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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 2)

Stanford and his sons chose the former strategy, and the three were then in control. Stanford made it a point to manage differently than his dad had.

"I wanted to give responsibility to my sons," says Stanford. "I wanted them to do things themselves."

The next generation is already making an impact on the family business. "I've been in the business since I was nine," says Drew Newman, Eric's 25-year-old son. Displaying a knack for computers, Drew helped create the popular Fuente and Newman Web site, cigarfamily.com, when he was 14. "I told my father we should have a Web site," he says. "Dad said, 'What's a Web site?'" Drew is now in law school at American University, and eventually intends to join the company. He even designed the "M"-shaped Diamond Crown Maximus box, which has a radical design that doesn't quite sit right with Stanford.

"I didn't think much of the idea," he says simply, as his sons laugh.

Stanford is still active in the business. During a tour of the company's small cigar-making operations upstairs, he gives a freshly made cigar a squeeze, his personal way of draw-testing. "Dad goes by the feel," says Eric, a touch of wonder in his voice. "Bobby and I are the technicians of the business, managers of the business—Dad is still the visionary."

Nestor Plasencia + Nestor Plasencia Jr.

Nestor Plasencia Sr. (left) and Nestor Jr.
Like a pair of good basketball players, the Plasencias are constantly in motion. "We're about to spread out," says Nestor Jr., 31, speaking during his regular Monday morning sit-down with his father in Nicaragua. The two run the Plasencia tobacco and cigar-making empire, which stretches across Nicaragua and Honduras. They meet each Monday for an hour or two to strategize for the week, then scatter across the region. One might go to the fields in Jalapa, where the wrapper leaf is smooth and rich, while the other might head to Danlí, Honduras, home to one of the company's five cigar factories, or to Ocotál, Nicaragua, where the Plasencias process one of the world's largest collections of tobacco. The two are rarely in the same spot.

"We don't see each other during the weekdays," says Nestor Jr., "but on the weekends, Friday, we get together and discuss what we did for the week."

It's not an easy schedule. The two are constantly on the road, beating up their vehicles over roads that often have more bumps than the local economy. "I change my car every four years," says Nestor Jr. His father changes every three.

The elder Plasencia, 56, is proud of his son. "I feel very good," he says. "I have the privilege to have continuity in the business, the same way my father felt when he was working."

Nestor Jr. is the only one of three adult siblings to work with his father. His older brother, Gustavo, is an interior designer and his older sister, Alina, is a dentist. (His younger brother, Josè Luis, is only 13. "Maybe my younger brother will join us. We need some help," Nestor Jr. says, showing the trademark Plasencia sense of humor.)

The elder Plasencia is a legend in the business. "Moving, moving, moving," is one of his favorite sayings, often uttered after clapping his hands for emphasis as he chugs from one spot to the next, showing off his remarkably broad business. He's admittedly antsy when standing still. "Frustrated," he says in one of his compact, brusque answers, when asked how he feels when he's not in motion. A workaholic, he does other business while his son answers questions during a joint interview. "It's part of my personality," Nestor Sr. says with a smile. "I don't stay in one place for too much time."

He churned out more than 30 million cigars a year during his busiest days of the cigar boom (most of them brands made under contract for other companies) and has always been a big grower of tobacco. In recent years, he switched from growing primarily filler tobacco to growing wrapper, which is much more profitable. He plants tobacco on the volcanic island of Ometepe, Nicaragua, in San Agustín, Honduras, as well as in the traditional areas of Central America.

The Plasencias are among the most successful tobacco men, but only 20 years ago business was quite poor. Nestor Sr.'s crops were regularly ravaged by blue mold, and without tobacco to sell he had a hard time making money. Plasencia likes to joke about a banker who financed his three businesses in the mid-1980s, a stressful job to say the least. "I went to look for the banker at the bank, and he wasn't there. He was in Houston, at the hospital, getting a triple bypass," says Plasencia. A month later, the tobacco grower paid a visit. "He said, 'Every bypass had a name,' and each name was one of my companies."

Business began to improve in 1990. "At that time, we started growing [tobacco] varieties that were more resistant to blue mold, and Swisher decided to [have us] make Bering and La Primadora in Honduras," says Nestor Sr. The cigar boom soon followed, and the Plasencias went from struggling to surging.

Nestor Jr. is a born-and-bred tobacco man, like his father. "I started working every holiday when I was a little kid, in the farms and factories," he says. Since he was seven years old, time off from school meant it was time to work with dad. In 1998, out of school, he joined his father full-time.

Nestor Jr. always knew this was the route he would take, even though his father never pushed him into the tobacco business. "One of the things my father always told us—you need to do what you like to be good. You have to put passion in it."

"It's a big example to follow," says the son of his father. "My dad is the guy I respect the most in the tobacco industry. Every day is a learning experience."

Fernando León + Guillermo León

More than a century ago, Eduardo León Jimenes began making cigars in the Dominican Republic. The firm he created in 1903 is the oldest cigarmaker in the Dominican Republic, and today its parent company, Empresas León Jimenes, has annual sales of more than $600 million. Empresas León Jimenes brews Presidente beer, owns a bank, makes cigarettes and rolls remarkable cigars. Eduardo's descendants carry on the cigar tradition.

