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Manuel Quesada: The Gentleman of Cigars

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 1)

Driving along a mountain highway in his Mitsubishi sedan, Quesada taps his fingers on the steering wheel, keeping the beat to Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman. "This is music from my hippie days. I was a very low-key hippie." It's hard to believe that counterculture was ever vaguely attractive to Quesada, who now seems very traditional--a man whose current fantasy is to "drop out" and return to college to study classics, history or literature. But there were times in his life when rebellion seemed like the only way to survive.

Before founding MATASA, Quesada was forced to choose between the possibility of fighting (and maybe dying) for a foreign country or quitting the family business.

"It was 1968, and I was a resident in the United States going to graduate school at the University of North Carolina and I was drafted three days prior to final exams. But I had no reason to go to Vietnam. I'm a Spanish citizen [Quesada Sr. was born in Spain, giving his son the legal right to Spanish citizenship], a Cuban exile, living here in the Dominican Republic. What would I be looking for in Vietnam? But if I didn't go and defected, I could never go back to the United States again. And it's the nature of our business--you have to be able to travel to the States."

Quesada was sent to Vietnam the summer after the 1968 Tet offensive. "I became a radio-telephone operator for a recon outfit--the new guy always got the radio with a 12-foot antenna so everyone knew where you were. After seven months it dawns on me. I am a Spanish citizen. Therefore, I am a mercenary. Mercenaries who get captured get shot. So I'm sitting here saying, 'why am I a Spanish citizen?' "

After a lengthy discourse with several officers and an inspector general, Quesada managed to convince the Army to make him a citizen and pull him from the front lines. After a year in a supply company, he was back in the United States, getting his M.B.A. from Florida State University on the GI bill.

Naturally, the not-so-rebellious hippie who came back to the Dominican Republic with somewhat longer hair and a master's degree was put to work in the family leaf operation. But after a few years at MATASA, Quesada began to wonder about the future.

"MATASA was not a viable proposition at all. In fact, only until General [makers of Partagas and Macanudo] and Consolidated [H. Upmann, Dunhill, Onyx] began to transfer production to the Dominican Republic [in 1979 and 1980] did the country begin to take off." According to Quesada, it also helped that Consolidated, beset by production difficulties, asked MATASA to produce Primo del Rey and Montecruz cigars for two years. This allowed Consolidated the time to train Dominican rollers and finish their giant La Romana factory. And at the same time, MATASA hired more rollers and experimented with new brands.

"Jose Benito was a family brand. Named after my uncle. (Actually he was my fourth cousin, but we called him Uncle.) This was the man who taught me everything I knew about leaf tobacco, so we decided to create a brand in his honor. But it took a couple of years to satisfy Uncle Jose Benito because he would smoke 14 cigars a day."

After Jose Benito, which is distributed by Hollco Rohr in North America, other brand owners came to MATASA and, in the mid-1980s, Quesada's factory began to produce Romeo and Julieta, Fonseca, Casa Blanca and several house brands. Distribution for these brands was handled by brand holders, which made life easier for Quesada and allowed the brands to reach various American regional markets without stretching MATASA's resources. Quesada could concentrate on making cigars.

Still, these brands are not what catapulted MATASA into the limelight.

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