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An Interview with Manuel Quesada

Owner, MATASA, makers of Fonseca, Licenciados, Romeo y Julieta, Jose Benito, Cubita, Royal Dominicana, Credo and Casa Blanca cigars.

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Quesada has been in the tobacco business his entire life, starting in the family enterprise at the age of 13. In Cuba, the Quesada family were leaf brokers for everything from cigarette tobacco to cigars, and one of the major exporters of Cuban tobacco to the world market. When they were forced into exile in 1960, they transferred their entire business to the Dominican Republic, where they had been buying and selling tobacco for years. It didn't take long before they began manufacturing cigars. When the cigar renaissance began in 1992, MATASA and Quesada were among the founding members of Pro-Cigar, an organization established to promote Dominican cigars.

Today, Quesada is entering a new era. One of the brands he manufactures, Romeo y Julieta, has become part of the emerging empire of Tabacalera, the Spanish tobacco giant. The brand, owned by Hollco-Rohr, gives Tabacalera an entry into the U.S. market for the first time. He's also starting a joint venture with Mike's Cigars of Miami and J.R. Tobacco to manufacture new brands in a new factory. In a recent conversation with Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Quesada spoke about the huge opportunities in the cigar business and his ongoing commitment to growth and quality.

Cigar Aficionado: Your family has a long, rich past in the cigar industry and in tobacco. What drove you to choose the cigar industry as a career?
Quesada: We did not become manufacturers until we were exiled from Cuba. In Cuba we were not manufacturers, we were tobacco leaf people. My great-grandfather came to Cuba from Spain with his family. They were bakers, but the bakery wasn't big enough for him and his brother, who were the last to come to Cuba. When a debt to the family was paid with tobacco, the family told the two youngest brothers to take it and make a livelihood out of it. And they did. They started a leaf purchasing company in Cuba together.

CA: Who is they?

Quesada: My great-grandfather and his brother. Later, at the beginning of the century, they split ways to establish separate companies and they became the two largest exporters of Cuban tobacco from Cuba to international markets. And we have been competing in the world market ever since, and now in the Dominican Republic as well.

CA: What were the names of the two companies?

Quesada: Sobrinos de Antero Gonzales, our side of the family, and Constantino Gonzales, my great-grandfather's brother, the other side of the family. And we have come parallel through Cuba and the Dominican Republic until today.

CA: Was your grandfather in the business?

Quesada: My grandfather was in the business. He married my great-grandfather's daughter. He was a Quesada, not a Gonzales. The Gonzales family started the company. And then the Quesadas come in through my grandfather, who married a Gonzales daughter.

CA: And what role did he play when he was in the tobacco business?

Quesada: Well, the way the company was structured, there were always five managing directors or managing partners or whichever title they had, and my grandfather, of course, started as the fifth managing partner and moved all the way to first managing partner. That's what my father did, too. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. Some of my great uncles, cousins to my father, were also in that echelon of the company. Once they got involved in the company, they would be assigned different things such as the oversight of the farms or the warehouses, or they would be involved in sales. My grandfather and my father both had done the whole circuit of different jobs in the company.

CA: Is it fair to say that you stepped into your father's shoes?

Quesada: In Dominican Republic, yes. Because in Cuba we were too young to work. So we did not have any experience in Cuba.

CA: How long have you been working in the tobacco business?

Quesada: Since I was 13 years old. I'm 50 now. Thirty-seven years. I started when I was 13, but then I went to college, then into the army.

CA: Did you go to school in the United States?

Quesada: Yes. High school in Miami Beach, St. Patrick's, and college in Dominican Republic and then a master's degree from Florida State, in Tallahassee.

CA: I remember visiting your quaint, small, ordinary, but charming factory in 1991. Can you recall what your mission or strategy was in terms of the cigar business then, versus what your mission has become because of the change in the cigar market? What were your priorities then versus today?

Quesada: As much as I hate to tell you, back in the early '90s--'89, '90, '91--we were still suffering from the hangover of the 1980s when the market had slid. Business was slow. We were not growing in numbers to write home about and we were sort of in a doldrums state. We were making cigars, we were growing tobacco, we were warehousing tobacco basically in the same fashion we had been doing for years, and what we really didn't have was a challenge. We didn't have something to say, Let's really put ourselves to the test and see what we can do, if anything. Because one never knows what could happen. This may be a harsh judgment, and perhaps it was the case for the whole industry, but I think it was the case in our facility. We were making what we considered to be good cigars, even excellent cigars at the time. But we were within the parameters of what we had been doing in the past. Same filler, same binders, same wrappers, same fermentation processes, same blends, same brands, same markets. We were following in the footsteps of what we had been doing in the past. Creativeness in a market that really didn't show vast promise was curtailed, and we were suffering from that, I believe.

CA: I remember, though, that you had ideas. You wanted to do this, you wanted to do that, you wanted this, and you were like a coffee that's on boil. You were percolating with different thoughts and ideas, but nowhere to go.

Quesada: You always have to be doing that if you're going to be in the tobacco business, because tobacco is not the same thing day in and day out. You have different crops, you have different countries of origins, you have different vintages with different conditions. Tobaccos are always challenging you to play with them and make new blends.

CA: How much of your life did you spend in Cuba?

Quesada: I left when I was 13.

CA: What year was that?

Quesada: 1960.

CA: Is it fair to say that the final chapter in your dream is returning home?

Quesada: I would say so.

CA: By making cigars?

Quesada: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

CA: Let's fast-forward to 1997. It's an incredibly different market, not just that it's growing and it's bigger, but there has been an avalanche of new brands that nobody has ever heard of. If somebody said to you three years ago that there would be 300 new brands, because I know that every day I see 10 on the shelf I never heard of, would you have believed it? How has that changed the rules, and as a result, how would you define your mission or strategy today?

Quesada: I don't think the rules have changed. I think the playing field is also the same, because quality is still the guiding light. However, we now have a different dynamic in our business because the consumer is now much more involved with us, the manufacturers, than he was five, six, seven, 10 years ago. We were only dealing with retailers, wholesalers then. Now we're dealing directly with the consumer. We are more in contact with the consumer. We know more about his needs, his demands, his pleasures. So, there is an additional guiding light that we didn't have eight years ago.

The proliferation of brands is interesting. Three years ago, I would have probably guessed that a lot of new brands would come to market, because the market was pointing to opportunity. People could say, I'll make any kind of cigar and I'll sell it no matter what. That environment was conducive to more people coming in.

CA: Is it fair to say, however, that the days of creating new premium cigar brands are over, or do you still think there's opportunity?

Quesada: I still think there are opportunities for new brands because there are a number of variations that haven't been tested yet. There are still tobaccos that I believe can be blended into a cigar that will be accepted by the market. If a new brand comes from a manufacturer that has some sort of position in the market, it will be accepted as a quality-consistent product as opposed to a brand coming from someone who just started months ago.

CA: In 1997, what is the approximate production of your premium cigar business?

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