A collection of profiles about leading members of the cigar industry.
Co-President, Habanos S.A.,
Oscar Basulto is the most powerful man in the world of Cuban cigars. Not only is he the joint head of the global Cuban cigar distributor Habanos S.A., he is the president of Tabacuba, the umbrella organization that coordinates the production of all tobacco products on the island, from handmade cigars to bulk tobacco shipments.
The 58-year-old Cuban is a straight-talking, salt-of-the-earth character who enjoys a good joke as well as a fine cigar, but he's extremely serious when it comes to his job. Tabacuba, created in 2000, has a workforce of more than 250,000, and oversees the annual production of some 280 million to 300 million cigars -- about half for domestic consumption. The $240 million company also supervises the production of about 10 billion cigarettes and exports 12,000 tons of bulk tobacco. Basulto, who has worked in agriculture since the early 1960s, says his current posts give him the most satisfaction. "I am working for one of the most prestigious products of my country," he says.
Senior V.P., Sales and Marketing, Altadis U.S.A. Inc.
Jim Colucci, 56, oversees the sales and marketing plans for the impressive portfolio of brands owned by Altadis U.S.A, the largest manufacturer of cigars in the United States and part of the Altadis S.A. Group, the largest maker and marketer of cigars in the world. Colucci has spent virtually his entire career in the cigar business, mainly working with domestic, or mass-market, cigars for the first 20 years. In 1998, he was named to his current post, which also includes the oversight of all of Altadis's premium cigars. During the past four years, Colucci was involved in the difficult task of reestablishing some equilibrium in the cigar market, working through the huge inventories built up during the boom, and helping to stabilize the production capacity on the manufacturing side. Colucci argues that today the product being shipped to the market is better than it has ever been.
President and CEO, Altadis U.S.A. Inc.
Theo Folz, 59, has been a key player in the integration of the former Consolidated Cigar Corp. into the global conglomerate created by the merger of Tabacalera de España and France's SEITA. Altadis U.S.A. produces many brands, including Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann and Onyx Reserve, and is the distributor for Te-Amo cigars in the United States. Folz has spent his entire life in the cigar business. When he was five he tagged along with his father, a cigar salesman, on sales calls. Folz believes strongly that the cigar market is healthier today than it's ever been, and that the total number of cigar smokers is at least double what it was 10 years ago.
Owner, Thompson Cigar Co.
Bob Franzblau was searching for a business opportunity when his friend and mentor, Stanford Newman, pointed him to Thompson Cigar Co., which had been founded in 1915. "The company was nearing the end of its rope," says Franzblau, who acquired the business in 1960. "They had lost money in consecutive years." Thompson made natural-wrapped figurados, not what the U.S. market wanted at the time. Franzblau abandoned manufacturing and engaged Newman and others to make cigars for him, particularly green, or candela, cigars, which were in high demand. "It was the best deal I ever made," says Franzblau, now 74.
Franzblau has never smoked, to which he credits some of his success. "Some of the more spectacular failures in the business were caused by manufacturers who thought their taste was overriding," says Franzblau. Instead of selling cigars he thinks are good, he simply sells cigars that his customers enjoy.
Carlos Fuente Jr.
President, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.
"Look at this," says Carlos Fuente Jr., showing off the work of one of the most talented cigar rollers at Tabacalera A. Fuente. The top is a wild mop of dark tobacco. The body of the cigar, a complex figurado, has curves like a supermodel. The foot is narrow, wrapped with a different leaf. The cigar, like so many others Fuente proudly displays, will never be sold. It's a special shape that he will give away to friends or auction off for charity, one of his driving passions. Spending time with the 48-year-old Fuente makes one imagine that he couldn't possibly do any other job. Fuente was born into the family trade. He played in tobacco bales and learned the art of blending at the side of his father, Carlos Fuente Sr. His crowning achievement is the Fuente Fuente OpusX, launched in 1995. The cigar proved to the world that Fuente's beloved Dominican Republic could grow fine shade wrapper tobacco. The ultra-rare cigars have made the Fuentes world famous, and Fuente Jr. lovingly calls them "my children."
