“We’ve been labeled the sleeping giant,” said Aganorsa founder Eduardo Fernández after a tour of his factory and some of his farms. “In the sense that we have this great leaf, great capacity to produce it, yet we don’t make that many cigars and we’re not well known. But that’s going to start changing.”
Especially if you’re just a casual smoker, you can be forgiven for not knowing who Eduardo is. For starters, while his cigar business is vertically integrated, its names are a little confusing. You see, Aganorsa is an agriculture conglomerate. Among many other things, it’s one of the largest growers of premium cigar tobacco in Nicaragua. Eduardo sells most of his harvests, then produces cigars at his Estelí factory, Tabacos Valle de Jalapa, S.A., (or TABSA for short) and at his Miami factory, Tabacalera Tropical (which he bought in 2002 from cigar legend Pedro Martín, who continued to work as a blender and tobacco broker for Aganorsa after the sale). Some of those cigars are made for clients who run some very successful boutique brands, while others end up in his own cigar portfolio under the Casa Fernandez and JFR family of brands.
Yes, it’s a little confusing, which is part of why the company is moving to streamline the branding for its farming and manufacturing under the “Aganorsa” banner. Like Eduardo said, things are going to start changing.
Still, even absent changes, this is a celebrated cigar maker. Case in point, this magazine’s list of the Top 25 Cigars of 2017 included three cigars made at the company’s factories: Casa Fernandez Miami Aniversario Serie 2015 (No. 2), Sindicato Miami Edition (No. 14) and San Isidro by HVC (No. 15). The first two are made at Tabacalera Tropical, and the last is made at Tabacos Valle de Jalapa.
The story of Eduardo’s journey into tobacco and cigars is unlike that of just about any other cigar maker. While so many other Cuban-born cigar men cite long family histories on tobacco farms or extensive careers that started in Havana factories, Eduardo, who arrived in the U.S. at 10 years old and eventually settled with his parents in Ft. Lauderdale, attended a boarding school in Connecticut and later graduated from the Wharton School of Business.
“I was right next to the Connecticut valley,” he said of his boarding school days. “So often I would see the buses of tobacco pickers — mostly Puerto Ricans — going to pick tobacco. Little did I know at that time — I was 14 to 17 years old — that that would be my life’s calling down the road.”
After graduation from Wharton, Eduardo ended up in New York to pursue a career in international banking. He lived there 10 years before being transferred to Miami. Throughout, Eduardo knew he had an entrepreneurial itch that needed scratching. He, along with his brother Leopoldo, finally got to scratch when they saw an opportunity in Spain.
“When I lived in New York, I used to eat a lot of pizza because there was almost a pizza on every corner. You would always eat a slice. Spain was and still is a very traditional, excellent food experience, but fast food was just appearing. So we seized the opportunity. I felt like Hernán Cortés. I burned my ships and sold my house. I lived in Pinecrest, which was an up and coming area [in Miami] with a very good school district. I sold my car and went to open a pizzeria in Madrid.”
To say that Eduardo “opened a pizzeria” is an understatement. His and his brother’s company, Telepizza, introduced the concept of the pizza delivery chain to Spain in 1987. Within 10 years, the company had opened 300 stores. They went public in 1996, becoming the first restaurant company on the Madrid Stock Exchange. By 1999, shares of Telepizza were up 990 percent from their initial offering.
“We were a huge success,” he said. “Domino’s Pizza, we beat the hell out of them. They all came thinking big and that they could conquer us, and they were just not able to. Still, the business exists. I learned marketing there. We used to work 17 hours a day because everything happened very quickly.”
Eduardo sold stock in Telepizza and went into an early retirement, settling back into the financial world and later moving to London. When he got tired of reading stock prices, he contemplated whether this was how he wanted to spend the rest of his days.
“I was 48. I had always liked farming. From early on, when I was kid, I always cut grass and planted trees and I had a nursery. I even looked at that business early on in Davie, outside of Ft. Lauderdale.”
As you might have figured, though, his plans for a new career in agriculture became much bigger than South Florida plant nurseries. The idea of a future in farming had been swirling in his head for a while. Ever the long-term planner, he’d visited Central America to scope things out well before Telepizza even went public. Costa Rica wasn’t for him. Most places were too far from the ocean, he says, and the Costa Rican people are, by and large, too “aloof” for his liking.
But Nicaragua… Even in Estelí, you’re never too long of a drive away from the sea, and the people made him feel a bit more at home. What’s more, Nicaraguans needed help in rebuilding their country, so they were receptive to the idea of foreign investors. As he made his way around the country to get the lay of the land and scope out opportunities, he met Nestor Plasencia.
“He said that tobacco was great business. He introduced me [to the idea that] it’s very Cubanesque and that the soils of Nicaragua were first class. That to me was very important.”
When the time finally came for Eduardo to move forward setting up shop in Nicaragua, he knew he would need more expertise behind the new venture than he could bring to the table. Rather than look for talent in Nicaragua, he went to “the source”: Cuba. Eduardo sought talent specifically from Vuelta Abajo, the famed Cuban tobacco growing region. He also found Cubans in Nicaragua who had been working on contracts through the Cuban government. Among them was Jacinto Iglesias, who has now been the general manager for Aganorsa’s farming and production for 10 years.