Keepers of the Clock
“Let me show you something,” says Eric Newman, looking at the floor with an impish grin. His younger brother, Bobby, flings open a cabinet under the sink. They’re in the small kitchenette just off a conference room in the newly renovated headquarters of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., the handsome brick building with the clock tower located in the heart of Tampa. It’s been a working cigar factory for more than 100 years. Cigar fans who have visited Tampa over the decades tended to skip J.C. Newman and head straight to the tourist traps of Ybor City for one simple reason: they had no idea it was there. That’s changing, and the Newman family can finally tell its story in full.
“Come on Bobby, will you press the button already?” says Eric, starting to lose his patience. “I’m trying,” Bobby responds, still fidgeting in the cabinet. They both have the boyish eagerness of two kids showing off their clubhouse, even though Eric is 73 and Bobby is 70. Eric, the company president, has been with his family’s organization for almost 50 years. Bobby, the executive vice president, has been involved full-time for nearly as long. They have something to be excited about. This storied brick building underwent a beautiful renovation for Newman’s 125th anniversary in 2020, and it’s open to the public for tours. The main attraction is a timeline exhibit on the main floor and a new rolling gallery on the third level where a few rollers make a new smoke called The American, a handmade line of cigars made entirely from American tobacco.
Bobby finally finds what he’s been looking for. There’s a “click!” followed by the unlatching of floor boards, and Eric bends over and opens a trap door. He’s revealed more than just a secret stairway. He’s revealed a new story. A building this old has many of them, and the Newmans can’t wait to share every last one. “Back in the day when the local mobsters would try to shake us down, someone would grab the cash from the safe and run down these steps,” he says, ducking his head under the hatch as he heads down the narrow stairwell. “They’d hide the cash downstairs. You didn’t want any trouble with the local mob. We only discovered this staircase recently during the renovation.”
Downstairs, in the basement, there’s a man running tobacco through a fine mist of water. He twists handfuls of dried tobacco under the spray as it hisses from a pipe valve, then shakes the leaves like pom-poms, moistening the tobacco for cigar production upstairs. One gets the feeling that this man has been down here doing his solitary work for a century. Further down is an old subterranean office that looks like it hasn’t been touched since the Woodrow Wilson administration. The Newmans have frozen this space in time.
“This was our grandfather’s lab,” Eric says, showing off beakers, journals and the patinated instrumentation of antiquity. All is perfectly preserved and it becomes clear that the big brick building in the heart of Tampa is more than a cigar factory and office headquarters: It’s one of the cigar world’s most interactive time capsules and a sentimental monument to the longevity of the company.
“We’ve lived here all our lives,” Eric says. “It’s our history and our heritage. We’re not just a museum. We’re making cigars here, and it’s very expensive. Whether it sells more cigars or not, it’s our mission and intent to keep the cigar story alive.”
In the lobby on the main floor, a spotlight shines on a curious piece of mechanical apparatus. All gears and cantilevers, this steel-framed mechanism is what powers the clock tower. It’s the original installation put in by E. Howard & Co. and is not only the beating heart of the building but a daily reminder of the long history.
As the oldest family-owned cigar manufacturer in the U.S., J.C. Newman Cigar Co. has been inextricably linked to the Arturo Fuente Cigar Co. for the last 36 years. This alliance started in 1986, when the two companies struck a deal. Carlos Fuente Sr. agreed to make J.C. Newman’s handmade cigars in the Dominican Republic. Stanford Newman, then second-generation patriarch of J.C. Newman, agreed to distribute and sell Fuente cigars along with his own brands. The Tampa factory where Newman made its headquarters would be used strictly for making cigars by machine. It was a practical deal that turned into a sublime union of two families. They formed a joint venture in 1990 originally called FANCO (Fuente and Newman Co.).
“Fuente had the best cigar factory, but they didn’t have a sales force. They sold through brokers,” Eric explains. “Our expertise was selling to smoke shops, but we never had our own factory. Fuente could focus on production and not worry about selling. That was in 1986. Back then, the industry was declining. Our salesmen didn’t have enough to sell, so it was to our advantage to have more to sell.”
