By Lincoln Salazar
The J.C. Newman Cigar Company has been a family business for more than 100 years, ever since founder J.C. Newman began making cigars in his family’s Cleveland, Ohio, barn in 1895. Today, brothers Eric and Bobby Newman, president and executive vice president, respectively, run operations in Tampa, Fla. Their father, Stanford Newman, ran the manufacturing end for years, and has been widely recognized for his achievements, such as the acquisition of the Cuesta-Rey cigar line in 1959 and the J.C. Newman’s partnership with the Fuente family in the Dominican Republic.
J.C. Newman cigars have a dedicated following, and four of their brands—Diamond Crown Maximus, Diamond Crown Julius Caeser, Brick House and El Baton—are favorites. The company also produces two lines of humidors and accessories under the Craftsman’s Bench and Diamond Crown banners.
The company is also a founder of Cigar Rights of America, and representatives have served on the boards of the Tobacconists’ Association of America, the Retail Tobacco Distributors of America, the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association, and the Cigar Association of America.
Charitable endeavors are important to the company, as well. The Cigar Family Charitable Foundation, a joint endeavor of the Newman and Fuente families, is the largest charitable organization in the premium cigar business, providing education, health care and other life-changing services to communities in the Dominican Republic that did not even have clean drinking water or electricity a decade ago. J.C. Newman also partnered with Southeastern Guide Dogs in 2006 to create the Paws for Patriots program that provides free assistance dogs to eligible service members.
Lincoln Salazar: What led J.C. Newman Cigar Company to become the oldest family-owned premium cigar maker in the U.S.?
Bobby Newman: We think we offer a great value for our cigars. We’ve got anywhere from the Tampa-mades to our bundle cigars, which we make in our own factory, to the Quorum cigars, the top-selling handmade bundle cigar in the world. We sell the Quorum in 83 countries, and one out of every nine cigars made in Nicaragua is a Quorum. We also have a relationship with San Rafael, Nicaragua, and they make Brick House and Perla del Mar. The Brick House is one of the top 10 best-selling Nicaraguan cigars on the market. And of course all our Dominican cigars are made by the best manufacturer in the world, including the Cubans, the Fuente family. They have thousands of bales of aged tobacco, which very few people can afford to do.
LS: Stanford Newman was the first premium cigar maker to bring Cameroon wrapper to America. How did he discover the tobacco?
BN: The Cuban embargo started in 1961, and there were 10 large factories in Tampa making close to 500 million cigars using Cuban wrapper, binder and filler. My dad felt the embargo would last six months, and all the cigar manufacturers around here had basically a two-year supply of tobacco.
My father was a great businessman, and people were always showing him samples of tobacco. Most of them we didn’t use because we used Cuban tobacco, but he had a relationship with some people in Holland who tried to sell Dad this Cameroon wrapper. It looked like Cuban wrapper, and it burned better with a chalk-white ash, but it was about three times the price. In 1964, Dad contacted these people and asked “How do we get this tobacco?” and we started using it in 1965 or 1966.
LS: How did the embargo affect your business?
BN: It had a huge influence on Tampa, and basically broke the cigar city’s back. Tampa was the Napa Valley of the cigar industry then, and most factories either merged, sold out, or went out of business. We were scared to death, obviously.
LS: Who’s leading the blends at J.C. Newman?
Eric Newman: We have a team. We try new cigars at our factory in Pensa and also in San Rafael. Nicaragua has a different complexity of flavor than Dominican cigars, and we’ve been experimenting at Pensa for about three years in developing a premium cigar. We work with Omar Ortiz, who runs our factory, and he’s come up with a series of blends. Nicaraguan has a heartier flavor, generally speaking, than Dominican, and we’re looking to develop a cigar that’s smooth and balanced with a lot of flavor, and it’s not all that easy to find that perfect balance we’re looking for. But we’re getting really close.
LS: How do you maintain your quality and consistency?
EN: Diamond Crown is our super-premium brand, and the secret to our quality is having arguably the best manufacturer in the world make our cigars, Carlos Fuente. The Fuentes are very, very consistent in the cigars they make for us and the cigars they make for themselves. If someone likes a Diamond Crown Classic, Diamond Crown Maximus or DC Julius Caeser, they’re going to like every cigar.
LS: How did the Newman and Fuente families come together?
EN: My father and Carlos Fuente were friends for a number of years. In 1986, we decided our business could no longer go on the way it was set up, so on Valentine’s Day, 1986, we had a leveraged buy-out, and we bought out our uncle and two aunts. They got the money, and we got the debt and the opportunity.
