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An interview with Bobby Newman. Recently, Ministry of Cigars had the opportunity to interview Bobby Newman and Cristal Blackwell Lastra from J.C. Newman. They were visiting Singapore for the TFWA Asia Pacific Exhibition. And in their busy schedule, they made time available for an interview.

You hired a European sales manager, changed distributors in The Netherlands, opened distribution in Sweden and Slovenia. Are we right to conclude that there’s a renewed focus on Europe?

BN: yes, absolutely. The main reason is that we were looking for someone who could act as an ambassador. Someone with a real passion for cigars. Someone who could tell our unique 124 year old story with vigor and fire.And we were lucky to find someone.

CBL: Actually, Drew (Newman, the 4th generation Newman) found him. He reached out to his European contacts to see if they knew the right person. And Koenraad from the Belgian Aroma G magazine directed us to Stefan Bastiaenssens. And Stefan knocked our socks off, so passionate, so excited. He came up with great ideas. And we know Europe is a market that offers us great opportunities. We want to be part of the European cigar community. There’s a lot of passionate cigar smokers, well educated on tobacco.

BN: We go to the Intertabac trade show every year, in Dortmund. And we had a meeting with a potential Norwegian distributor. Now Norway has a small population, little over 5 million people. But there are 12 cigar clubs in the country. And it’s the young people driving the cigar sales up. And the same goes for Sweden. Germany is our number one country in Europe. And the Germans are so smart. They want to know everything about the cigar. They read about it online.

We also see the shift from a Cuban dominated market to a mixed market. Four years ago I was in Madrid. I was shocked to see with the amount of shelve space the non-Cuban cigars were given. And I saw this again in Switzerland. The retailers told me that it’s because of the internet. The young people are on the internet. They read the blogs and want to smoke what they read about. It’s the older cigar smokers that sticks to the Cuban brands, while the younger group of smokers are much more in favor of non-Cuban cigars.

CBL: A few years ago, our Canadian distributor told us that he noticed a huge change in a period of a few years. If you took a large group of smokers, 80% of them would smoke Cubans. And a few years later, it was the other way around. The majority was smoking non-Cubans. And the same thing is happing in Europe. Europeans are more and more aware that there is so much more out there. And we want to be part of that. The transition is happening fast.

Ministry of Cigars An interview with Bobby Newman
Bobby Newman, Cristal Blackwell Lastra and yours truly

Asia is also emerging, the market is growing, especially for non-Cuban cigars. Is there also more focus on Asia?

BN: We are only 7 hours from Europe. Getting to Singapore, for example, is a 25-hour journey. So it’s more difficult to built relationships and stay on top of things. But we do notice more interest, especially from China. And we do sell to Asian markets. Our brands are sold in China, Japan, and Malaysia for example. Although there are opportunities. I was in Hong Kong a few years ago and I was amazed by all the cigar bars. The late David Tang did a wonderful job promoting the cigar culture. Not only in Hong Kong but all over Asia. And I love Asia, the people are so nice, patient, and helpful. We started selling in Malaysia in 1994.

It’s an honor for Cristal and me to be here in Singapore. To me, it’s the jewel of Asia, the most beautiful city in the region. And one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With the best airport in the world. To be here is very special. To meet so many special people, having the opportunity to tell about our family, our story, our brands, and our factory.

You are close to Arturo Fuente. They make cigars for you, you distribute Fuente in the United States. You use and buy Cameroon tobacco. Most of that is grown by the Meerapfel family. And Meerapfel distributes Arturo Fuente worldwide. All the direct lines are there. Wouldn’t it have been the most logical and convenient way to have Meerapfel handle international distribution?

BN: Maybe so, but we never ever even discussed it with the Fuentes. It would feel like crashing someone’s private party. Meerapfel is doing great for Fuente. And we’ve been business partners with Fuente for 35 years as well. We just went our own way when it comes to international distribution.

Some companies are actually putting extra effort into the international markets. Oliva has been making a limited edition for Europe for years, VegaFina is making regional editions, Tatuaje has a few exclusives for Italy, Rocky Patel launched the Grand Reserva exclusively for the international markets. Is that something JC Newman is exploring as well?

BN: maybe, never say never.

CBL we did a Brick House German reserve last year. And we featured the Ciento por Ciento at the Big Smoke in Cologne, before the cigar was available anywhere else. We are breaking into that area. But it is something that Drew Newman believes in. He is the next generation who understands the current market better than anyone. He believes strongly in those opportunities. So yes, you can expect more of that from J.C. Newman.

BN: In 1960, 500 million cigars were made in Tampa. All using Cuban wrapper, binder, and filler. Tampa was the absolute Cigar Capital of the World. So when President John F. Kennedy put the Cuban  Embargo into effect in 1961, America, most of Tampa’s cigar manufacturers sold, merged, moved, or just went out of business – it was a challenging time. The only reason why we survived, and the same goes for our partner Arturo Fuente, is that we changed to Cameroon tobacco. My father was very innovative. That’s the reason we survived. The company is 124 years old now. We got that old because we were able to change, innovate, and adapt. We were the first to use Cameroon tobacco in the United States and it saved us.

