A Conversation With Philip Wynne

The creator of Felipe Gregorio has been making cigars since 1990.

Philip Wynne, the owner of Felipe Gregorio Cigars, entered the industry long before premium cigars were in vogue. From a humble start contracting high—priced, full—bodied cigars with a small Honduran factory, Wynne expanded the number and taste range of his cigars in facilities in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua during the cigar boom, only to encounter growing pains after orders diminished in the late 1990s. He survived by making inexpensive cigars for the catalog market. Now as Wynne, at 48 years old, prepares to belatedly celebrate 15 years in the cigar business, his premium cigar production is once again becoming a priority.

In February, senior editor David Savona sat down with Wynne in Coral Gables, Florida, not far from where he is creating a new factory/headquarters, to talk about how he entered the business and weathered some tough times.

David Savona: Tell us a bit about your background, and how you got into the cigar business.
Philip Wynne: I started smoking cigars at 16. I grew up in Europe, and was used to smoking full—bodied cigars. My dad was a U.S. diplomat, and when I was 18 he told me I needed to come back to the United States. I went to American University in Georgetown and I studied international relations, and when I graduated, I opened up a security company with a retired Air Force general, and we did counterterrorism training in 1982. One of my partners was the son of a helicopter manufacturer, and I started working for him, selling military helicopters in the Middle East, from '82 to '88.

Q: Which countries?
A: Oman. There was a war going on. They needed a lot of things. [Later,] business was dying down and I visited these friends of mine in Honduras, and since I was a cigar smoker I went to see a cigar factory, and I was totally fascinated. In 1989, the most expensive cigar on the market was the Zino Veritas, and it sold at $6. And the bulk of cigars sold for under $1. I said, maybe there is a market for a cigar at around $2.50—a nice, decent cigar, well packaged. So I asked these friends of mine to introduce me to the people who made the Zino, led by Jorge Bueso, from La Flor de Copan, and in 1990 I started making cigars with them. My first brand was Petrus, and I sold mainly to Europe.

Q: Did you have to license the name with the winery?
A: No, because Petrus means Peter in Latin.

Q: Now, Petrus wasn't a typical cigar for the time, was it?
A: No, it was full bodied. I failed. I fell on my face in the States. I had a veiny Havana wrapper, with a full—bodied taste.

Q: So the cigar was strong, the wrapper was ugly…
A: But it was good.

Q: And what cigars were most popular then?
A: They were mild cigars. I failed completely, and I came back and I put Ecuadoran Connecticut on the cigar. Completely changed the blend. And then I made a maduro cigar, also in the Petrus line, and that's how I basically started here. I realized, that by '92 or '93, people wanted a face behind the brand. So I created Felipe Gregorio, which are my first two names in Spanish. I Latinized myself, because I didn't think "Philip Gregory" would sell any cigars. And I wanted to make a more Cuban—like, tasty cigar, from what I remembered smoking. I designed the Don Melo Centenario as a full—bodied cigar. I had enough tobacco for 250,000 cigars and sold them all. That really catapulted me. It really was an exceptional product. By '93, '94, I saw that full [bodied] was working.

Q: You started going to Honduras in the late 1980s. What were the conditions like?
A: There was one hotel in Santa Rosa. It had cold—water showers. I remember one of my first nights there I was being infested by mosquitoes. There were no windows. I couldn't take it anymore. I found a guy and said, "I have a mosquito problem." He came back to my room with one of those, remember from the cartoons, those DDT sprayers? He fumigated my room so bad, I had powder all over my clothes for the next five days.

Q: So it's not all romance being a cigarmaker. Tell us about the creation of the Felipe Gregorio brand.
A: I was on the perennial quest for a dark, silky wrapper. Bueso's son was growing wrapper in the south of Honduras, which we were using on the Don Melo cigar, but it had burning problems, it was very coarse, and not very refined to the eye. I wanted something for Felipe that would be different. So I went down to see Julio Eiroa [the maker of Camacho cigars], and he was growing some nice wrapper in Jamastran [Honduras]. Julio started making the first Felipe Gregorios, and I learned a lot from Julio.

