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Movers and Shakers

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Rick Meerapfel
Managing Director, M. Meerapfel Söhne
Rick Meerapfel has a lot to live up to as a tobacco man -- his father, Heller, bought a great portion of the Cuban tobacco crop just after the revolution. Rick, 50, took it as a challenge, and in the last seven years has become a world force in Central African wrapper tobacco. Among his clients are some of the biggest names in cigars, including Arturo Fuente and General Cigar. His Sumatra-seed tobacco is some of the finest, richest wrapper grown outside of Cuba's Vuelta Abajo, where Meerapfel spent many years in the late 1970s and early '80s learning the "Cuban way" of doing things.
Each year, Meerapfel says, the quality of Central African tobacco improves. He has operations in both Cameroon and the Central African Republic, and the companies he chairs, Cetac Central Africa and Cetac Cameroon, employ nearly 10,000 people. "This means a lot to Africans," says Meerapfel, whose companies are partly owned by locals. "It proves that they can do it on their own. I am very proud."


Benjamin Menendez
Senior V.P. of Premium Cigars, Altadis U.S.A. Inc.
The date, says Benjamin Menendez, is "like a brand that cattle have." November 26, 1960. "I went to the airport and left Cuba. I left with my wife, three kids and $7 in my pocket," he says. Two months earlier, doomsday for Cuba's cigarmakers, Fidel Castro's troops took over Cuba's cigar and tobacco industries. The gem in his stolen crown was the mighty Montecristo and H. Upmann brands, owned by Benjamin's father, Alonso Menendez, and his partner, Pepe Garcia. Today, a bespectacled 66-year-old with a wide smile and an endless supply of stories, Benjamin Menendez has spent his life at the helm of some of the biggest cigar brands the world has ever known. Starting with Montecristos in Cuba, he moved on to make Montecruz and Don Diego in the Canary Islands, Macanudo in Jamaica and now, coming full circle, Montecristos in the Dominican Republic. True cigar aristocracy, "Benji," as he is known to nearly everyone, never stopped traveling.


Eric Newman
President, J.C. Newman Cigar Co.
As part of the third generation to work in the family business, Eric Newman, 54, president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., must follow what he calls the perseverance of the generations preceding him. Started in 1895 by his grandfather, J.C. Newman Cigar Co. was just one of 42,000 licensed cigar manufacturers in the United States. One hundred and seven years later, J.C. Newman Cigar remains the only American cigar company from that era still owned and operated by the original family. "There's nothing in business that's come around that my grandfather and father hadn't seen," said Newman, who has worked within the family business since 1972. "It's up to my brother [Bobby] and myself to foster relationships in this industry for this company to continue to succeed."

—Mark Weissenberger

Robert Newman
Executive Vice President, J.C. Newman Cigar Co.
For Robert Newman, the winter of 1986 was one that would make or break his family. Along with his brother Eric, and spearheaded by his then-70-year-old father, Stanford, the three Newmans had leveraged to buy out 11 other family members for ownership of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. The majority of their assets, including Stanford's home, was used as collateral in the high-risk deal. But for Robert, the transaction allowed him to witness his father's savvy business skills, as well as the confidence shown in himself and his brother during such a precarious venture. Today, family-operated J.C. Newman Cigar owns such brands as Diamond Crown, Cuesta-Rey and La Unica; and Robert, 51, serves as the company's executive vice president.


Angel Daniel Núñez
Executive V.P., Mfg. and Tobacco, General Cigar
Daniel Núñez, 51, has spent 30 years with General Cigar, during which time he has become one of the most well-rounded men in the cigar industry, learning and mastering all aspects of cigar making. In 1972, he was in the fields, experimenting with wrapper grown in the Dominican Republic. From there he learned the process of sorting and aging tobacco and then, under the legendary Ramón Cifuentes, the art of manufacturing cigars. In the early '90s, Núñez learned to purchase tobacco, and today he is General's executive vice president of manufacturing and tobacco. Occupying one of the most influential positions at General, he oversees the company's entire cigar-making operation, from the fields in Connecticut and the Dominican Republic to the factories producing General's vast catalog of cigars.


