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Fathers and Sons, Part 2

The second part of our look at the important generational partnerships that define a large part of the cigar industry
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

(continued from page 9)

Carlos Fuente Sr. + Carlos Fuente Jr.

The June heat is unrelenting, even under the thatched gazebo near the entrance to Chateau de la Fuente. Peacocks caw in the shadow of the royal palm trees that seem to be everywhere on this gorgeous tobacco farm where every rock lining the roads is painted bright white, where each detail is carefully attended to in this oasis where some of the world's most sought-after tobacco is grown.

No father-son team is as famous as that of the farm's owners, Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr. The two men run a business that makes some 35 million cigars by hand each year, among them the Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Corona, Cigar Aficionado's 2006 Cigar of the Year.

They sit down at a small, simple table that stands on the tiled floor of the gazebo. On its top are a thermos of rich, black coffee, a few dozen cigars and a wooden ashtray. As Carlos Jr., known as Carlito, reaches for a dark OpusX, it's easy to see his resemblance to his father. Each man has a thin mustache, and neither looks his age. The elder Fuente, 71, has a head of thick hair for which men 20 years his junior would kill, even though it's mostly white. The son, 52, is showing flecks of gray in his black hair, but his eyes sparkle with the enthusiasm of youth. The bond between the two is evident.

It's a cigar-making bond that goes back to a previous generation. Arturo Fuente, Carlos Sr.'s father, created A. Fuente & Co. in 1912 with a group of partners in the Ybor City section of Tampa, Florida. The business burned down in 1924, and it wasn't until 1946 that Arturo reopened it behind the family's house. It was a small, bootstrap operation, far from the juggernaut that is Fuente today.

"Cigarmakers would leave their day jobs in other cigar factories—there were hundreds around Tampa—and then they would go visit my grandfather and make cigars with him at night," says Carlos Fuente Jr. "They didn't charge him," adds Fuente Sr. "They would do it out of friendship. That's the way my father started."

Carlos Sr. had little money growing up, and soon developed a strict work ethic to make ends meet. "I was maybe eight years old, and I always liked to earn my own money. I shined shoes in the street, I worked in grocery stores, a pharmacy, and when I became a teenager I used to get off school at 3:30 and I used to start working at four at the pharmacy, until 11 o'clock at night. I would get up at two, three o'clock in the morning: I had a newspaper route, and then at eight o'clock in the morning I used to go to school. I'm used to working seven days a week my whole life."

When he was 16, Carlos Sr. took a job as a baker because his father couldn't afford to employ him at the factory, although he had been making cigars off the payroll for his dad since he was 10. Baking paid well for the time—with overtime, $160 a week—but after marrying at age 18 and having a child a year later, he yearned to work full-time in the family business. In 1957, he realized that goal, quitting the bakery job even though his father still couldn't afford to pay him a salary. Fuente Sr. made do by getting his wife a job at another cigar factory and by selling cigars on the weekends.

After Carlos Sr. took over the business in 1958 (Arturo stayed on in a limited capacity until 1965), the Fuente factory was extended to include practically every room in Arturo Fuente's Ybor City home. "We took the whole house over," says Fuente Sr., who by now was able to draw a weekly paycheck of $40. "I just left my father and my mother one back room and an area to cook. That was all they had left. They had a living room, but when we had to blend the tobacco, we had to get all the furniture out of the living room and out on the street. The kitchen we used to cellophane cigars."

Young Carlito grew up surrounded by the cigarmakers. "I was born in the business, and as far back as I can remember I sat on cigarmakers' laps, and watched them roll in the back of my grandmother's house," he says. "It was a family business, and I thought everybody was family. I lived inside the factory until I started going to school."

Now that he was running the family cigar business, Carlos Sr. started to buckle down. He began traveling to Miami to extend the realm of the company, and sold on credit for the first time. The business was moved from the home to a proper factory, then to a larger plant. Carlos Sr. never seemed to stop working. "One time it was three weeks without coming home. Three weeks. So my wife came with Carlito on one side and a bag on the other side, and said, 'Well, if you're not coming home I'm moving in here with you.' " He had little time to pause, as he did many of the jobs himself, including maintaining the machinery. "Now, there's nothing in the factory I can't do."