Then Altadis came in and bought a percentage of La Flor de Copan, with an option to buy it all. The moment they came in, they had full control of the tobacco, and I saw that the tobacco they wanted was not the tobacco I wanted. They were bringing a boutique factory to an industrial level, which was great for the factory, great for the town, but wasn't necessarily great for me. We used to buy tobacco from a cooperative of growers in Jalapa. The guy we were buying the tobacco from was Omar Ortez. I said, Let's do a factory in Nicaragua. He was from Condega, and he wanted to put the factory in Condega.

Q: Now, Condega is not known for making cigars, but for growing tobacco.
A: Right, I think we're the only factory there. It's a heavily Sandinista area. There's murals of Che Guevara, and there's Sandinista flags flying.

Q: Is that intimidating?
A: I've noticed in all my travels that everyone loves Americans and hates our government. There's a big separation. So we started there in 1994, '95.

Q: So you've figured out your time in Copan is ended, and it's time to move on to somewhere else?
A: Yes. Then the boom came. I remember the Cincinnati RTDA [Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show, in 1996]. I took $1 million in orders on the floor.

Q: Compare that with earlier RTDAs.
A: In 1991, I took $30,000.

Q: So this is beyond your wildest dreams.
A: And it was a dream, because I didn't have $1 million worth of cigars. I had all these orders, and no cigars. So like everyone else, I rushed to produce these cigars. I had a bit of popularity going, and when we made the cigars, the boom was over, and I had a slew of cigars and no one to buy them (laughs). But during the boom, Frank Sinatra approaches me via a gentleman named Eliot Weisman. Sinatra wants a superpremium cigar, top of the top. He told Eliot he wants to work with a Sicilian, and I'm half Sicilian. He wanted the most expensive wrapper, he wanted this, he wanted that. We sit down, agree on everything, I'm about to leave the room, and Sinatra says, "Kid, by the way, I want a Dominican cigar. This Central American stuff don't sell for shit. Everyone wants Dominican." I said, "I don't have a Dominican factory." He said, "Now you do." So I threw out a number, and he said, "Do you want a check, or do you want it wired?"

So now I have to make cigars in the Dominican Republic. I had bought tobacco there before. We started this crummy little factory with three benches and we start rolling cigars. Next to us, there's this farm that's for sale, 40 acres. I have this vision: we'll make a farm and a hotel. We buy it, $300,000. We build a building, $200,000. Now I'm in debt to the banks. End of the boom, Sinatra not reordering. Here I am, in debt. Trying to find a way to sell cigars. And we are paying usurers' rates, because nontraditional people are lending us the money and they're charging two percent interest a month. So I don't know what to do. Then by some miracle, Bob Franzblau [the owner of Thompson Cigars] calls and says, I want you to make me cigars.

Q: Up to this point, had you any relationship with a catalog retailer?
A: No, no one at all.

Q: So this is a big call for you.
A: Big call for me. I had a brand that I had created called Iguana, with candela wrapper. I said, Well, let me create something a bit different here. I couldn't sell it.

Q: No one was really making candela at this point. What made you want to do that?
A: It was different. Also, I read that in the 1960s the bulk of cigars sold in the United States were made with candela, and I believe there are cycles in life, so maybe a candela cigar might be something new smokers might like. So I told Bob, I have this brand called Iguana, I can give it to you exclusively. And he liked it. It became their No. 1—selling cigar. So we had this great relationship, because the first one out of the gate he's a winner with me with a cigar that was so out of left field. I'm basically making now about 2.5 million cigars a year for him out of the Dominican Republic.

Q: Did Bob Franzblau and Thompson pull you out of your debt?
A: Yes. I owe him. He saved my Dominican factory—100 percent.

