Cigar Industry

Death of a Legend: Carlos Fuente Sr.

Aug 6, 2016 | By David Savona
Death of a Legend: Carlos Fuente Sr.
Photos/Jeffery Salter
Carlos Fuente Sr. died on Friday night in Tampa, Florida, after a battle with stomach cancer. He was 81 years old.

Carlos Fuente Sr., the patriarch and longtime chairman of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., died on Friday night in Tampa, Florida, after a battle with stomach cancer. He was 81 years old, and was surrounded by his family at the time of his death.

Fuente ran one of the world's largest handmade cigar companies, presiding over such storied brands as Arturo Fuente and Fuente Fuente OpusX, and making many brands for others, among them all Ashtons and Diamond Crowns. He worked alongside his son, Carlos Fuente Jr., who is president of the company, and his daughter, Cynthia Fuente-Suarez. Both are actively involved in the company today, continuing the family tradition of making fine cigars.

From a humble beginning in Ybor City, Florida, making cigars from his parent's home, Fuente Sr. built Fuente into an international powerhouse, with its cigars known and revered the world over. His company today makes more than 30 million cigars a year in Santiago, Dominican Republic, all of them by hand.

"I never cared about being the largest cigar manufacturer," he once told Cigar Aficionado. "I always cared to be the best." Fuente's cigars scored numerous high ratings in Cigar Aficionado magazine, including being named Cigar of the Year in 2005. He was inducted into the inaugural class of the Cigar Aficionado Hall of Fame in 1997, and was the last surviving member of that group.

"Senior was a giant—part of a breed of pioneers that helped make the handmade cigar industry what it has become," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine. "A family man, a humble man, his memory will remain forever."

"It's the end of an era," said Robert Levin, owner of Ashton Distributors Inc., who knew Fuente Sr. for decades. "He was a unique guy, an amazing person. He was a problem solver, and would look at a situation and come up with a solution no one else would think about."

"He was a great man, the greatest man I have ever known," said Wayne Suarez, his former son in law and a former Fuente executive. "There will never be another Carlos Fuente Sr."

Fuente Sr. was known as one of the hardest working men in the cigar industry. "I've been working since I was eight years old. From selling fruits in the street, shining shoes, I've done about anything you can think of," he said to Cigar Aficionado in 2012. "When I was 14, 15 years old I used to have two jobs. I used to go to school, I used to get up to deliver papers, and after school I used to be at work until 11 at night in the drugstore. I've always loved to work."

Fuente Sr. was also a fighter who overcame obstacles. He contracted polio at the age of 11, and some said he would never walk again. It took several years, but Fuente Sr. regained the ability to walk normally.

Carlos Fuente Sr.
Carlos Fuente Sr. with son Carlos Fuente Jr.

The Arturo Fuente brand was created by Fuente's father, Arturo Fuente, who began making cigars in West Tampa, Florida, in 1912. By the 1920s the business had grown big enough to incorporate and had 500 employees, but in 1924 the cigar factory burned to the ground. Arturo, who was underinsured, had to stop production. In 1946, Arturo set out once again to make cigars, this time on the 10-foot-by-16-foot back porch of his home in Ybor City, a part of Tampa. Fuente Sr. was 11 years old at the time, and he grew up working in the business and helping out his father, first sweeping floors then learning how to roll. He had to make 50 cigars each every day when he returned home from school.

Fuente was a local business in the 1950s. Every cigar that the tiny factory made was sold in the Tampa area, and strictly for cash. The cigar business wasn't strong enough to support Fuente Sr. with a salary in those early days, so he took a job as a baker. When he left the bakery to work full time at Fuente, he was paid a mere $40 a week.

In 1958 Fuente Sr. bought the company from his father for $1. It had assets of $1,161 with zero debt and was making only a few thousand cigars a year.

Fuente Sr. set his mind on expansion, which meant selling cigars on credit. He began by expanding to other parts of Florida, then New York City, focusing on markets with a strong Latin community. As sales grew, he added employees, but times were still lean. He was living in his parents' house, which still served as the factory. As it grew, cigarmaking would expand into more rooms in the house, forcing the Fuentes to move their furniture to the street each day to create temporary workspace.