When the boss knows everything about a business, he can be hard to please. "I wasn't easy to work with a lot of times. I used to have sort of a temper, and I liked things to be right." Carlito smiles, and offers a correction. "Perfect," he says, drawing a grin from his father.

One day in the early 1960s, when Carlos Sr. visited the factory, he grew incensed at the poor quality of the cigars. "I threw them against the wall," he says. "I got my keys. I told my father, 'You keep the damn business—I'm leaving here.' I said, 'Close the place.' I told everybody, 'Get the hell out of here.' Everybody."

Carlos Sr. eventually returned to the factory, and rehired the crew. Quality improved. With Carlos Sr. working such brutal hours, the amount of time Carlito spent with his father was limited during his childhood. "My father would be working 18 hours a day," he says. "My grandfather [acted as] my father. He would tell me stories about Cuba."

The A. Fuente brand had always been made by hand in Tampa, but with rising labor costs and a shrinking pool of cigarmakers in the United States, Carlos Sr. tried producing Flor de Orlando and other brands offshore in the mid-1970s, with poor results. In Nicaragua, their factory was burned to the ground, and fire also claimed a factory in Honduras. Carlos Sr. tried training young cigar rollers in the 1970s in Tampa, but he and his son couldn't retain the labor at the prices they could afford to pay. "I saw there was no future [in Tampa]," says Fuente Sr. The only future we got is handmade cigars, or go totally mechanized. And I don't like that, and that's not our trade. We had to move. My son told me, 'I want to stay in the business.' I said the only way we're going to go is as a family. We'll keep it in the family business."

In 1980, the two left the comfort of Tampa for the wilds of the Dominican Republic, which was a far rougher place then than it is now.

"There was nothing here," says Carlito, who left behind a Porsche and a Jaguar when he moved. His father left his house, which was paid for, and sold everything he had to fund the new business. "I cashed in my insurance, mortgaged my house, then I asked my son, 'How much you got?'"

Carlito had spent time in the Dominican tobacco fields during the mid-1970s at the behest of his dad. "When I started in the business, I learned what it's like to manufacture, but I wanted my son to go further than I did," says Fuente Sr. "I wanted him to work in the fields."

In the Dominican Republic, the two worked side by side. They ate lunches together every day, smoking cigars and drinking Beefeater Martinis, and strategizing.

"Our family has always been close," says Fuente Sr. "I never recall having an argument with my father, and I never recall having an argument with my son." Not that they always agree. "When we started this farm," he says, gesturing with his arm, "we didn't need it. [But] look what he's done—he's taken this business to the next level. What my son has done is tremendous."

Just as Carlos Sr. took Arturo Fuente beyond the small borders of Ybor City and into national accounts, Carlos Jr. transformed the cigarmaker with the creation of Chateau de la Fuente. There the Fuentes grew Cuban-seed tobacco under shade in the Dominican Republic and used it as the wrapper on a novel project, the Fuente Fuente OpusX cigar. Dominican wrapper of this type had never been a commercial success, and was certainly never ballyhooed as a crowning element in a cigar. While the Fuentes had a hit from day one with consumers, the unique project caused quite the controversy with others in the industry.

"They said we were crazy, they said we were going to have a flop," says Carlos Sr., recounting what he heard from his contemporaries. He furrows his brow. "I knew that it could be done. There's nothing in this world that can't be done. I knew we didn't need it, but if that's what he wanted to do, I went along with him."

Doubt brought the two even closer together. "The more people said it couldn't be done, the more we wanted to do it," says Fuente Jr. "The more they said it couldn't be done," adds the father, "the harder we worked."

Fuente now makes more handmade cigars than any other family-owned company, and its size rivals that of the industry's corporate giants, Altadis U.S.A. Inc. and General Cigar Co. Despite the growth, Fuente is still very much a family affair. The company enjoys the luxury of not explaining its decisions to shareholders. The cigar blends are secret and are not written down. "Only my father and I know," says Carlito. The family hoards tobacco, putting much of its profit into the leaves it uses to make cigars. "We have six, seven, eight years of tobacco in inventory," says Fuente Sr. "It doesn't make business sense," says Fuente Jr. "My father always told me, you can run the cigar business with your heart, not with pen and paper."

