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Cigar Aficionado

Fuente's Right Hand Man

Wayne Suarez is the strong and quiet force behind the scenes at Arturo Fuente, the world's largest family-owned cigar brand.
Fuente's Right Hand Man
Photo/Brad DeCecco

Fall in Tampa, Florida. Thick, pregnant clouds hang low in the sky as Wayne Suarez opens the front door to Edward's Pipe & Tobacco, one of the best-stocked cigar shops in Western Florida. A man at the counter wearing a guayabera and smoking a pipe greets him with a warm hello, as do several of the patrons in the shop. Four are playing dominoes at a table set up in the corner, trading insults in a mixture of Spanish and English, a cigar by each man's side. Many sit at the well-weathered counter that rings the register in a geometry-defying shape, the rough part of a matchbook glued to its surface at two-foot intervals near collections of wooden matches—this is a place to smoke.

Suarez, an 18-year veteran of the cigar industry and of Arturo Fuente cigars, has watched the industry change dramatically during his tenure. Suarez, a strong-looking man with a powerful gaze, cuts and lights a Fuente Fuente OpusX, one of four or five cigars he'll smoke that day. The 55-year-old executive from Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. sits at the counter and takes a long puff on his cigar, looking around the room.

His eyes have seen quite a bit. Suarez is an 18-year veteran of the cigar industry who oversees all the Fuente sales in the United States. The size of the business is staggering. Fuente makes more than 30 million cigars a year in four factories in the Dominican Republic, making it one of the world's largest producers of handmade cigars. Suarez has watched the cigar business soar during the cigar boom, contract in its aftermath and recover again, observing substantial changes in the marketplace.

"Service—that's the key," he says, defining what sets apart quality cigar shops from others, what keeps a person visiting a local brick-and-mortar cigar shop rather than buying elsewhere. "It's important to take care of the customers coming in your door. I see that in my travels. You can buy cigars anywhere. Tobacconists now are much more knowledgeable than they were in the past and are taking great care of their cigars."

The typical cigar smoker, says Suarez, has a goal when he or she enters a cigar shop. "Most guys that come in know what they want. They know what their tastes are. He wants to buy something he is comfortable with, and he wants to have brand recognition. He knows he's going to smoke two, maybe three cigars a week, and he wants enjoyment," he says. "The customer is much more educated now." That enhanced level of education among consumers and retailers has resulted in a market in which the mediocre gets swept aside. "It moves the bar for everybody," he says. "It keeps everybody on their toes."

Price concerns among cash-strapped consumers have also come to the forefront. With the economy struggling and cigars more expensive due to the SCHIP expansion that raised the federal excise tax on cigars by 35 cents apiece, Suarez has witnessed consumers moving to less-expensive smokes. Fuente's broad range of products—the company makes cigars with six varieties of wrappers in prices ranging from $2.40 to $26 per cigar—allows the company to maintain a customer even as he moves down in price.

"A guy that might have smoked [an Arturo Fuente] Hemingway Signature might now be smoking an A. Fuente 8-5-8. He can still smoke a Fuente, stay with cigars he is comfortable with," says Suarez. Fuente makes both cigars, the former a $7 smoke, the latter retailing for a few dollars less. "I think that's one of the things that makes our line so appealing. We have everything from a Breva or Curly Head to a Fuente Fuente OpusX and everything in between. You can buy an Arturo Fuente Roths-child, which has an African Cameroon wrapper on it, for $4.40. You can buy an 8-5-8 for $4.80. We cover all the bases in terms of price point."

While the recession looms large, Suarez considers the unfettered spread of smoking bans to be the most insidious threat facing the industry—although one that will ultimately be overcome. "People aren't going to quit smoking, but they're going to smoke less. I never thought I would see Florida where you couldn't smoke in restaurants. Some retailers have off-premise locations that they service. Once those places go nonsmoking, it's a domino effect—the accounts dry up. One New York City retailer told me when he lost the restaurant, hotel and bar accounts [after the smoking ban] 'there's no way I'll get enough people through that door to make that up. It's lost business.'"

That type of market insight has made Suarez a valued part of the Fuente family. "He's been by my side and he's someone who advises me and guides me," says Carlos Fuente Jr. "Wayne is a strong, loyal warrior. I've learned a lot from Wayne. He's a brother, and he'll always be my brother."

Suarez understands the small details of the cigar business. He knows maduros sell best in the Texas area, that the market is split between the two-a-week smoker and the two-a-day smoker and that the best tobacconists keep their humidors spotless. His insights and work habits have gained him the respect of longtime veterans in the retail end of the cigar business.

"He's a great ambassador for the cigar industry," says John Anderson, the co-owner of W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist Inc. in Washington, D.C., a shop a few blocks from the White House. Chuck Levi, owner of the venerable Iwan Ries & Co., a 153-year-old cigar store in downtown Chicago, calls Suarez "one of the most knowledgeable cigar guys." Levi has known him for nearly 20 years. "I always get an education when I talk to him. He's a great cigar guy—he knows what's going on in the marketplace."

Suarez grew up around cigars, in a simpler time when they were smoked in every possible venue. His grandparents were cigarmakers in Tampa, back when it was the cigar capital of the United States, and his father worked as a cigar factory color sorter. "If you were Latin, Spanish, Cuban, Italian back then, somebody worked in a cigar factory," says Suarez, who is Spanish and Italian.

Cigars were a familiar sight in the Suarez household and he puffed on them from an early age. "I smoked them on Sundays at my grandfather's house. The whole family always went there. Every once in a while I would grab a cigar." When he was in high school, all his classmates puffed on cigarettes. "I didn't like cigarettes," he said. "Being in Tampa, the family being in the cigar business, I started smoking cigars."

