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An Interview With Pedro Martín

Pedro Martín, the founder and owner of Tropical Tobacco.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 1)

CA: And at that point you already knew you were going to go to Detroit, is that right?
Martín: Yes. It was the DWG Corp. I had sold tobacco to them in Cuba for a few years, and then when I came to Detroit they gave me a job. It was Alfred Edelman, who was the DWG tobacco buyer. He's the uncle of Jerry Edelman, who works in the business today. He helped me a lot.

CA: You worked there for four years. Why did you leave?
Martín: I hated the cold weather [laughter]. I used to travel a lot, all over the country, and I remember one time I was in Puerto Rico and I flew back to Detroit right in the middle of the winter. I didn't have any clothes with me. My wife came to the airport to pick me up and she brought me a coat. We started driving and a couple of miles later, my tire blew out. It was snowing, the wind was blowing. I had gloves, but my hands just couldn't [grip the jack to change the tire]. I went to a gas station. While they were fixing the tire, I found out it was 18 degrees below zero. That was it. I had to move.

CA: After DWG you went to work for the Dutch company Koch Scheltema N.V. Where were you stationed?
Martín: I was living in Miami, but I used to work in different places. The first place that they sent me was Colombia. I set up a company in Cartagena called Tabarama de Colombia. I used to buy tobacco for it. From there they sent me to Brazil. From Brazil they sent me to the Dominican Republic and then Central America. They sent me over there to set up all the companies so they could cure, sort and pack tobacco. I was like a consultant. I moved around a lot. I would be in Cartagena for a month at a time, and then I'd come to Miami to see my family. I did the same thing in the Dominican Republic and Brazil. I was very tired of traveling.

CA: You worked for them for six years, and that's when you started Martín Tobacco?
Martín: At Martín Tobacco, we used to buy tobacco mainly from Central America and the Dominican Republic, treat it, cure it and sell it to different manufacturers. A lot of my friends in the cigar industry would say, "I need some tobacco from Nicaragua, from Honduras. Can you get it for me?" And then I went over there, bought the tobacco and prepared it for sale to them.

CA: How big was this tobacco wholesale operation?
Martín: It was a real small company, but later on I joined up with P. M. Gonzalez of Gonzalez & Sons in Tampa, and we created a bigger company.

CA: How many bales of tobacco were you processing every year?
Martín: I'd say, altogether, about 5,000 bales, between Central America and the Dominican Republic. In 1971, we also started growing wrapper tobacco in Nicaragua.

CA: Did you have any partners?
Martín: I had three partners: P. M. Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Bermejo--who works with JR Tobacco now--and Rene Garcia Pulido.

CA: Were Garcia Pulido and Bermejo Nicaraguan or Cuban?
Martín: They were both Cuban.

CA: Where was the wrapper operation in Nicaragua?
Martín: In Estelí. It was natural wrapper and it was beautiful.

CA: Which cigar companies were you selling to?
Martín: Mostly Consolidated Cigar.

CA: Did you sell any of this wrapper to the Joya de Nicaragua?
Martín: No. That was owned by Gen. Anastasio Somoza, and they were using a Cuban-seed wrapper.

CA: Were you using Connecticut seed?
Martín: Yes. We also sold a lot to the Canary Islands' factories.

CA: Did you and your partners lose any property or business when the Sandinistas took over in 1979?
Martín: No. We had ended our partnership [in 1974], after about four years. I tried to fix the business but I couldn't. We started fighting among ourselves. We broke up.

CA: How much wrapper leaf could you grow? How many bales?
Martín: We used to grow over 2,000 bales worth, on about 200 acres. That was a hell of a business at that time.

CA: Would you ever consider going back and growing wrapper leaf again in Nicaragua?
Martín: I would like to, but I'm too old for that.

CA: But do you still use Nicaraguan tobacco in some of your cigars?
Martín: Yes.