Bobby immediately chimes in: “Our sales force was under-utilized. We could sell more product with the same overhead. If there’s room for nine facings on the shelf, Fuente will get five and we’ll have four, because we have a responsibility to the Fuentes. We made them stronger and they made us stronger.”
To this day, the arrangement still stands, even if it means that J.C. Newman operates, perhaps, in the shadow of Fuente. If Fuente’s products, like the edgy OpusX, are the rock stars of the industry, then Newman’s brands such as Diamond Crown are more like the buttoned-up record execs by comparison—safe, traditional and necessary. Both companies have their respective roles in the cigar world and that suits the Newmans just fine.
“Their success is our success,” says Eric without the slightest hint of resentment. While Fuente cigars take the buzzy spotlight, J.C. Newman cigars are also in high demand, and are back-ordered. By their estimation, the company makes some 22 million handmade cigars a year. Most of them—about 17 million—are made up of a brand called Quorum. Those are handmade cigars rolled in Nicaragua with a mix of long-filler and short-filler tobacco, a more economical approach than using strictly long filler, as you find in the cigar brands rated by this magazine. Quorum is a value cigar, wrapped without pretense in unshowy bundles of 20.
On the premium side, the company has about 1.5 million cigars coming out of the Fuente factory in the Dominican Republic per year. Those cigars occupy the most premium tier in the J.C. Newman portfolio. Diamond Crowns are by far the most expensive cigars they sell. The packaging is regal without being over the top, and with wrappers such as Connecticut shade and Cameroon, these brands can be categorized as traditional.
Not to ignore the immense popularity of Nicaraguan cigars, J.C. Newman also produces handmade brands like Brick House, El Baton and Perla del Mar at PENSA, a factory in Estelí the Newmans acquired in 2011. (PENSA is also the home of the Quorum brand.) Last year, J.C. Newman had to create a second shift in its shipping department to get enough orders out. According to Eric, the company hasn’t been this busy since the 1990s cigar boom.
“I never thought I’d see another cigar boom,” says Eric. “It won’t last forever. It makes us proud.”
Bobby is equally in awe. “I never dreamed that we’d have to put a night shift on our shipping department,” he says. “We can’t get enough product out.”
Bobby is the softer spoken of the two brothers, and spent his time over the years on the road focused on sales while Eric oversaw cigar operations. Both have been in the family business since the 1970s, more or less their entire professional lives. They are the third generation of Newmans in the cigar industry. The fourth generation, Eric’s son Drew Newman, has served as general counsel for the family business since joining full time in 2017. At 40 years old, he is a practicing lawyer and brings legal expertise to the company. Unlike his father and uncle, Drew didn’t go straight to work for his father after college. Instead, he ended up in Washington, D.C., working as a clerk for a court of appeals.
“My family didn’t want me to feel forced to join the business,” Drew says on an unseasonably warm fall afternoon at a cigar shop in lower Manhattan. While his father and uncle live in Tampa, Drew splits his time between The Big Apple and Cigar City.
That’s not to say that he never worked for the company. He’d been working part-time for the family business since he was a teen. One of his first major contributions was starting CigarFamily.com, an online forum where people could talk about cigars on the Internet. “I’d go to school during the day and at night I’d have to moderate our forums trying to break up fights between grown men arguing about cigars. After 10 years I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Bringing J.C. Newman into the digital age of social media was almost a foregone conclusion. He was young enough to understand the importance of digital platforms like Instagram and Facebook but old enough to appreciate the family history. “If you look at the major difference from a few years ago, it’s that we’re telling our story.”
That story is a long one that began in 1888 when Hungarian immigrant Julius Caeser Newman came to the United States at 12 years old with that mythic, turn-of-the-century work ethic that’s come to define the American Dream. The family landed in Baltimore and ended up in Cleveland where Newman became a union cigarmaker. In 1895 he was rolling cigars in the family barn and selling them under whimsical brand names like Dr. Nichol, Judge Wright or John Carver. The cigars gained so much of a local following that by 1914, Newman built the largest cigar factory in Cleveland. As the cigar industry diminished in Cleveland, J.C. Newman Cigar Co. merged with the only other major cigar company still in business in that city, Mendelsohn Cigar Co., and M&N was born. Eventually, Newman bought out his partner.