Q: So this allows you to continue with your premier brands?
A: Yes, but it also opened up my eyes. I said, I've been busting my ass and going to these countries for 10 years, and the Dominican is fantastic. It was accessible, you could eat well, there were beaches, nice hotels. I said, What the hell am I doing struggling? I wanted to bring more of my type of production to the D.R., but we couldn't because we were basically mass—making cigars for Thompson, and not really any blends, but just working on price quality, good construction, Sumatra wrapper, Connecticut. So as I started building up reserves and started making some money, I started bringing in better tobaccos, started doing things in the Dominican different, because I want to make Dominican my flagship factory.

I created Felipe Dominican there, I created Petrus Fortus there, I made the Excellence there. You see the notches going up every time, I'm bringing the bar a bit higher—not exactly where I want to be, but I'm getting there. I had to change the mindset of my partner, who said, Listen, I don't give a shit about making good cigars, we have to pay bills here. Valid point. So we took the dream of making a hotel and cigar factory, we sold off half the lot and made houses, we financed ourselves and we became financially sound. So we have no debt.

Q: When was this?
A: Between '98 to about 2001.

Q: So during this time you're paying down debt, making lots of cigars for Thompson and getting back on your feet?
A: Now we have money, we owe no money—we're always short of money in this business, everyone is—but since I've concentrated a lot on making cigars for other people, my personal cigar sales have dwindled. So now I have to bring those up.

I started doing a lot of stuff for Cigars International, too, so now we have two big mail—order houses we're making product for. But we're making an inexpensive cigar, which I don't want to do. I don't want these mail—order houses to take more than 30 percent of our business, so gradually we're changing. I'm making some more private—label cigars for some people in Europe, I make a cigar for a friend of mine who has a jewelry chain, and then I make cigars for a diamond broker.

Q: What's your distribution like?
A: At my height I had 500 or 600 shops that I sold to on a regular basis, and maybe now I'm at 300. In 2002, 2003, a German manufacturer called Poeschl that makes snuff approached me to do a joint venture in the United States to distribute their snuff. It did not work out, but it gave me a lot of exposure to my brands again, and I managed to get into shops that didn't traditionally carry my cigars.

Now I'm saying that I want to come out with great cigars, so I'm looking for tobacco. That brings me to Felipe Power, where I had stockpiled some of the original Centenario tobacco—the filler—plus I have some old Dominican piloto Cubano. We put a Nicaraguan binder on it, but what was missing was the wrapper. [I found this] Costa Rica Havana seed, and this wrapper was like, "Wow." This did it. Now I'm in the process of making this cigar.

Q: This is your 15th anniversary smoke?
A: Yes. [Offers a cigar.] This is blended to be very full bodied. It's a very much in—your—face cigar. Eventually I would like to bring all of my production over to the Dominican Republic. I'm seeing that it's about time to start going my own way.

Q: You talked about the Iguana, which is unusual. Recently, you brought out double—barreled "shotgun" cigars called Three Tierras. Where did you get that idea?
A: When I look for blends, I smoke a very small—ring—gauge cigar made entirely of that one tobacco, for me to get the full effect of that tobacco. So I was smoking that and I said, Let's educate the consumer by putting two cigars—one pure Nicaragua, one pure Dominican—[inside the same wrapper], and when they smoke it, they're getting a pure delivery of each cigar, and it mixes on the palate.

Q: Let's talk about your Miami factory. What inspired that?
A: When I moved down here [to Florida], I said to myself, "I'm an outsider." I'm not Cuban, I'm not Latin. Since I'm in Miami, I need to identify myself as a cigarmaker. What better way than to put myself right in Calle Ocho [the city's Cuban heart] and I can roll a blend right here. When people come here, they can come to the shop and enjoy a cigar with me.

Q: When does it open?
A: [September.]

Q: This is an expensive proposition, isn't it?
A: It's near my house, I have a great spot with a covered walkway where people can smoke, and I'm thinking of putting in a wine bar, so people can smoke a cigar, have some wine and have a coffee.

Q: So you're putting down roots.
A: I'm settled. I'm not nervous anymore. I'm not worried. I just want to make a good cigar and enjoy my life. And as long as I can pay the bills, I'm happy. I'm not looking at this as a business to sell. Hopefully my kids can go into it and grow it.

Photo by Eileen Escarda