Times remained tough in the cigar business. Fuente opened his factory in the Dominican Republic in 1980 with his son, Carlos Fuente Jr. They worked 18-hour days, reinvesting any profits into tobacco, building a massive inventory of fine leaf. "When I first started in Dominican, all our profit, we stuck it back. All our profit was always invested in tobacco. And aged tobacco is the most important thing that you can have. We always had a lot of aged tobacco. And as we started aging more and more, we started doing better."

Fuente's business truly began to soar during the cigar boom of the 1990s, built upon such cigars as the Arturo Fuente 8-5-8, the Hemingway series of perfectos and later the rich and robust Fuente Fuente OpusX. The business today stands as the largest family-owned producer of premium cigars.

Fuente Sr. was predeceased by his wife, Anna Louisa Lopez Fuente, who died in December. They were married for 62 years.

He is survived by his sons Carlos Fuente Jr. and Richard Fuente; daughter Cynthia Fuente-Suarez; brother Arturo Fuente Jr.; grandchildren Liana Fuente, Rosana Fuente, Christina Suarez, Lidiana Fuente, Bianca Suarez, Sofia Fuente and Carlos Fuente III; great-grandsons Alvaro Valerio Jr. and Arturo Valerio and great-granddaughter Anna Valentina Valerio.

"May he rest in peace. Thank you! for all the great stories and for sharing his work ethic with all. FUENTE FAN FOR LIFE!!" —August 15, 2016 16:03 PM
"Memory Eternal " —August 12, 2016 21:07 PM
"I would like to express my sincere condolences. Truly one of the great men of our time. He will remain in our hearts forever. " —August 11, 2016 22:26 PM
"Our prayers go out to the Fuente family. I got to meet his son Carlos in Tampa at the cigar factory very nice gave me a small tour." —August 10, 2016 11:46 AM
"David; you've captured the man as eloquently as he treated all the lives he touched. Carlos Sr and family encouraged and supported me to get into the tobacco business even as a hobby. His pursuit of excellence and production of the finest hand made cigars raises the bar to a standard that few manufacturers can fathom. Rest in peace my friend. You are admired, loved, missed and revered. Nicholas Landry Oscar Cigar Company " —August 9, 2016 21:34 PM
"We have lost a Great man. The Legend shall live with us forever in our hearts." —August 9, 2016 18:16 PM
"I only met Carlos Sr. once, yet I consider him a friend I will never see again. From now on, each time I light a Hemmingway or Opus X, I will remember him. Rest in Peace good sir. My heart felt sympathies to the Fuente family." —August 9, 2016 16:14 PM
"A true craftsman and by far the most talented man in the business. When I heard the news on Sunday, I figured the best way to honor the "Don" was to send a heavenly incense tribute skyward via a Don Carlos robusto. It was one of the first cigars that I found when I started, and has been my go-to stick ever since because of its consistently high quality. I am thankful for the man and the legend, and the excellent products that he and his family have created. His life has absolutely made so many lives more enjoyable. May he forever rest in peace." —August 9, 2016 14:05 PM
"A true gentleman: Generous, dignified, and honorable. He'll be missed." —August 8, 2016 12:20 PM
"The loss of a Great Legend in the Cigar Industry, Don Carlos Fuente Sr. will be greatly missed by everyone. A sincere and honest man that built an empire and a wonderful family. Our deepest condolences to the Fuente Family. May Don Carlos RIP. Elena & Armando Artamendi Aficionado's Premium Cigars Pembroke Pines, Fl " —August 8, 2016 11:31 AM
"I met Mr. Fuente at his factory in Santiago, RD. With no appointment I traveled to the factory hoping to talk with him. He was in a meeting and the receptionist told me that I have no appointment. So I told her okay and asked if she would give to him the sample of CT. Broadleaf tobacco I had brought with me. She said what do you have? I have a sample of CT. Broadleaf. She then phoned another man in the factory. And then asked if I could wait one minute. The man soon arrived and looked at our sample and said Do you have a few minutes? Sure. He returned within a minute an said Carlos wants to talk with you if you can wait 5 minutes. I did not know what to expect, one of the leaders in the tobacco industry and now I am nervous as hell. I was called into his office and he really liked the sample. He talked to me about tobacco, where our farm was, how much tobacco we raise. He put me at ease he was a regular guy it was awesome! But the whole meeting took place because of that little sample of what he loved Tobacco. To all his family you are in our prayers and the Tobacco industry has lost a Great Man. Robert C. Hinckley and our family Hinckley Farms LLC" —August 7, 2016 21:01 PM
