Fuente's Right Hand Man
Wayne Suarez is the strong and quiet force behind the scenes at Arturo Fuente, the world's largest family-owned cigar brand.
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010
Fall in Tampa, Florida. Thick, pregnant clouds hang low in the sky as Wayne Suarez opens the front door to Edward's Pipe & Tobacco, one of the best-stocked cigar shops in Western Florida. A man at the counter wearing a guayabera and smoking a pipe greets him with a warm hello, as do several of the patrons in the shop. Four are playing dominoes at a table set up in the corner, trading insults in a mixture of Spanish and English, a cigar by each man's side. Many sit at the well-weathered counter that rings the register in a geometry-defying shape, the rough part of a matchbook glued to its surface at two-foot intervals near collections of wooden matches—this is a place to smoke.
Suarez, an 18-year veteran of the cigar industry and of Arturo Fuente cigars, has watched the industry change dramatically during his tenure. Suarez, a strong-looking man with a powerful gaze, cuts and lights a Fuente Fuente OpusX, one of four or five cigars he'll smoke that day. The 55-year-old executive from Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. sits at the counter and takes a long puff on his cigar, looking around the room.
His eyes have seen quite a bit. Suarez is an 18-year veteran of the cigar industry who oversees all the Fuente sales in the United States. The size of the business is staggering. Fuente makes more than 30 million cigars a year in four factories in the Dominican Republic, making it one of the world's largest producers of handmade cigars. Suarez has watched the cigar business soar during the cigar boom, contract in its aftermath and recover again, observing substantial changes in the marketplace.
"Service—that's the key," he says, defining what sets apart quality cigar shops from others, what keeps a person visiting a local brick-and-mortar cigar shop rather than buying elsewhere. "It's important to take care of the customers coming in your door. I see that in my travels. You can buy cigars anywhere. Tobacconists now are much more knowledgeable than they were in the past and are taking great care of their cigars."
The typical cigar smoker, says Suarez, has a goal when he or she enters a cigar shop. "Most guys that come in know what they want. They know what their tastes are. He wants to buy something he is comfortable with, and he wants to have brand recognition. He knows he's going to smoke two, maybe three cigars a week, and he wants enjoyment," he says. "The customer is much more educated now." That enhanced level of education among consumers and retailers has resulted in a market in which the mediocre gets swept aside. "It moves the bar for everybody," he says. "It keeps everybody on their toes."
Price concerns among cash-strapped consumers have also come to the forefront. With the economy struggling and cigars more expensive due to the SCHIP expansion that raised the federal excise tax on cigars by 35 cents apiece, Suarez has witnessed consumers moving to less-expensive smokes. Fuente's broad range of products—the company makes cigars with six varieties of wrappers in prices ranging from $2.40 to $26 per cigar—allows the company to maintain a customer even as he moves down in price.
"A guy that might have smoked [an Arturo Fuente] Hemingway Signature might now be smoking an A. Fuente 8-5-8. He can still smoke a Fuente, stay with cigars he is comfortable with," says Suarez. Fuente makes both cigars, the former a $7 smoke, the latter retailing for a few dollars less. "I think that's one of the things that makes our line so appealing. We have everything from a Breva or Curly Head to a Fuente Fuente OpusX and everything in between. You can buy an Arturo Fuente Roths-child, which has an African Cameroon wrapper on it, for $4.40. You can buy an 8-5-8 for $4.80. We cover all the bases in terms of price point."
While the recession looms large, Suarez considers the unfettered spread of smoking bans to be the most insidious threat facing the industry—although one that will ultimately be overcome. "People aren't going to quit smoking, but they're going to smoke less. I never thought I would see Florida where you couldn't smoke in restaurants. Some retailers have off-premise locations that they service. Once those places go nonsmoking, it's a domino effect—the accounts dry up. One New York City retailer told me when he lost the restaurant, hotel and bar accounts [after the smoking ban] 'there's no way I'll get enough people through that door to make that up. It's lost business.'"
That type of market insight has made Suarez a valued part of the Fuente family. "He's been by my side and he's someone who advises me and guides me," says Carlos Fuente Jr. "Wayne is a strong, loyal warrior. I've learned a lot from Wayne. He's a brother, and he'll always be my brother."
Suarez understands the small details of the cigar business. He knows maduros sell best in the Texas area, that the market is split between the two-a-week smoker and the two-a-day smoker and that the best tobacconists keep their humidors spotless. His insights and work habits have gained him the respect of longtime veterans in the retail end of the cigar business.
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