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Edgar Cullman Jr.

CEO, General Cigar Company
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

Culbro Corp., the corporate parent of General Cigar, has been enjoying an exciting year. Business for the cigar subsidiary is booming, and the corporation is repositioning itself to become a major player in not only cigars, but in cigar-related merchandise and upscale products. The biggest change has come at the top. The company's longtime chief executive officer, Edgar M. Cullman Sr., 78, turned over the day-to-day operations to his son, Edgar M. Cullman Jr.

Cullman, 50, has been preparing for this job his entire adult life. After graduating from Yale University in 1968, he went through stints in the Army and then Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Co. as a management trainee. He joined General Cigar Co. in 1974, and became senior vice president for cigars and tobacco in 1976 and later that year, the executive vice president for marketing. He became executive vice president and chief operating officer of General Cigar in 1978 and was appointed in 1980 to president of the division as well as a member of the board of directors of Culbro. In 1983, he was named executive vice president of Culbro and took over as president the following year.

Cullman's rise to the company's top job couldn't have come at a more challenging time. But his strategy is simple: keep the company at the top of the cigar industry. He discussed his plans for Culbro, and General Cigar, in a wide-ranging interview this past June with Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

CIGAR AFICIONADO: This year begins a new era for Culbro. How would you articulate your father's contribution to the company, and has the transition been difficult?

Cullman: Well, first let me say the transition wasn't difficult. The decision was one that he knew he had to make. It was just a question of when. He knew that it was going to happen, and he knew who was going to be taking over. That's made it easier. For his achievements, you've got to go back to 1961, when my father first bought in to the General Cigar Co. He bought a controlling interest at that point. It was really the culmination of his love of tobacco and the cigar industry. Over the years, he added a lot of businesses, many of which are not part of Culbro today. But the cigar business is still part of Culbro and it has been his vision all along and his love. He realized that if he could put all of those efforts against a business that was less difficult than the cigar business, he might have made more money. He might have been more successful, but at the end of the day he wouldn't have been as happy because he loved the cigar business. For him, it's been difficult to separate what is business and what is personal interest. If there's a legacy that he passes on to me, it is that if you hang onto it long enough, and you believe in it, it comes back.

Look at what is going on today in the cigar business. I pushed to de-emphasize the cigar business in the '80s and early '90s. We were struggling. You couldn't shed assets fast enough to maintain any viability. It is remarkable what has happened. So if there's a legacy here, it's to follow your heart and the things that you really believe in. You can add tremendous value in that kind of situation. That's what he has done all of his life.

CA: When you joined the company in 1974, what was your attitude towards cigars, and has it changed?

Cullman: I knew very little about cigars except through my father's discussions at the dinner table or other places. In 1974, after getting discharged from the Army, I had spent about three years with what at that time was Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Co., which is now Chase bank. I knew very little about the cigar business or the tobacco business, but I enjoyed smoking cigars, I enjoyed the legacy. The family legacy.

It was reassuring to know that I was entering a business that was not necessarily started by my father or even by my grandfather, but started really by my great-grandfather. That gives you a certain feeling of a place that you belong. And I felt right along that I belonged. I started working in Puerto Rico, where we were sorting Connecticut wrappers. I learned the process from A to Z. I lived down in Puerto Rico. My wife was pregnant with our first child and very upset that I wasn't home, but we lived through those first years. It was a real learning experience.

CA: How long did you do that?


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