"J Pane Stony Point,NY A sad day. My sympathy to the entire Fuente Family. " —August 7, 2016 20:41 PM
"Carlos was more then just my friend. We were family. The relationship goes all the way back to Carlos's father and my grandfather who at one time manufactured cigars together and continues on today through Carlito and Cynthia. The industry has lost a legend but I have lost a brother. I loved this man for his strength of character, his honesty, fairness and integrity, his work ethic, his fighting spirit, his individualism and of no less importance, his sincere compassion for others. His continuous pursuit of perfection made a great industry better by maintaining and even surpassing those standards that define premium cigars never compromising his product regardless of the unrestricted demands that went unfilled. He was a purist and was obviously very successful at passing these traits on to future generations. Personally I very much grieve his loss but joyfully celebrate his life not only for all he achieved but more importantly for the positive influence he had on all of us. Our Fuente family will be in my prayers every day. We love you Carlos. John Oliva Sr & all the Oliva family Oliva Tobacco Company " —August 7, 2016 18:23 PM
"May God bless you in heaven Carlos Fuente Sr.! Although i have never had the chance to meet you, I have made a facebook friend of one of your master rollers Ariel Rosario! I have had the pleasure of smoking your cigars and they are excellent! You have joined the cigar community in an outpouring of love and affection. I pray they have the strength that you did in triumphing over adversity as we head into a new era with FDA regulations.May your son and your entire family know that we all share in mourning your death and we will continue to strive to keep Fuente Cigars in our humidors. From New York City to your family, my deepest condolences! " —August 7, 2016 17:30 PM
"Descansa en paz, Senor Fuente. A great man and a true gentleman. My deepest condolences to his family." —August 7, 2016 16:43 PM
"Rest in peace Carlos! You brought a variety of excellent products to the market. I've been smoking Fuente cigars for 24 years. Many different ones. I am truly a fan, and I'd say, pretty much, the only ones I smoke on a regular basis. Always consistent. They're my favorites!! Say hi to all the angels for us!! " —August 7, 2016 16:22 PM
"Sorry to hear of your father's passing. I have enjoyed your cigars over several years. His story is an inspiration and what America offers those who are willing to dream and never stop believing. Blessings, comfort and peace to your family during this time. Psalm 121" —August 7, 2016 16:05 PM
"May his memory be eternal!" —August 7, 2016 14:39 PM
"Man what a bio and what a guy, humble beginnings with dedication. He deserved the success he has attained. RIP" —August 7, 2016 12:17 PM
"I wish to offer my heartfelt prayers and condolences to the Fuente Family on the loss of Carlos Fuente Sr. I was blessed with the opportunity to meet him a few times at Holt’s and he was such a kind and gracious man. Though he has left us, he will forever live in our hearts and mind. God Bless you Papa." —August 7, 2016 11:26 AM
"So sorry to hear. Condolences and God bless the family during this time of grief and bring peace!" —August 7, 2016 11:21 AM
"Met Fuente at a Big Smoke years ago, very genuine, nice guy, great smile,insisted I meet Carlos Jr and show him my Opus X tattoo.What a great memory.RIP" —August 7, 2016 09:16 AM
"One by one the men who made the post embargo premium cigar industry are leaving us. Frank Llaneza, Sanford Newman, Edgar Cullman, Anhill Oliva, Juan Bermejo, Ramon Cifuentes, Daniel Rodriguez, Estelo Padron, Simon Camacho, and now Carlos Fuente. I guess I’ve known Carlos for close to 45 years as I may have been the first retailer outside of the heavily Spanish speaking areas of the New York Metropolitan area to sell Fuente cigars. In fact, the only other retailer I can think of from the early 70’s that handled any Fuente cigars at all back then was my friend Mark Goldman who had a shop on the corner of 5th Avenue and 22nd street. Given the powerhouse that the Fuente brand is today it’s hard to imagine just how difficult it was back then for Carlos to just survive in business and feed his family. He would come up to New York and go from Bodega to Bodega hustling his Fuente Fumas and Brevas, short filler handmade cigars which represented possibly 90 percent of the cigars he made…. and trying like hell to break into the more profitable long filler business in stores like ours with little success. I guess I got to know him better than most because he would stay at the Edison Hotel just a couple of blocks from our store and hang out in our shop before taking the bus uptown to call on every little grocery that conceivably handle his stuff. Things were so bad at one time that we actually had to lend Carlos $150.00 because he didn’t have enough money to check out of the hotel. And… in a conversation years later with Jorge Ortiz Alvarez, a cigar manufacturer from San Andres Mexico, I wasn’t surprised to learn that on a separate occasion Carlos had borrowed money from Jorge as well. On one of those mornings in our shop Carlos was really distraught. He had made a horrendous deal with a guy named Charlie Seguera of C.S.