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Macanudo's Main Man

Angel Daniel Nuñez controls General Cigar's brand portfolio, from leaf to box
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, Sep/Oct 01

(continued from page 1)

Despite his power, Nuñez remains modest. "In my life, I like to minimize mistakes," he says. He speaks of tobacco as if it were a religion; something to be honored, respected, but never truly mastered. He's fond of saying: "The tobacco speaks to us," but he believes that it speaks a language that's hard to fully understand. In his world, a person like himself can train and train, but ultimately can never fully control such a power.

Nuñez wasn't born in a tobacco field, but as a child growing up in the Dominican town of Moca one was never far away. His father grew a small plot of tobacco that augmented the income from his chief business of growing plantains. The backyard plot was a common sight in 1950s Moca, an agricultural town about 15 miles east of Santiago.

Becoming a farmer like his father wasn't a priority to Nuñez, but in the early 1960s the public schools of the Dominican Republic were becoming dangerous. In 1961 dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was killed, sparking a power struggle for the government. President Juan Bosch was elected president in December, 1962, but was ousted less than a year later by the military. In April 1965, an attempt by his supporters to restore him to power resulted in civil war. The previous year Nuñez had enrolled in vocational school in 1964.

"It was right before the Revoluton [in 1965], and the political situation wasn't totally stable. The public school was getting worse and worse. There was a lot of shooting of students," said Nuñez. A vocational school specializing in agricultural studies was a safe haven. "That was one of the reasons I went to vocational school," he says. He proved to be a natural at the studies, and earned a full scholarship to Texas A&M.

"When I got to Texas I was 106 pounds and I spoke no English," he says. He learned the language at school. Studying agriculture, he learned how to create hybrids of plants, how to manage crops, even though he worked on tomatoes and roses, not on tobacco plants. In addition to hitting the books, Nuñez also learned a bit about business -- particularly how to augment his income.

"I had a full scholarship -- my notebooks, the winter coat, even my food was paid for. And money for incidentals, $100 per month. So I didn't need anything. But as soon as I finished my freshman year, I began getting up at 5 o'clock to get to the cafeteria. I worked two hours in the morning, two hours at noon and two hours in the evening. And it was the greatest time of my life, because I made my own money. I learned to get extra things, just with the effort."

The work ethic gave Nuñez enough extra cash to buy a 1970 Mustang, brand new. The $2,300 car was a welcome replacement for the '62 Triumph Nuñez he had driven through the previous Texas winter. (Which was fairly mild by most standards, but not by Dominican standards.) When he purchased it, the car was a wreck. It had no top and no battery. He paid $75.

Nuñez is an admitted car nut. His two older brothers are mechanics, and they revealed to him the mysterious tangle of wires, hoses and metal that makes up a car engine. The knowledge gave Nuñez another way to make extra money on campus.

"I love cars," he says. "I made quite a bit of money at Texas A&M fixing student's cars. I would get $5 for a tuneup, $10 for changing a clutch. It was good money in those days." He once overhauled a 4-cylander Nissan in less than 24 hours, taking apart the entire engine and putting it back together. But don't ask him to fix a new model. "Today, with my Audi, I don't even open the hood because everything is computerized," he says.

The curiosity and drive that gave him the confidence to take engines apart also pulled him from the one discipline of the cigar industry to another. He started in the tobacco fields in 1972, working for the Dominican Institute of Tobacco growing piloto Cubano, a type of filler tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic. Two years later, Nuñez took a job with General Cigar through a special partnership program with the Dominican government. The country was hoping to capitalize on the embargo against Cuban products, and hoped to build on its cigar country image by growing its first quality wrapper tobacco. General hoped the Dominican could provide a good source for tobacco, so it joined the project. With Nuñez as the Dominican technician, the partners started modestly, on a six-acre plot of land in a town called Bonao.

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