Fernando (right) and Guillermo León
"Now, I'm in charge of the heritage," says Eduardo's grandson Guillermo, in his slow-cadenced voice, which has a touch of gravel. "It's heavy on my shoulders." The 46-year-old León, a tall man with chiseled good looks, runs La Aurora S.A., the parent company's cigar business, which includes core brands Aurora and León Jimenes, plus popular new releases such as Aurora 100 Años and Aurora 1495. He's speaking on a quiet holiday in the Dominican Republic, sitting in his spacious office inside the gleaming complex that is La Aurora in Santiago. Most conversations take place here around a coffee table, which is surrounded by a large couch and chairs. To the left is a cabinet of cigars, some dating back to the 1970s.

"I feel very proud, because I have someone who I can trust 100 percent because of his knowledge, and who I know is going to guide me on the right track," says León. "That's an advantage." His guide is his father, Fernando León Asensio, who ran Aurora with his three brothers. Although the 84-year-old is officially retired from the cigar business, he still looms large over the company's operations. "He comes in two or three times a week, and he goes to the farms still to see the crops," says Guillermo, "and he still smokes five cigars a day." The smoking is not always recreational. "Anything that he finds, he tells me right away. He's part of the tasting panel."

The elder León is a stately, white-haired gentleman who speaks in a crisp, booming baritone. His father gave him an unusual introduction to the cigar business. "The first thing my father did to expose me to the business as a youngster was to buy me a white linen suit, then take me out to the fields just ready to be harvested. Then he asked me to walk across it several times so I could get acquainted with the raw materials for cigar manufacturing," says Fernando León. "You can imagine how my new linen suit looked at the end of the walk. I was never to forget the experience.

"No one can make a good tobacco man by imposing," says the elder León. "I really think it is a matter of genetic heritage. This is a trade that cannot be truly loved unless one is born into it. There are no institutions that I know of that you can attend and get a degree on this fascinating world of tobacco."

The Leóns are not the only family business connected to La Aurora cigars—the company that distributes its smokes, Miami Cigar & Co., has a father-son team, Nestor and Daniel Miranda, involved in the business as well.

Guillermo is humbled by his family's history, and hopes to take the company further, as his father and three uncles did before him.

"The four brothers," Guillermo says, "they worked as hard as my grandfather. It's like a ladder—my grandfather started [climbing] and walked two steps. Then they did three steps, or four or five. Now I have to keep going."

Father + Son Teams of the Past

Some of today's best-known cigar stars were trained by their fathers. Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, the maker of La Gloria Cubana, worked for his father (of the same name). The younger Carrillo originally wanted to be a drummer, but when his father nearly sold the business to the Gore family, makers of Royal Jamaica, the son had a change of heart and decided he, too, wanted to be a cigarmaker.

Frank Llaneza, the storied former owner of Villazon & Co. and one of the first producers of gusty, strong cigars, inherited the Villazon cigar business (later acquired by General Cigar) from his father, Josè Llaneza. "I had to do everything in the factory," says Llaneza, describing how his father wanted him to learn each step of the cigar-making business before he retired. Manuel Quesada, the maker of Fonseca, Cubita, Matasa 30th Anniversary and many other cigars produced at Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., was trained by his father, the late Manuel Quesada Sr. Nick Perdomo Jr. once worked in tandem with his father, Nick Sr., who oversaw Tabacalera Perdomo's Nicaraguan cigar factory, while Nick Jr. managed things from the company's Miami Lakes, Florida, headquarters. Perdomo Sr. died in 2004.

Theo Folz, the chief executive officer of Altadis U.S.A. Inc., was brought into the cigar business by his father, Monte, who covered 19 states for Bayuk Cigar Co., the maker of Phillies cigars. "My father," said Folz in a 2004 Cigar Aficionado story, "was the greatest salesman I've ever known." Alfons Mayer, who once bought all of the tobacco used by General Cigar, followed in the footsteps of his father, Alfons, a major buyer of Indonesian tobacco into Amsterdam. George Gershel, who travels the world buying the tobacco for Altadis U.S.A., is also the son of a tobacco man. Chris Topper learned how to run a cigar business working with his father, Frank, who died in 1997. Today, he's the fourth generation to run Topper Cigar Co., which is 110 years old. Benjamin Menendez, senior vice president of premium cigars for General Cigar, learned how to make cigars working for his father, Alonso, who owned Cuba's Montecristo and H. Upmann brands. Benjamin's brother, Felix, makes Dona Flor and other cigars in Brazil. Tobacco grower David Perez, president of ASP Enterprises Inc., assumed the helm after the death of his father, Alfredo, in 2000, and sells some of the world's most prized tobacco leaf.

With all of its complexities and secrets, the art of creating fine cigars and growing rich tobacco is ideally suited to be passed down from father to son. The revival of premium cigar sales in the 1990s brought many a son who had sought out other ventures back into the family business, and ensured that the secrets would be passed on, each son inheriting his forefathers' secrets and trying to build on the success that came before, hoping to learn just a little more to pass on to the next generation that might follow in those new footsteps.


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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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