&J. Cigars, a distributor in Jersey City (a heavily latino area) to distribute Fuente cigars to the entire New York area. Given the dismal economic shape Carlos was in at the time, he was now hit with a bombshell….. C.S.&J. was going bankrupt ! Carlos was going to lose all the money Charlie owed him PLUS al the inventory in Charlies warehouse…. so we agreed to buy everything in CS&J’s warehouse for cash (and I believe my friend Mark also participated in that bailout) …. but that was 40+ years ago and my memory is a little fuzzy. Well, I’m sure I could write a short story about my up and down relationship with Carlos Sr., and the brands we had him make which included the JR Alternative ( the mainstay of his original Dominican factory) …. but let me just say that a harder worker you will never find. A better tobacco man you will never find. A guy that overcame business and dire personal adversity you will never find. The business he built is not solely the result of the cigars he made, it’s a result of the person he was, and the strength of character he possessed. " —August 7, 2016 08:45 AM
"the standard by which all cigars are measured by..RIP Senior!!" —August 7, 2016 08:03 AM
"I had the honor and privilege to meet with Don Carlos Sr many times ... and see the bond that he had with Cynthia and Carlito and his entire family. It was pure joy to see. A truly amazing man, leader, entrepreneur, and role model to us all - the dedication he had with Carlito with the Cigar Family Foundation is inspiring. Pure thoughts and love." —August 7, 2016 03:10 AM
" Senior was one of the kindest, sweetest, humble and most sincere human being I’ve ever met. May he be at peace Offering my sincere condolences to the Fuente Family. Jackie (Holts Cigar Company)" —August 7, 2016 00:54 AM
"Rest in Peace Señor Carlos Fuente. It was my great pleasure to first meet you at CFC 2002 and to talk with you a number of times over the years. It was very evident to me from the time I met you how Carlito and you were a great father and son team to work together, a good balance of differences and similarities that combined to compliment each other perfectly. You and your wife Anna raised a great family with three generations surviving you. Your spirit will live on through them for a long, long time. My condolences to all of your family and a special hug to Cynthia." —August 6, 2016 23:04 PM
"Sad to hear this news. Some of the best sticks I've ever had. RIP. : (" —August 6, 2016 22:13 PM
"The passing of a true Master of the Leaf. My wife Peggy and I truly admire the Fuente Family and appreciate the hard work and dedication of Carlos Fuente Sr.. " —August 6, 2016 21:47 PM
"Kay and Barry Herbst We send our deepest sympathy to the entire Fuente Family. He was, and will always will be a great man. His legacy and spirit will always be remembered through his family and friends. Carlos will forever be remembered from Kay and myself as he considered us part of his family as well. We both know that you will be hearing our prayers from Pa. " —August 6, 2016 21:13 PM
"Very sorry to hear this sad news. Rest in peace." —August 6, 2016 20:32 PM
"While words are inadequate to express the feelings felt by the loss of Carlos Sr., please know that I am praying and thinking of you and your family. I pray that He who knows your sorrow bring you: ~ Courage – to face the days ahead . . . ~ Comfort – found in all the loving, joyful memories you’ve shared . . . ~ Peace – that brings healing . . . Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen+ " —August 6, 2016 20:24 PM
"May he rest in peace" —August 6, 2016 20:15 PM
"A true roll model." —August 6, 2016 19:59 PM
"My husband and I would like to send our sincere sympathy and fervent prayers to your family. We were blessed enough to meet your father as well as Carlos Jr. and Cynthia at a big smoke in Las Vegas several years ago. We have always held that moment in our minds as a highlight in our lives. Your dad was such a gracious man and suggest that the family sign our fidora hats which still hang on our wall in our home. We will always remember him and look forward to meeting up with him again in heaven. With much prayer and blessings, Steve and Roberta Casino" —August 6, 2016 19:47 PM
"May he rest in peace." —August 6, 2016 19:31 PM
"RIP Carlos!" —August 6, 2016 19:23 PM
"RIP" —August 6, 2016 19:15 PM

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