As fate would have it, the first cigar he remembers smoking was made by the family he would later join as an adult. "The first cigar I ever smoked was an Arturo Fuente Curly Head," says Suarez, referring to an inexpensive cigar made by Fuente. "They looked different then—made in Tampa with an unfinished end—you could paint a wall with it," he says with a chuckle, referring to the bristly head of the old cigars, which are now made in the Dominican Republic with a much more comely appearance.

The teen years were influential for Suarez. His father died when he was 16, leaving him to be raised by his mother. Her handling of the arduous task of going it alone left an imprint on Suarez forever. "When I was in high school, my mother worked two or three jobs. She gave me my work ethic—work hard, not take short cuts. Her line was, 'If you're not going to do it right son, just don't do it.'"

Suarez also was a teen when he met his future brother-in-law, Carlos Fuente Jr., who today is the president of the Fuente cigar empire. "We had some mutual friends. We all grew up in Ybor City and moved to West Tampa," says Suarez. In 1988, he became part of the Fuente family when he married Carlos's sister, Cynthia. In 1992, he joined the business.

Becoming part of the business meant learning the Fuente way of doing things, and that meant moving, in 1993, from Tampa to the Dominican Republic, where Fuente makes all of its cigars. "Sr. and Jr. wanted us to learn the business from the ground up," he says. The move was tough. He and Cynthia had two toddlers: Christina, who was three at the time, and Bianca, then one. Their son, Carlos, had not been born. They moved in with Carlos Fuente Sr. and his wife Anna, and Wayne learned firsthand about his father-in-law's legendary work ethic. He also got an early lesson in doing things the right way.

Arturo Fuente Hemingways are aged for six months after rolling. Suarez was moving through the original Fuente factory one day when he came across a sizeable amount of Hemingways sitting in the aging room. They had been aging for five months and three weeks. Back in the United States the perfectos were like gold, deeply back-ordered. Suarez thought for a moment and came up with what he thought was a gem of an idea.

"I figured by the time the cigars go through color sorting, get cellophaned, boxed, then shipped, they would be six months old. More," he says. He ordered the cigars to be packed and shipped. Problem solved. "I thought it was a brilliant move," he says.

Then his father-in-law came into the packing room.

Fuente is a huge cigar company, but it operates like a small business. Little happens that Carlos Fuente Sr. doesn't know about and he knew that the factory didn't have Hemingways that were six months old. He wanted to know what happened, so Suarez took the blame.

"We drove home together that night and I felt it was over. He said, 'Let's stop and have a beer.'" Suarez pulled up to one of the roadside stands that seem to be everywhere in Santiago, where icy cold Presidente is always available, and left the truck running, thinking he would grab brews for the road. Fuente Sr. told him to turn the Jeep off—Suarez knew it wasn't over.

His father-in-law wanted to know why he ordered the Hemingways shipped early. Suarez explained himself, going through the logic, noting that by the time a consumer smoked one it would be well over six months old. "He said, 'OK, I see your point—but that's not the way we do things. If you do it in five months, three weeks, then maybe next time it's five months and two weeks.' " Eventually, the patriarch told his son-in-law, you get away from what I want.

Message received. "I learned a valuable lesson," says Suarez. "I would never pull the trigger early again." Suarez, a man who is far more comfortable complimenting others than he is talking about his own experiences or talents, repeatedly calls Fuente Sr. "the greatest man I know." Speaking about the father-and-son team behind the Fuente brands, Suarez says: "They make great cigars. I don't think there's anybody who makes better cigars than Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr."

It's unsurprising that Suarez found a home with the Fuentes, who are known for attention to detail. A bit of a neat freak, Suarez once owned a car detailing service. He tried a stint in the restaurant business, then went back to car detailing before moving into the cigar business.

Cleanliness is important to Suarez and he finds it important to cigars as well. A cigar, of course, ultimately ends up in a consumer's mouth. "You go into some cigar shops and the humidors are immaculate and clean," he says. "That's important."

Suarez also finds importance in hard work, pointing to the example of his hardworking mother and the legendary work habits of Fuente Sr. "Hands down, there is no man I know who works harder than Carlos Sr.," he says. He also works hard himself. In a family business—even one as large as Fuente—when there's a job to do it means people pitch in.

"We just do whatever it takes. I travel with the salesmen, work the market, do events, whatever it takes to get the job done," says Suarez.

Today, Suarez spends much of his time in Fuente's U.S. headquarters in Tampa, Florida. His office is in the same building as the J.C. Newman Cigar Co.—the Newmans and Fuentes are partners. If he's not there, he's likely on the road at a cigar event, or in the Dominican Republic doing whatever needs to be done at the heart of Fuente's cigar production. It's something he envisions will not go away.

"I think there will always be a cigar business," he says. "I don't think the future is as bleak as some people think."

Not long ago, at the Las Vegas Big Smoke, Suarez stood suit-clad as hundreds of cigar lovers poured into a ballroom set for a luxurious meal. It was the lunch break for the Big Smoke seminars and Fuente was hosting the event. As Fuente Jr. prepared to speak to the crowd and Fuente Sr. shook hands with well-wishing fans, Suarez hovered in the wings, quietly speaking to a person here, a person there, ensuring that all the details were attended to, the little things that ensured the audience saw an event move like clockwork.

For Suarez, it was just another day. Taking care of the small details to make sure things were done the Fuente way—properly.