Carlos Sr.'s daughter, Cynthia Fuente-Suarez, is also closely involved in the business, as is her husband, Wayne Suarez, who has been a part of the Fuente organization since 1992. "This is not a business to the Fuentes," Suarez says simply. "It's a way of life."

As the sun begins to sink lower in the sky, the heat relenting slightly, Carlito reaches for another one of his strong cigars. "I've been by my father's side the entire time," he says, looking at his dad with pride. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

John Oliva Sr. + John Oliva Jr.

If following in the footsteps of a successful businessman can be difficult, living in the shadow of a legend is far harder. The late Angel Oliva Sr. is one of the most revered men in the history of cigars. The hard-driven Cuban etched his name in the cigar history books when he bought much of the last pre-embargo Cuban tobacco crop—some 2.5 million pounds worth—and sold it for fair prices despite a U.S. embargo that suddenly made the leaf priceless. Known for working extremely long hours and patiently sorting tobacco until he felt it was perfect, he was the antithesis of an easy boss.

John Oliva Sr. (left) and John Jr.
Oliva came from a huge family ruled by a tough father. Survival meant work, and as a young boy Angel collected manure for two cents a pound. At age 12 he left home, and eventually founded Oliva Tobacco Co., in 1934. In the late 1950s, he bought his own farm in Cuba, fulfilling a dream.

"When I was 10, we went to his farm in Pinar del Río," says Angel's son John Oliva Sr., sitting in the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. In this city built on cigars and tobacco, a street just steps away from the Columbia has been recently renamed Angel Oliva Sr. Street. "We used to stay at a little apartment on the farm. He'd say, 'Come here, I want to show you this. Aren't you interested?' I'd say, 'No, I don't want to look at tobacco.' But at 10 years old, he was working his ass off. He was picking up tobacco leaves, he was working—he had no choice. Let me tell you what, he was a hard worker. He was a hard worker all his life."

To describe his father's work ethic, and perfectionist streak, Oliva Sr. describes a marathon day spent repacking an entire shipment of 124 bales of candela wrapper—with only his family to help. "We repacked all that tobacco, carton by carton. Started at eight in the morning and stopped at three in the morning. I fell asleep on the way to bed," says Oliva Sr. "Let me tell you, he was 56, I was 21. I did the heavy work, but he worked right alongside me."

Angel Oliva had the look of a kindly grandpa in his later years, but he was a tough businessman. "He was on a rampage in Jalapa [Nicaragua]," says John Sr., describing an incendiary negotiation with another tobacco man named Pepe Cura that left the latter clearly out of sorts. John Sr. found Cura sitting on the hood of his Toyota, a pair of eyeglasses perched high above his eyes, a flustered look on his face. John asked him what was wrong. "He said, 'I can't find my car, and I don't know where the fuck my glasses are.' I said, 'Pepe, your glasses are on your forehead and your car is under your ass.' He said, 'Damn, your old man is really bugging me today!'"

As a younger man, Oliva Sr., now 64, wanted no part of Oliva Tobacco. In 1970, he was quite comfortable working in the computer industry. His older brother, Angel Jr., also didn't want in. So Angel Oliva Sr. pulled his trump card to persuade his son John to trade in PCs for petit coronas.

"The old man had to fake selling the business to get me in there," he says. A buyer came in, a deal was set, and in what Oliva Sr. calls "the greatest charade ever," Angel convinced his son he was prepared to sell to a man from Holland. John Sr. began working for his father. (Eventually, Angel Jr. would, too, starting in 1974.)

John Oliva Jr. didn't need as much convincing as his dad. He relished his early trips to Ecuador with his grandfather, and after trying the seafood business for a time, he eagerly entered the family tobacco trade, in 1992.


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Robert Martin — Flushing, New York, Queens,  —  September 30, 2011 6:46pm ET

my brother anthony got me smoking Arturo's when we were in Atlantic City.... love them...


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