CA: Has Hurricane Mitch affected your supply at all, or do you expect it to be affected after this season?
Martín: The only thing which I know so far is that the crop is going to be late. I expect to get decent tobacco from there. I hope so.

CA: Is the tobacco you buy from Estelí or from the Jalapa Valley?
Martín: From Estelí. They're planting crops there.

CA: When did you start Tropical Tobacco and why?
Martín: In 1978, I was in Tampa working with P. M. Gonzalez. I used to handle a lot of tobacco from Honduras and Nicaragua. I saw some factories. I just got excited about being in the cigar business again.

CA: But it had been 20 years or more since you'd made cigars, right?
Martín: Right, but I fell in love with the business again.

CA: When you started Tropical Tobacco, was the factory here in the United States?
Martín: No, we started buying cigars from the people at a factory in Santa Rosa de Copan in Honduras. It was called Flor de Copan. All the tobacco was from there. Our first brand was Solo Aromas. It was a bundle brand--it still is.

CA: Where was it sold?
Martín: In the United States. But it was not well known.

CA: Did you have your own sales staff or did you use wholesalers?
Martín: I used wholesalers.

CA: Did you have national distribution?
Martín: Not at that time. That took time. To have a national distribution, you've got to have a lot of cigars.

CA: How many cigars did you import that first year?
Martín: Not even half a million: 450,000.

CA: And they were all Solo Aromas?
Martín: Mainly.

CA: What was the second brand that you started?
Martín: Maya.

CA: That was made in Honduras also?
Martín: Yes. Then we started Lempira and Casanova. Casanova was a great brand; we used to make it in the Canary Islands.

CA: Do you still own that brand?
Martín: Yes, but I took it out of the market. That was the result of what happened with Tabadom [the Dominican cigarmaker, formally known as Tabacos Dominicanos]. Tabadom was making the brand for me in the mid-1980s. When the Davidoff people came along [to Tabadom], they started getting the tobacco that we had been using in Casanova. They took it out of my cigar. I had to liquidate because there was not enough [quality tobacco for] my cigars.

At the time, I was selling about 40,000 Casanovas a month. We had started making the brand in the Canary Islands. Then one day, in the early 1980s, the suppliers raised the price 25 percent from one day to the next. And you know at that time if you tried to raise prices, it was a disaster. So, I took it out of the Canary Islands and we started making it with the same blend in the Dominican Republic at Tabadom. And in the beginning it was good. But in 1989 Tabadom changed the blend. They changed everything.

CA: Let's go back a second. So Tropical Tobacco starts in 1978. You developed Solo Aromas, Lempira, Maya, Cacique and Casanova. At that point, how many cigars did you import when all five brands were in production?
Martín: About 2 million.

CA: And they were made at Flor de Copan?
Martín: No. By that point, we were making them mainly at a factory in Danlí, Honduras, and a lot of them in the Dominican Republic, at Cotasa [Compania Tabacalera S.A.], which was owned by Tabacalera [the Dominican government tobacco concern]. We were making Cacique there. They also made a brand there called Villa Real. I had it on an exclusive basis in the United States. Then, in 1984, a group of people, including Hendrik Kelner, started Tabadom. And I was a partner in that factory. At that time I owned 10 percent. Everybody owned 10 percent. It was beautiful to me. But then they started issuing more stock. Davidoff ended up with the company. I still have my original stock.

CA: Did you produce all your brands at Tabadom?
Martín: I made some brands in Nicaragua. But I was with Tabadom from 1984 to 1989; six years, and I bought 70 percent of the factory's output.

CA: Wasn't Avo started at Tabadom in 1987? What other brands were made there?
Martín: Griffin, Avo, and we produced Cerdan also. And we produced Ashton in the beginning. When we first set up this factory in 1984, Kelner, who became president of the company, was not in the Dominican Republic. He stayed in Colombia for two years, working in a cigarette factory. We were doing the job ourselves, and we were doing fine.

CA: You started making the Ashton brand in 1986, is that right?
Martín: We started Ashton then. For two years, we made Ashton.


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