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Fathers and Sons, Part 1

The cigar industry owes much of its creativity and longevity to the unique partnerships between father-and-son cigarmakers
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

(continued from page 1)

One route Tim got his father to follow was making the C.A.O. Brazilia, which Tim says "was probably the breakthrough in our relationship." The cigar broke a few cigar industry rules: first, it employed green as a part of the label, which has long been frowned upon, and it trumpeted the Brazilian wrapper on the cigar, which was hardly a selling point. "My dad [prefers] to be safe," says Tim.

"I have to have an open mind, and follow the artist rather than the engineer," says Cano, speaking in the slow, deliberate tones of a man who practices yoga on a daily basis. "Our demographic is younger. I liked [Brazilia] very much. I wouldn't have thought of it myself."

"He comes from a young perspective," Cano says of his son. "I respect that. Fifty percent of the time we don't agree, but when we come to a consensus we are 100 percent together."

CESAR AND DAVID BLANCO

Cesar and David Blanco began selling their Los Blancos cigars brand at the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show in 1999. It was the start of the post-cigar-boom world, not the easiest time to enter the cigar business, but the Blancos had some connections: family members had married into the Plasencia and Oliva tobacco-growing families. The Blancos entered a difficult business with what they thought was a winning product. Then, the world changed.

"9/11 hit," says David Blanco, a compact, confident-looking man with a soldier's haircut. The Blancos were military men before they became cigar men: David enlisted with the U.S. Army Reserve at age 18, following in the footsteps of his father, who has spent 29 years on both active and reserve duty. With America at war, the Blancos were soon shipped overseas, and their military commitments had to come before the cigar business. Cesar Blanco spent almost a year in Iraq as commander of the 375th MP Detachment, and David spent two years in Afghanistan serving with the 10th Infantry Division. "My mother was in shambles," says David, 34.

The business fared worse. "When I came back, and my father came back, we were in the toilet," says David. "And we said, 'Do we fold it, or do we go on?' My father has always been a very determined man, and it's probably one of the reasons we're doing as good as we are."

Cesar Blanco, president of Los Blancos, emigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1961, when he was 14. His father had served in the Cuban house of representatives under Fulgencio Batista, and his mother was a lawyer. The Blancos settled in Chicago, following business opportunities. David, the first member of his family born in the United States, grew up in Chicago, and he seems to have a sense of adventure, having served the city as a police officer and a paramedic in the fire department. His father also served with the Chicago Fire Department, as a deputy chief. "You can say he is a chip off the old block," Cesar Blanco says of his son.

The Blancos have always had close ties with cigars, and father and son puffed away while serving in the field. Selling Los Blancos cigars has brought both of them closer to their roots. "This has brought me back to the family business," says David Blanco, who serves as the vice president of business development for Los Blancos. "I hope this takes me to my golden ages."

CARLOS AND CHARLIE TORAÑO

For generations, the men of the Toraño family joined the tobacco business. "This is who we were," says Carlos Toraño, who learned about tobacco at the side of his father, one of the most famous figures in the tobacco world. The man lived, breathed and even died tobacco: he is remembered for bringing the first Cuban seeds to the Dominican Republic, and died after having a heart attack in a curing barn.

"I've always said the name of Toraño is synonymous with tobacco, because I could not recall any Toraño family members who were not involved in tobacco," says Carlos Toraño, 63. "I'm talking about cousins, second cousins, uncles, second uncles, everybody I knew in the Toraño family—everybody was in tobacco. Growers, manufacturers or dealers or something—everyone was in tobacco."

His only son, Charlie (his given name is also Carlos, but he goes by the nickname), broke that chain temporarily, becoming a lawyer for several years. His father was happy.

"I did not think that there was a future in the cigar industry," Toraño says, speaking of the 1970s and 1980s when cigarmakers seemed headed for oblivion. "Going to the RTDAs," he says, speaking of the annual industry trade show, "maybe there were 40 booths. And you would say…" he takes a dramatic breath, spreading his arms wide for emphasis "…this is the future." With sales falling and the outlook grim, the elder Toraño never encouraged his son to join the cigar business, and was pleased when he yearned to be a lawyer, like his maternal grandfather.

As cigar sales grew stronger in the mid-1990s, the Toraño family business once again had a future. Carlos's daughter, Carolina, 37, joined the business in 1995. A year later, Charlie decided he wanted to change careers, and broached the subject of working for his father.

"We were having dinner in Boca Raton, and it was with my wife and my mother, and my wife didn't even know I was going to make this statement," says Charlie, 38, a taller, slimmer version of his father with a slight goatee and longish hair. "I said, 'Dad, is there room for me at the company?' And he said, 'There's not room, there's a need.'"

