Carlos Fuente Jr. has become one of the most recognizable people in the cigar business. While at the helm of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., he has seen the company rise to one of the preeminent positions in the industry.
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Fuente:It was a very difficult time.
CA: You basically trained the rollers for these new factories.
Fuente:I believe there's no one in the world in modern cigar history who's trained as many people as Tabacalera A. Fuente. We trained the people. They were an extension of our family, they were part of us, and all of a sudden, they were being approached with incredible bonuses, offered vehicles and housing. That's simply incredible. People came in to steal them away all the time, and that's when my father said the scene reminded him of when he used to watch the old cowboy movies with the California Gold Rush. The cigar business became like the Gold Rush.
It was very difficult to [comprehend] the drastic change in the industry because it happened so fast. Before that, one factory respected the other factories because everyone realized the difficulty that it took to train someone. And every cigarmaker's different. The way Fuente trains a cigarmaker is different than the way another factory would train a cigarmaker.
CA: My understanding was it wasn't the traditional factory owners stealing from each other; it was the new boys: they built a factory, or started one up, and they needed the workers to roll cigars.
Fuente:That's absolutely correct. And there were many, many factories. I remember you couldn't find a room at a hotel. That's why my father said it reminded him of the cowboy movies.
CA: How many rollers do you have today?
Fuente:Today we have over a thousand rollers. Close to 1,100.
CA: In the last two years, since this new group came aboard, how many rollers did you lose?
Fuente:We lost between two hundred and three hundred rollers.
CA: That you had trained?
Fuente:That we had trained. Some of them had been with us for many years. Most of them were our most experienced, older rollers, because a roller from our factory could go with someone and build a factory. My father had trained them and they were very, very good.
CA: Have you taken the rollers back from the now-defunct factories?
Fuente:We did, in the very beginning, take back the ones that never caused any serious problems. They were very good. They made a mistake. But we realized the most trusted of our rollers who returned were not as good as they were when they left, because they picked up a lot of bad habits. It took us a couple of months and a couple of dozen rollers before we realized that. They had been working with someone who wanted quantity, not quality. And we realized that we had to explore another direction.
What we did, and this is why Factory No. 4 came about, is that we brought in young men and women who had an education. That was possible because during that time when cigarmakers were fighting over and hiring away rollers, wages increased drastically. Just like what was happening to tobacco prices and everything else, we had three, four and five wage increases a year. During that time, the cigarmaker was making a lot of money. So it really brought the pay of cigarmakers to a very high level. We realized that with what a cigarmaker was earning, we could be very selective with the people that we would hire. So we went to the university, we went to the local churches and community centers, and we interviewed people there. We used a marketing group from the university to bring in people that would have a future in the cigar industry, people with an education. And they were young men and women who had never even seen a leaf of tobacco and never worked with it. After a year of this process, we realized that the best cigarmakers were not the ones that had been with us for 12 years. They were the new ones that we were teaching. This was the future. After that, we did not hire back any of the other cigarmakers, and that's what we've been doing ever since.
CA: What percentage of your thousand rollers are men versus women?
Fuente:The majority of the rollers are men.
CA: Have the rollers gotten younger on average?
Fuente:The average age has definitely gotten younger. Most of the rollers which we've hired in the last three years, during these employee crises, were between the ages of 20 to 24. We hired very young people because it's important to train them when they're young.
CA: How long is the training period?
Fuente:The training period is a minimum of a year. But actually for a cigarmaker to really excel, it's like anything else: it takes time. There are people that are born with it and have skills; there are some people that in six to eight months you can see it in their hands, just like someone who's never taken a music lesson and can play a musical instrument. But on average, it takes between one and two years. But for a cigarmaker to master the art of making cigars, it takes a minimum of several years more.
CA: Apart from the situation with the rollers during the "Gold Rush," as your father called it, the boom also played havoc with tobacco prices, which doubled or tripled during that period. Have the prices stabilized or come down?
Fuente:Because of supply and demand, tobacco prices over the past couple of years increased drastically. Recently, tobacco prices have stabilized, especially filler tobacco. Wrapper tobacco is still in very short supply. Wrapper crops have been tight the past couple of years, and with the best tobacco, there's still a problem. You know, there's tobacco, and there's Tobacco.
CA: How much have your wrapper tobacco costs increased?
Fuente:One of the classic tobaccos that we use, the Connecticut shade, may have cost five to seven dollars a pound eight years ago; today, the best quality can run to 44, 45 dollars per pound.
CA: How many cigars do you expect to produce from all your factories in 1998?
Fuente:It's hard to answer that, but roughly, we will reach about 40 million cigars.
CA: What was it last year?
Fuente:Last year, we were just under 40 million.
CA: Can you give us the approximate production of each of your major brands?
Fuente:Arturo Fuente shipped around 17.8 million cigars in 1997. This year, there will be some increase for Arturo Fuente, but not much; maybe just over 18 million.
CA: You already said OpusX, you expect...
Fuente:For Fuente Fuente OpusX, between 750,000 and a million. But it will end up under a million this year.
CA: Do those numbers for Arturo Fuente include all the brand extensions--Don Carlos and the others?
Fuente:Yes. For all the cigars that carry the Fuente name, we will produce just over 18 million.