After serving in World War II, J.C.’s son Stanford joined the company full time in 1946. Father-and-son disagreements were a recurring theme, but growing hostilities within the unionized workforce became a far bigger problem, and the company needed to look elsewhere. They found the solution in Florida, and in 1954, the Newmans closed the Cleveland operation and relocated to Tampa in the building they now occupy today. With the move came the transition from making cigars by hand to making cigars by machine, a shift mimicked by other companies around the United States as American labor rates climbed.
Even greater change came to the company when founder J.C. Newman died in 1958 at 82 years old. He left the company to his four children: Stanford and Millard, who each owned a third, and their sisters, who split the remaining third. It seemed equitable on paper, but the divided ownership only caused problems.
“It was as if we were a public company,” recalled Stanford in his memoir. “Our relatives were stockholders, always asking for more dividends, trying to take capital out when we needed the money for daily operations. The entire industry was in a terrible slump. Our profits were shrinking and with new family members coming into the business there was less and less to go around.”
In 1986, Ronald Reagan was in his second term, Sam Walton was the richest man in America and Stanford Newman had to make a decision. He and his sons Eric and Bobby bought out the other family members—13 in total. They mortgaged the factory for a bank loan to pay out the family in cash, and in doing so put the company in negative equity. What they gained was complete ownership of a company that was financially underwater making cigars for an industry that was in serious decline.
J.C. Newman’s future was looking grim, but Stanford saw potential in an old, forgotten brand called La Unica that he had acquired in 1958. His idea was to make them premium, handmade smokes, only they’d be sold as bundles to keep the prices down. And Carlos Fuente Sr. was going to make them. The brand launched in 1986.
“The story was that this is the first bundle that was a premium cigar,” says Bobby. “La Uncia took off. The biggest customer was Eckerd Drugs. We were selling 50,000 cigars a month.”
La Unica helped to get J.C. Newman into the black. Stanford was so pleased with its success that he turned over production of his Cuesta-Rey brand to Fuente as well, shifting production from machines in Tampa to a handmade, premium smoke from the Dominican Republic.
Once the Cigar Boom began in late 1992, the industry rebounded and Stanford went back to his catalog of trademarks. He resurrected Diamond Crown in 1995 to celebrate the company’s 100th year. The pricey cigar was made by the Fuentes in the Dominican Republic, and no size measured under 54 ring gauge, extremely thick for the time.
Stanford once mused that when he died, he hoped he would do so the way his parents did, without spending a day in the hospital. “That’s the way to go, in my opinion,” he had said. The Cigar Aficionado Hall-of-Famer got his wish. In August of 2006, suited up and in the office, Stanford had a heart attack and passed away shortly after. He was 90 years old.
“I hear his voice in my head every day,” Bobby says.
While it makes nearly all of its premium cigars in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, J.C. Newman makes an additional 12 million cigars per year by machine in Tampa. But Eric bristles when you call them machine-made cigars. “These are hand-operated machines,” he explains. “The factory is only capable of making about 840 an hour.” Compare that to automated machines that can make a quarter of a million cigars per hour. Seeing such old machinery in full operation is a marvel and a true throwback, as most of the equipment is almost as old as the building itself.
Things are much quieter on the top floor. Turning it into a rolling gallery for handmade cigars and opening it up to tours was Drew’s idea and his project. That, and creating The American, a brand made in the U.S. entirely of American tobacco. The third-floor factory is called El Reloj, which is Spanish for “the clock.”
“We have this gem of a factory in Tampa and we were hiding it from everyone,” Drew says. “The wineries in Napa did an incredible job telling their stories. Look at the Bourbon trail. There was nothing like it in the U.S. for the cigar industry.”
There’s an old adage that says that most family businesses don’t survive past the third generation. The Newmans refuse to let this maxim apply to them. Puffing away on an American Toro, Drew divulges that he’s leaving New York and moving back to Tampa. His plans are to continue the family legacy.
“I’m the caretaker of the company for the next 50 years,” he says. “My great grandfather worked until the day he died. My grandfather drove himself to work every day and had a heart attack in my father’s office. He went with his boots on. I think I’ll slow down at 90 and live until 100.”