Three weeks later, Carlos asked our father if we were interested in making his lower-priced, machine-made cigars for him. My dad said we would, but at the same time, we knew if we wanted to succeed in the cigar business, we had to get into the imported hand-made business ourselves. So Dad said, “If we make cigars for you, how about you make cigars for us?” Carlos came up with a brand called La Unica.
Back in 1986, cigars were sold two ways: the good cigars were put in boxes and factory seconds were put in bundles. We came up with a concept that if we could put a premium cigar in a bundle without having the costly boxes, bands and trimmings, we could offer that cigar as a value to the customer. Within six months, La Unica became the number-one selling bundle cigar in the country.
In 1990, my dad was working with Carlos Fuente Jr. to create a special cigar to celebrate our upcoming 100th anniversary, which was five years away. At the time, the biggest, thickest ring-gauge cigar was a 52, and Dad wanted to try making a 54. Nobody made 54s, and Dad felt that the thicker the cigar, the more flavor you could get in, the more consistency, and you could blend the leaves better, with more leaves per cigar. Dad said he didn’t care how long it would take to make the cigar or how much it would cost—he just wanted to make something special for our 100th anniversary. It was so special it became a regular part of our portfolio.
We’d always had a good sales and distribution team, but we didn’t have a hand cigar-making facility. Fuente had a great hand-making operation, but he didn’t have salesmen—he always sold through brokers, so in 1990, we began selling his Fuente cigars along with our Cuesta-Rey cigars. Now we distribute the entire line of Arturo Fuente cigars in the U.S. At the same time, he was making his cigars and our cigars, so he could focus on what he did best without being concerned about sales or distribution, and we could do what we did best without being concerned about how to make cigars.
LS: How did your grandfather enter into the cigar business?
EN: Our grandfather was born in 1875 in Hungary, and he came to the U.S. with his family and settled in Cleveland. His brothers became tailors, but he didn’t want to do that, so his mother paid a cigar maker $3 a month to teach him how to make cigars. He became a cigar apprentice—a good one—and went into business for himself in 1895.
We’re the only one left of the 42,000 cigar makers that were in business in 1895. We’ve been in business for three centuries, and our history is one of overcoming challenges and adversity.
When my grandfather started in the family barn, he and his five cigar makers had to go into the basement of the house because the barn wasn’t heated in the winter. After a couple weeks, his mother discovered that her fruits and vegetables, which she’d canned for the winter, started tasting like tobacco. So she kicked him out of the house and he opened a store in downtown Cleveland.
Prior to World War I, everybody smoked cigars and nobody smoked cigarettes. Then R.J. Reynolds sent a bunch of cigarettes overseas to the Red Cross, and everyone came back smoking cigarettes. Our inventory devalued in the 1920s. Then we had the Great Depression and World War II.
In the early 1950s, we were still in Cleveland, and five big companies were trying to push the little guys out of business by inflating tobacco prices. So my grandfather decided to get into a niche that the big companies weren’t into: premium cigars. The home of premium cigars was Tampa, Fla., so we moved to Tampa. Then the Cuban embargo came and, one by one, the other companies went out of business.
In the 1970s, imported hand-made cigars began coming to market, and we could buy cigars cheaper from low-wage countries than we could make them. We formed the partnership with Fuente and had the cigar boom, and that was great.
Now what do we face? Tax increases and smoking bans. We’ve partnered with a lot of smoking shops to create Diamond Crown Lounges because most states permit smoking in smoke shops, so smart retailers have converted part of their stores into smoking lounges so cigar stores could become destinations.
LS: Did your grandfather pass down any family traditions?
EN: When Grandpa JC got into premium cigars, he wanted to make things of quality, and our father wanted to make things of quality, too. I want to talk about Cameroon wrapper for a minute—after the embargo, a tobacco broker showed Dad Cameroon tobacco. It was double the price of what Cuban was, and all the other factories said, “You’re loco.” Where the other factories said, “We can’t do it,” Dad said, “It’s quality, we’ll pay for quality, and the consumer will pay for quality.” Lo and behold, all those other folks are out of business, and we’re still here.
For 50 years, the traditional premium cigar in Tampa was a Palma, a 42 by 6 1/4 , and it sold for 26 cents. Dad said, “We can’t compete by being a ‘me, too’—we have to be different,” so he took that Cameroon cigar, put it in a redwood box, kept it round, packed like a Cuban, called it Cuesta-Rey 95 and got 35 cents for it. The emphasis on premium quality and innovation is why we’re in our third century of making cigars.
Lincoln Salazar is the CEO and publisher of Cigar & Spirits magazine (CigarandSpirits.com).