October 1998
Volume 25
Number 5

Carlos Fuente Jr.
President, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia

If there has ever been a family from the cigar industry's old guard that has achieved a near-celebrity status, the Fuentes would undeniably be the ones. For many retailers crowding this summer's RTDA trade show, getting a glimpse of, and a chance to speak to, "Carlito" Fuente, Jr. was a common goal. But beyond the fame, which seems to be little more than a distraction at times to Carlos and his family, is their much more basic desire: to just make the best cigars they can. Smokeshop gained a few moments of Carlos' busy time at the 1998 RTDA trade show to discuss Fuente cigars and the current face of the cigar industry.

What is your general assessment of the cigar market?

    I see the cigar business being very positive - the fine cigar business. I am so consumed with my daily activities in the factories and the farm, I don't really have an opportunity to be out in the market. But from everything that I have witnessed, there is still an incredible market. People still want fine product. And here at the show, it's impossible to supply the market with the cigars that the people really want.
That seems to be a characteristic of the Fuente brand. A lot of products from General and Consolidated that the retailers want are showing up on the shelves. They still don't get enough Fuentes.

    There's nothing more that I want than to be able to give them the Fuentes that they want. We are a family business and we are struggling very hard to be able to provide them with Fuentes. But it's come to a point that we realize that in the present situation that is going to be an impossibility. What we want to focus on is to try to make the best cigars humanly possible. But Arturo Fuentes will continue to be short.

    We are very much involved hands-on with all the aspects of the operation. We've gone almost four years without opening a new account. We thought by [now] we would be able to supply our customers. And there was a lot of pressure to supply. But we realized it was not a possibility.

Are you limiting production because of the market? Some people think you are doing it on purpose.

    No, no. We would never limit things on purpose. We have struggled painfully. Last year we exported almost 18 million cigars, all the brands with the Fuente name - that's more than we ever dreamed of. That is huge. That's mind-boggling. I don't even look at the numbers. Numbers aren't important to us. It gets to the point that you want to satisfy people but you realize that as a human being you really can't extend yourself more than you have.

    We've built four factories and they are splitting at the seams. You can't grow much more. We started to build a fifth factory, but we don't have the family time to run it.

    We cannot please all people. We can produce another five percent this year, but that is not even going to scratch the surface. We have to live with that.

Is there a danger that people will go to other brands because they can't get the Fuentes that they want?

    I'm sure that people will enjoy other fine cigars. There are a lot of good cigars on the market. That is not a concern of ours. I think it's great that people enjoy other cigars. As long as we stay focused on what I was taught by my father and what he was taught by his father. I'm in the trenches. My father is in the trenches. Perfection is in the moment. The only way to achieve that perfection is be there all the time, you've got to feel it, you've got to love it. It's got to come from within.
Tell me about your relationship with Holt's Cigar Co. and the new Ashton Fuente cigar they are distributing.

    The relationship is not new. It's a very old and very cherished relationship. We were part owner of Ashton. Recently, they've gone public. Ashton was a brand owned jointly by Fuente and Robert Levin, but it's not marketed as a Fuente. Last year, the Ashton brand became all Holt's Cigar Co.'s - and we own stock in Holt's. There is a new brand called Premium Dominican - that is the brand you are referring to. My father deserves all the credit. It was blended by my father. On the cigar itself, it doesn't have the Fuente name. On the box, it says made by Tabacalera A. Fuente. The brand is owned by Fuente, but it is distributed exclusively through Ashton Distributors.
You unveiled a new Montesino at the RTDA show.

    It's not really new. It's something I've been working on with my father for several years. The cigars that were released actually were aged well over a year-and-a-half. With the recent legal battles we had, a lot of the things we were working on were set aside. The new Montesino has three figurado shapes - belicosos. And there's a robusto shape and a toro. The prices are between $2 and something up to $4. Then the belicosos are around the $5 range.
Where do you see Fuente in the global perspective these days? Your cigar is in very high demand. The industry is changing right now. It is going back to its more traditional roots, except that there are lots of new relationships being forged.

    Obviously, it was our family dream to be able to find a Fuente cigar in every major market in the world. But through life, things change. I don't know whether I was cut out of the fabric to be a big company - a big global corporation. We have a worldwide demand for our cigars. We sell cigars to South America, Central America, the Pacific Rim, Europe, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Other than the United States, our shipments are much less than ten percent. Our focus is in the United States.

    It gets to the point that you do things because you feel good about them. We have an obligation and our loyalty has to be the customers who have been the backbone of our growth, who have given us their support for so many years. And those are, first off, retailers in the United States whose customers wait patiently for Arturo Fuente cigars.

    Instead of trying to be everything for everyone, we have to maintain where we have always been focused - on our roots.

You don't have any desire to be the next General Cigar Co.?

    I'm from an old Cuban family. We never intended to be the biggest. We never intended to make more than anyone else. It was always our hope to make the finest cigar humanly possible. Our family name, our honor, is on each and every cigar. We will continue to do the best that we can to improve it, develop new cigars and new shapes, and continue with the training of rollers. I am Carlos Fuente, Jr., humble cigar maker, born of another humble cigar maker. I need to be born again to be someone else. And it's not big business. My father always told me that the cigar business is run by your heart, not with a pencil and paper.

    When I hear people talking about numbers and market share, I shy away from it because the Fuente family is not about numbers, not about money. It's about what we do to please other people. I just pray to God that he gives us the strength, regardless of the market pressure, that we never change.

Is it getting harder not to change?

    It gets harder every moment. We had difficult years in the sense that the pressure has been unbelievable. But we've gone through some real struggles in life with embargoes and fires and legal situations that we've just overcome recently. And every time we go through these pressures, the family gets stronger. Through these pressures, our respect for tradition and family honor is above everything else. The pressure is there, but we will never change.

"We Will Rebuild..."
In late September, Hurricane Georges ripped through the Caribbean, causing extensive damage to the Dominican Republic and devastating the Chateau de la Fuente, home of the Fuente Fuente OpusX wrapper farm.

SMOKESHOP - October 98