start up a factory again, and he started it in the back of the house with my mother and him and my grandmother. We are such a close family that every night my sister and my uncles--the whole family--used to come over after they got off work and make cigars. My father was only interested to sell enough cigars to make a living. He was never interested in any big factory.
But naturally I was born into that family, in the same house, so I was always in the factory. I remember that the first chore when my brother and I came home from school was to roll 50 cigars before we could go out and play. As the years went by, I was always in the factory. I guess I had the feel for tobacco also, and that was my love. In my first trade, I was a baker. But even when I used to work in the bakery, I would still come home and work in the cigar factory.
C.A.: What caused your father to leave Cuba and come to America?
Fuente: I guess everybody was trying to better themselves after the war, and they all started leaving Cuba. My father's brothers and sisters came to the States, and I guess they brought him because they were having a hard time in Cuba. So he came to Tampa. And he always said that it was his home after a few years.
C.A.: Where were you born?
Fuente: I was born in Tampa.
C.A.: Did you ever live in Cuba?
Fuente: I used to spend a lot of time in Cuba. I have always wanted to go back to Cuba and open a factory. We were all of Spanish descent. We all lived in Cuba, and our home was Cuba, even though I was born here. I didn't learn English until I started school. There was nothing but Spanish spoken in my house when I was young.
C.A.: Despite all your success in the Dominican Republic, do you foresee expanding into Cuba if the embargo is lifted?
Fuente: I'm sort of different, I guess. I don't really give it a second thought. I think the end of the embargo would be good for the Cuban people because they are going through such hard times. To end the embargo, I think it would be the best for everybody. As far as me personally, it doesn't make any difference.
We owe a lot to the Dominican Republic. Our company has done in 15 years there what it has not done in all its history. It wouldn't matter if Cuba were to open tomorrow and the embargo is lifted. We might go back to Cuba and open something and do something there, but we would not leave the Dominican Republic. No way.
C.A.: I wasn't suggesting that you would. But what form might your involvement take? Would you expand there, or would you just buy tobacco there?
Fuente: We will buy tobacco and we will blend it with Dominican tobacco.
C.A.: You have a number of different brand names using Arturo Fuente as the basic identification. The classic Arturo Fuente brand is still your bread and butter. Can you tell me the number of cigars you sell under that name and the price range?
Fuente: It runs about $1.95 now to $3 something.
C.A.: The wrapper is basically from Cameroon?
Fuente: With the exception of three different sizes, all Cameroon wrappers. The Chateau Fuente line is Connecticut shade. The Chateau is in the same line as Arturo Fuente, but it has a cedar sleeve, and it's a Connecticut shade wrapper. All the rest of the Arturo Fuente line is Cameroon wrapper.
C.A.: How many millions of cigars do you sell under that brand name?
Fuente: The entire Arturo Fuente line last year sold over 10 million cigars.
C.A.: Then you have the Hemingway. What's the price range?
Fuente: It starts at $2.65 suggested retail and it runs over $8 for the Hemingway Masterpiece.
C.A.: The wrappers are all Cameroon. How many cigars do you sell in that brand line?
Fuente: That's a little over a million.
C.A.: Then we move up the line to the Don Carlos. What is its price range?
Fuente: There are three Don Carlos that sell for $5.75, $7 or $8.
C.A.: Cameroon wrappers?
Fuente: Cameroon wrappers.
C.A.: What's the approximate volume of Don Carlos?
Fuente: Well, that's a very limited volume. We have just two cigar makers on that. We have tremendous demand for those cigars. If we went out and filled the demand for it, we would run out of tobacco, because it uses tobacco from a 1984 crop. Naturally, that is a limited supply. So we just use it in a very limited way.