Most smokers are too young to remember that Cuban cigars once were primarily candela, that green wrapper. The Oliva Tobacco Company (not Oliva Cigars) started growing tobacco in Quincy, Florida and we used to buy wrappers from there. Even though it didn’t taste like Cuban tobacco, it had the same color. And it’s own unique taste. And then we switched to Cameroon. We still have one bale of Cuban tobacco, from the 1958 Pinar del Rio crop. But it shows that we evolve in time. And if the time calls for limited editions or regional editions, we will do so.

Does the pending new legislation in the USA play a part in the renewed focus on international?

BN: no not really. We have a 4th generation coming in with Drew. That’s new blood, with new ideas. And don’t forget, we’ve been selling internationally for decades. We started selling internationally in 1994. DFS (the Duty-Free company with shops at many airports) brought us into Asia. And we sold to the United Kingdom too. Except for Cubans and Davidoff, there was no other non-Cuban brand readily available. When Davidoff left Cuba, it suddenly was okay to smoke a non-Cuban cigar. With DFS, we sold over a million dollars in the first year with a special Cuesta Rey and Arturo Fuente. But unfortunately, that was in the middle of the cigar boom and we couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was good times but also very frustrating for everyone. But talking about the cigar boom, those days were amazing. But it’s nothing compared to the current day. I mean, the world is so small now. We are here in Singapore, smoking and talking cigars. How much better can it get?

I started working summer jobs at the factory in 1969. That became my full-time job in 1975. I have seen so many changes. My sons are in their early twenties. None of their friends ever smoked cigarettes, but they all love cigars. They may not smoke a lot, but it shows how much the culture changed. They fit in the category of the average American cigar smoker. The average cigar smoker smokes 1.7 cigars a month. And according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), that does not affect mortality.

The FDA came to our Tampa factory with a dozen toxicologists and chemists. They went all through the factory. We gave them full access and they asked a million questions. We’ve been teaching them the difference between cigarettes, machine-made cigars and premium hand rolled cigars. Nine years ago, when the fight against regulation started, the FDA didn’t know the difference. Yet still, we pay 3200 USD per day in user fees to the FDA to have them tell us how to run our business. We will keep fighting. We don’t want the FDA to destroy our beautiful packaging with ugly health warnings when those health issues don’t apply to premium cigars.

We have read about the case of Cubacigar Benelux versus the Dutch government. That’s a very interesting case as well. Just a few hours ago, we heard that Singapore is implementing plain packaging in 2020 as well. Cristal heard it from a gentleman from Malaysia in a meeting. For cigars as well. That’s crazy. And then the new king of Thailand is legalizing marijuana. The same is happening in the USA. But they come down on cigars. The same in Canada, recreational use of cannabis is legal, and a few months later they introduce plain packaging for cigars. And in The Netherlands, a country with a great tobacco history and a tolerant attitude towards Marijuana, that packaging is coming too.

You’re renovating the El Reloj again, adding extra room for cigar production. Isn’t that a huge risk with pending FDA regulations? And wouldn’t it have been smarter to expand PENSA (the Nicaraguan factory)? American made cigars are too expensive in Europe due to tariffs, Nicaraguan cigars don’t have those.

BN: Cristal was just there. Omar Ortiz runs our factory. And he grows tobacco, some of it for us. When it was set up it was designed to make 80.000 cigars a day. We never expected to make 80.000 cigars per day there. But we started to grow. And we already had four expansions. And another one is added now.

CBL: 13000 square feet over two stories are being added to our factory there. Our factory is right down from the Oliva factory and the Perdomo factory.

BN: But I do like your question. We ultimately put 4 million dollars into the Tampa factory renovation. And yes, why would someone in their right mind do that? This was again Drew’s idea. Florida is exploding in population due to tax. There is no state income tax for example. There are fewer regulations, its a great state for companies to do business. When you land at Tampa Airport, you’re greeted by a sign saying ‘welcome to cigar city’ with a picture of our factory. And we are going to open our factory for visitors. On the third floor, we’re building a factory within a factory. It will be an old school factory, with a lector. And tours will come through the factory. Tampa has a huge tourist attraction with Ybor City and Bush Gardens. People want to see a cigar factory, but our factory is only open to friends and family. Its a promotion, not just for our brands but for the cigar industry as a whole. That’s the reason why.

Will you be doing events in Europe around intertabac?

BN: last year we did the Big Smoke in Germany.

CBL: We do that again this year. This year we will be at the Cigarworld Messe. And we might do more.

BN: the Germans have such a love for cigars, it’s fantastic.

Ministry of Cigars would like to thank Bobby and Cristal for taking the time for this interview.

Ministry of Cigars An interview with Bobby Newman
Bobby Newman & Jonathan Siah (Ministry of Cigars/Ultimate Merchants)