Co-President, Habanos S.A.
Jaime Garcia-Andrade is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, which is perhaps not what some might expect for one of the heads of Habanos S.A., the global distributor of Cuban cigars. The 46-year-old Spaniard was made joint-president of the organization in late 1999, along with Oscar Basulto, shortly after Cuba agreed to sell half of Habanos to global tobacco giant Altadis for nearly half a billion dollars.
Garcia-Andrade is more of a coach than an autocratic leader at Habanos, so he takes little or no credit for any of the improvements in quality and distribution of Cuban cigars. Instead, he always praises the Cubans for taking the initiative to better their prestigious product. "It's quality that counts now," he says. "It's part of the mentality in everyone working in cigars now in Cuba." His comments may still include a large amount of wishful thinking, but many aficionados already see a change for the better.
Senior Vice President, Altadis U.S.A. Inc.
George Gershel has always been a tobacco man. The 72-year-old is the fourth generation in his family to work in tobacco, and he lives for acquiring the best leaf possible for the dozens of brands made by cigar powerhouse Altadis U.S.A. More than four decades ago, Gershel began working for Consolidated Cigar Corp. as an assistant tobacco buyer. The company changed ownership various times, the latest in 1999, when SEITA bought Consolidated and later merged with Spain's Tabacalera to form Altadis. Gershel's talent for finding first-class tobacco, particularly wrapper, has helped the company maintain and even improve quality during these sometimes turbulent changes. One of Gershel's biggest decisions was moving to Indonesian wrapper tobacco in the 1990s. He was concerned with the supply and quality of Cameroon wrapper and found the quality of Indonesian tobacco ever improving. He later championed the use of Habanos2000 from Central America.
Litto and Ines Gomez
Owners, La Flor Dominicana
When Miami jeweler Litto Gomez was forced to the ground by a burglar, a loaded gun pressed against his head, he thought his life was over. He was spared, and left the business. "That guy changed my life," he says. That was 1993. One year later, he opened the tiny Los Libertadores cigar factory in the Dominican Republic with partner Ines Lorenzo, who later became his wife and changed her name to Lorenzo-Gomez. In 1996, they renamed their brand La Flor Dominicana, which is now made in a posh factory in Tamboril. La Flors are made with powerful Dominican tobacco grown on a company-owned farm in La Canela, and in late 2003 the company is slated to unveil its first Dominican puro, crowned with wrapper tobacco from that farm. Gomez runs production while Lorenzo-Gomez manages distribution in Miami. Each Monday and Friday, the 47-year-old Gomez can be found on an airplane, flying to and from work.
CEO, Cidav Corp.
It's easy to understand why Hendrik "Henke" Kelner, the 56-year-old president of the Davidoff factory and the maker of Davidoff and Avo cigars, is considered a tobacco master. Born to a tobacco family in the Dominican Republic, Kelner has been in the tobacco business his entire life. "I have tobacco in my blood," he says. "Tobacco was my first job and I'm never going to work another." For Kelner, his love for the leaf rests somewhere between passion and obsession. From growing and harvesting tobacco to fermenting and aging, Kelner is deeply involved with every aspect of cigar making. And, in what Kelner describes as a "market of innovation," a little passion and obsession are key to growing great tobacco and creating world-class cigars. His latest innovation is the Davidoff Limited Edition, made with a 1996 Dominican wrapper he's perfected over the last several years.
President, Ashton Distributors Inc.
Robert Levin, 56, is another well-known figure in the cigar business with a lifetime of experience. His parents ran a retail cigar business from the time he was a child. Levin entered the cigar business full-time in 1972. His business today includes two Holt's Cigar stores in Philadelphia, significant wholesale and catalog operations, and the well-regarded Ashton cigar, which was launched in 1985 and has been made by Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. in the Dominican Republic since 1988. While Levin is worried about the ongoing antitobacco campaigns, he says that the cigar business is in good shape, and he has a strong base of consumers who love to smoke cigars. He fondly remembers the boom years of the mid-'90s when his business was "doubling and tripling."