Alex Svenson: Your family has been in this industry for generations. Can you briefly discuss your family’s history in cigars?
Bobby Newman: It is the true American dream. The J.C. Newman Cigar Company had humble beginnings and can be traced back to 1895. This is when our grandfather, Julius Caeser Newman, a 20-year old Hungarian immigrant and cigar apprentice, borrowed $50.00 from his mother, bought two bales of tobacco, got an order for 500 cigars from the family grocer, and converted the family’s Cleveland, Ohio barn into a one-man cigar factory. He quickly outgrew the “home factory” and in the 1920’s and 1930’s opened factory after factory in Cleveland producing such iconic historic brands as El Baton, Brick House, John Carver, Judge Wright and Student Prince.
Grandpa J.C. persevered through the Great Depression, two world wars, and the surging competition from the “new” tobacco – cigarettes. But in the early 1950s, the five major cigar companies at the time were trying to force the smaller cigar companies like our grandfather’s out of business. To continue in the cigar business, Grandpa J.C. decided to focus on making premium cigars and in 1953 moved his operation to Tampa; which then was the premium cigar capital of the world! At that time, there were ten large, family-owned cigar companies each making cigars utilizing Cuban tobaccos. But due to the Cuban embargo and changing preferences toward imported cigars, the other Tampa cigar factories were forced to close. Today, our Ybor City factory is the only one still making cigars in Tampa.
In the 1986, Carlos Fuente approached our dad, Stanford, with a business proposition. Carlos was doing quite well in his Dominican factory that he and his son Carlito had opened in 1980 but wanted to close his Tampa machine-made factory. Carlos asked if we would make his cigars in our Tampa factory. Of course, Dad said yes; but at the same time, asked Carlos to make cigars for us in his Dominican factory. First they made La Unica and then Cuesta-Rey for us. Then in 1990, both families combined to form Fuente &Newman to expand the distribution of A. Fuente cigars. Here we are, 27 years later – both families working closer than ever before.
AS: Diamond Crown was one of the first super-premium cigars on the market and has had amazing staying power. Tell us a little bit about the brand.
BN: My father saved the Diamond Crown brand for something very special. It was launched for our company’s 100th Anniversary in 1995. In developing the cigar, my father worked with Carlos Fuente Jr to come up with a unique blend of aged tobaccos. Dad didn’t care how long it took to make, how much it cost, or even whether it would sell or not. He just wanted something that would be so special and worthy of our 100th anniversary.
AS: When you want to make a new cigar, where do you begin?
BN: Our product development team gets together to brainstorm about a new cigar based upon opportunities presented by the raw materials – the availability of a flavorful crop of tobacco. The raw material is the beginning of every cigar we make. If we don’t feel the time is right for the tobacco, we wait. We start very slow, especially with Diamond Crown for instance. The tobacco is usually aged 3-5 years before it is even blended into a sample cigar. Once the blend is perfected, only the most skilled rollers in the Fuente factory make Diamond Crown. They are paid a fixed rate of pay rather than by piece work. So their incentive is to make the best cigars, not the most. It takes time to accumulate inventory before we have enough to offer it to the marketplace. By the time the cigars are ready to be offered to the public it is anticlimactic for everyone in the company because we have been working on this product for so long. It isn’t new to us and hasn’t been for years. However, like fine wine or small batch bourbon, the product has been aged to perfection and is ready to smoke.
AS: Tell us about the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation and how it started.
BN: When the partnership between Fuente and J.C. Newman formed, our family began taking regular trips to the Dominican Republic where most of our premium cigars were being made. To get to the Fuente factories and tobacco fields, you have to drive through a very impoverished area of the Dominican called Bonao. During one such trip, Carlito Fuente Jr. and I noticed a small, rundown school on the way to the factory. There were children crowded around the small school house, desperately trying to hear the lesson being taught inside. The schools in the area were so overcrowded that there wasn’t enough classroom space to host all the children that wanted to attend. The image of those children who were so eager to learn and get an education but were denied the privilege is what led to our decision to create the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation.
What started as a plan to build a wing on to the local school has turned into a 23-acre complex with an elementary school, high school, health center, organic farm and sports facilities for the 5,000 children and their families in the 20 poorest communities in the Bonao region. Our family and the Fuente family underwrite all of the administrative costs of the Foundation so that every dollar donated goes directly to help the children and families surrounding the complex. Because of generous cigar smokers like your customers, we truly are changing the world….one child at a time.
AS: Your father Stanford Newman was huge influence on the entire cigar until he passed in 2006. What would your Dad think of the company today?
BN: Dad was a visionary. He was one of the original six members of the Cigar Aficionado Hall of Fame. Like his counterparts: Edgar Cullman, Carlos Fuente, Sr., Zino Davidoff, Angel Oliva, Sr. and Frank Llaneza, they had to be creative to persevere through many challenges. Through it all, his main focus was on quality – not quantity. He never wanted to make the most cigars - he wanted to make the best cigars. Dad wanted to build brands that had staying power. I think with the continued success of our Diamond Crown line and the excitement of our Brick House and Perla del Mar brands, he would be very pleased.
AS: Not many companies have been around for over 118 years – why do you think JC Newman has been able to do it?
BN: Some of the core principals instilled in us by our grandfather and our father have helped lead us to where we are today. First and foremost, we focus on quality. That is not always a popular decision. It required discipline and the ability to walk away from opportunities that do not fit with our philosophy.
Second, we take care of our most valuable asset – our people. Over the years we have surrounded ourselves with good people who take pride in their jobs and in the company. From the basement to the front office, every position is important to the organization and valued as such. There is a frank and open dialog among employees and management that is not only allowed but encouraged. There are no bad ideas. My brother and I are very fortunate to have such a great team.
AS: Where do you see the cigar business in the next ten years?
BN: I am excited about what the future holds for cigars. Are there challenges? Yes. But that is nothing new for our industry. We’ve had to persevere through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban Embargo, high taxes, indoor smoking legislation, and now more Federal regulations. There is no doubt more challenges are around the corner.
Despite the challenges, the premium cigar industry will continue to grow and flourish. More than ever, there is a greater demand for luxury and quality products of all kinds – and that is certainly true for premium cigars. The cigars that are being produced today are better than ever. Today’s enthusiasts have a much more educated and advanced palate, forcing manufacturers to continually raise the bar. The possibilities are endless.