John Oliva Sr.
President, Oliva Tobacco Co.
He played both offense and defense as a member of the University of Florida football team, but the toughest job John Oliva Sr. ever had was following in the footsteps of his father, Angel. A legend in the cigar business, Angel taught John the value of hard work and showed him how to run one of America's most revered tobacco companies. After Angel died in 1996, John took over the business, which he runs with his brother Angel Jr., his son John Jr. and nephew Angel III, known as Trey. Oliva Tobacco is a family affair, with tobacco-growing operations in Nicaragua, Honduras and Ecuador. "The good rule of thumb is, man, when the country's fun to go to, and the climate's perfect, and the political situation is great, tobacco ain't worth a shit there," says Oliva.


Cano A. Ozgener
Owner, C.A.O. International Inc.
Cano A. Ozgener, the patriarch of C.A.O. International Inc., began his tobacco career improving meerschaum pipes, which led to his starting his own company in 1968. He added humidors to his product line, then cigars, entering the cigar market in 1993. Success has followed the C.A.O. brand ever since. More recently, Ozgener achieved his greatest singular accomplishment outside of his thriving cigar business: overcoming cancer. This past January, the 65-year-old was afflicted with lymphoma; a regimen of chemotherapy left him bereft of the ability to taste. After his third week of treatment, his taste buds began to return, and his mouth was as sensitive as that of a baby's. "But I wanted to smoke a cigar," he says. "And I said to myself, 'it better be the best cigar out there,' which is what I expect from my cigars." On that day, following his third week of treatment, he smoked a C.A.O. Gold without chagrin.


Jorge Padrón
President, Padrón Cigars Inc.
Jorge Padrón, 34, says he was never forced to enter the family cigar business, but when he earned his MBA in 1992, it became very clear that he wanted to make cigars alongside his father, Jose Orlando, founder of Padrón Cigars Inc. His friends thought him foolish. At the time, selling cigars seemed an unpromising way to apply the talents learned at business school. The Padrón brand was successful, but it was locked into Miami. "Eighty percent of our business was the local Miami market," says Jorge Padrón, who soon hit the road to push the brand. He went to his -- and the company's -- first Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show in 1993, and Padrón went national. The brand reached a new level with the 1994 introduction of the Anniversary Series, and the company followed that up with a Padrón Millennium and the new Serie 1926 cigar. "It's not my achievement," says Padrón, typically modest. "It's our achievement. I can't imagine doing anything else."


Jose Orlando Padrón
Chairman, Padrón Cigars Inc.
Jose Orlando Padrón has Cuban tobacco in his blood; his family has grown tobacco since the 1880s. In 1961, Padrón, who was born in Pinar del Rio, left his native Cuba for Spain. After a short time there and in New York, he settled in Miami, and three years later he created the Padrón brand. "I started manufacturing in Miami in hopes of providing my fellow Cuban exiles a cigar similar to the ones we smoked in Cuba," he says. He grew fond of Nicaraguan leaf, which was just starting to come into its own, and in 1970 he began making cigars in Nicaragua. He added a second, smaller factory in Honduras in 1978. In recent years Padrón cigars have soared in popularity. Production is modest, some four million cigars a year, and the 76-year-old has no intention of growing into a cigar giant. "We will follow our family traditions and remain faithful to the course we set 38 years ago, continuing to focus all of our efforts on producing quality and not quantity."


Larry Palombo
President, U.S. Cigar Sales Inc.
Larry Palombo, 54, is a lifelong veteran of the cigar industry. He spent 21 years working for General Cigar Co. before joining the cigar unit of UST Inc., the owner of smokeless tobacco giant U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., makers of Skoal and Copenhagen, in 1995. Formerly vice president of tobacco, in May 2001 he was promoted to president. Born in the Bronx, Palombo is a talented tennis player and a passionate cigarmaker, never without a breast pocket brimming with cigars. His latest creation is the Vega Talanga, a cigar packed in palm bark known as a tercio and finished with a fat pig tail and an uncut foot. The smoke is loaded with tobacco grown on U.S. Cigar Sales's Honduran farm, located in the Talanga Valley. The farm, says Palombo, "is the future of our company."


Rocky Patel
President and CEO, Indian Tabac Cigar Co.
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