Charlie closed his law books and joined the family business. (But not before having a fight with his wife, who didn't know he was going to make his dinner statement.) The cigar business has changed Charlie. "Most lawyers are encased in four walls. Doing a lot of reading, a lot of writing…you don't travel much, you don't see the world, and you tend to see more problems than opportunities," he says. "It took me a few years to make a bit of the transition of just looking at the pitfalls."

Getting used to the cigarmaker tradition of doing business with a handshake didn't sit well with him. "We do so much on a handshake, the lawyer part of me doesn't sleep sometimes," he says. His father, who wears a broad smile like a comfortable T-shirt, chuckles as he listens.

It's evident that Charlie doesn't miss wearing suits or staring at four walls. He now wears open-collared shirts and travels frequently to his company's factories. What he treasures most is the additional time he now spends with his dad.

"In many ways I was seeing a lot less of Dad in the years leading up to when I started working here," he says. "It's been a thrill ride, to be honest with you, both enjoying the tobacco business but also just working with Dad. As close as Dad and I have always been, I think there's a lot I would have missed [if I hadn't joined the business]."

Last year, Charlie became president of Toraño Cigars Inc. (His sister still works for the company, as chief financial officer.) Asked if he was now chairman of the company, Carlos smiled and replied, "Whatever."

What does Charlie's becoming president mean?

"He has more work now!" says Carlos, chuckling loudly. Adds Charlie with a grin: "The phone calls come in, and the ones Dad doesn't want to handle, he says, 'Talk to Charlie—he's the president.'" "Dad has been always very good about pushing me and pushing my sister out front," says Charlie. "When there's a clash between a father and son, in any business, unfortunately I do think it's sometimes a clash of ego. The father saying, 'Hey, 'I'm the man; as long as I'm on this planet, I'm the father, you're the son.' But Dad's never been that way…. And I think by him saying it's time to push you out front, I think that's very much Dad's personality."

"I've always had a very strong relationship with my family," says Carlos. "And that to me has been success. Now this is extra success. To be financially well, and to have my children working for me, that is a dream come true."

Chances are good that Charlie won't be the last Carlos Toraño to enter the cigar and tobacco business. "My son, he is also Carlos, is seven going on eight," says Charlie. "A couple of days ago he said to me, You know, Dad, I want to do part-time anthropology, digging for dinosaur bones, and part-time working in the cigar factory with you."

ROBERT AND SATHYA LEVIN

For nearly two years, Sathya Levin has been learning the ropes at his father Robert's Philadelphia cigar company, which owns the Ashton brands.

The company business model allows the younger Levin to get a complete picture of the cigar industry. The Levins not only distribute cigars, but they sell them: they own the Holt's shop in Philadelphia and have a considerable mail-order business. They also have a very close relationship with Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., makers of the Ashton brands and a minority owner of the business.

"He's doing everything," says Robert Levin of his 25-year-old son. "That's basically the idea." "I'm trying to learn everything that we do," says Sathya. He spends time at headquarters, he's worked in the shipping department, and he goes on the road with key members of the Ashton team, including the director of worldwide sales Chip Goldeen and the vice president of sales Manny Ferrero. (Ferrero is also part of a father-son team; his son, Tony, is an Ashton salesman.) "Sathya's young," says Levin, 59, who has worked in the business for more than three decades, following the route taken by his father. "He's kicking ass. Let's face it—he has the energy and the creativity that's necessary to move the company forward."

Sometimes, perhaps, too much energy.

"We talk business all the time," says Sathya, who lives with his parents. "We even talk at night."

"I can't relax and read a goddamn newspaper," Robert gripes. "Ten, 11 at night I'm sitting in my chair. He wants to talk business all the time. I can't escape it—24 hours a day."

The younger Levin dabbled in the family business for years, working in the warehouse, packing orders, and doing all kinds of things that sons traditionally do in family businesses. "I had to learn from the ground up," he says. A breakthrough moment came in the 11th grade. His school required all students to do a monthlong personal study assignment. Most opted for internships, and Sathya decided he would spend his month in the Dominican Republic with the Fuente family learning how his father's Ashton cigars were made, from start to finish.

"I lived with Carlos Fuente Sr.," Sathya says. "I learned cigar making. At the end, I was rolling. That's when I first started smoking cigars. It was a good month."

Levin's father was proud, but the school wasn't thrilled when the project was initially proposed, and Robert had to fight for its approval. "They didn't like the fact that he was going to a cigar factory—the school is very politically correct," says Robert. "I had to go talk to the headmaster."


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