by Les Standiford
"I believe that we produce the very best cigars in the world," says Nick Perdomo from behind the desk where he oversees the operations of the company bearing his name. It's a bold statement, but if you happen to have one of the new box-pressed Perdomo Reserves fired up as you listen, you may not be inclined to demur.
Besides, there's something in Perdomo's easy manner and matter-of-fact tone that lends particular credence to the assertion. The founder and CEO of this family enterprise sits at a very ordinary desk in an unassuming office in a shopping complex typical of contemporary urban America. And there must be a thousand such companies, presided over by proud, sleeves-rolled-up owners, within a few miles radius of where we sit: for this is Miami, the new Gateway to the Promised Land, and here all things are still possible.
Case in point: Nick's Cigar Company, which began in 199 1, when Perdomo, now 35, went into business with two Cuban rollers and a sales and marketing staff consisting of himself and his wife, Janine. "I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration at the time," Perdomo says, "and this was well before the current explosion of cigar popularity. But cigars were in my blood."
Were they ever. His grandfather, Silvio, worked as production manager for several of the most prestigious cigar factories in Cuba. His father, Nick Sr., followed in line, also serving as manager for a number of top Cuban producers until 1962, when the political situation forced him, along with so many others, out of the country.
Nick Sr. soon found himself installing ceramic tile in Washington, D.C.; it was a meager start, but at least he had a job, and his freedom. The following year, Nick Jr. was born and the family eventually moved back to Miami, where so many fellow Cuban emigre’ had settled.
"As I was growing up," Perdomo recalls, "it seemed that everyone smoked cigars. They were simply a part of life - at family gatherings, at the domino parlor, out on the patio at night after dinner. Eventually, my father worked his way back into the cigar business in the mid-1970s, but it wasn't a great time, economically. In fact, he had retired altogether by the time I decided to jump in.”
"My father wasn't so sure I was doing the right thing," Perdomo says, "but I just had this feeling. Janine and I would come in after work to wrap and bundle the cigars," he says, shaking his head at the memory. "Then, on weekends, we'd drive all over Miami and Fort Lauderdale trying to convince retailers to carry our product. That first year, we might have produced 10,000 cigars." He breaks off, his face lighting up with pride. "But you know what? People really enjoyed them. We sold everything we made. By the next year, we had 38 rollers working for us. In 1997, we produced just under four million cigars, placing them in about 2,000 retail shops, and we think we'll exceed six million by the end of 1998."
Impressive numbers all right, making Nick's the largest U.S.-based manufacturer of handmade cigars. But in an industry where three major players produce 70% of all cigars made, where one of those concerns might produce 80 million sticks in the course of a year, Nick's Cigar Company is still picking its way among the giants. That's just fine with Perdomo, who harks back to a television documentary he happened to see about the time he was making the leap from talking pilots down, to building his own company up.
"This film crew had gone inside the Porsche factory in Germany," he says, "to show how a 911 Carrera is built. I turned to Janine and told her, 'that's how I want to build my cigars!"' He's holding up his easy-burning Perdomo Reserve #1 as he shows off the enormous walk-in humidors; (one for drying, the second for curing) where his cigars are held for four to six months before shipping, at a constant 63 degrees and 70 percent humidity.
"We've got alarms that go off if any of those settings fluctuate," he says. "I'm a quality control freak and we're not going to get so big that we lose that approach. We've got a fifteen-step quality control system. Maybe it's not so good for my workers, but it sure is great for my customers." Everyone in the company is aware of his concern for quality: each time a new cigar is launched, the question is, "Did it get Nick's blessing?" It's become such a catch-phrase in-house that a new advertising campaign is under development, featuring a tongue-in-cheek christening ceremony presided over by Perdomo.
One of the key employees assisting in this mission toward quality and consistency is Miguel Erazo, one of the few non-Cubans involved in Perdomo's Miami operations. Erazo, who is Honduran, trained for more than 25 years under fabled cigar-master Frank Llaneza at HATSA (producers of many top Honduran brands). When Erazo first came to the United States, he assisted Ernesto Carillo at Miami's El Credito in producing the La Gloria Cubana, another domestic product considered by many to be among the top brands in the world. For the last four years, Erazo has been with Perdomo, overseeing an operation that has far outgrown its Miami roots.
Today, most of Perdomo's cigars are produced at a 27,000-square-foot manufacturing center in the Nicaraguan tobacco town of Esteli, where some 300 workers, including a number of master tabaqueros, turn out 90% of the company's product. Perdomo is high on the quality of the strong Nicaraguan tobacco, insisting that only there and in Cuba can puros - cigars made with tobacco from only one country - be made.
And the manager of this far-flung facility? None other than Nick Perdomo Sr., lured out of retirement to help cope with the burgeoning demand. "He's having the time of his life down there," Perdomo says. "The important thing is that even though those operations are a long way away from Miami, they're still in the hands of family"
Family, along with quality, are concepts which mean a great deal to Perdomo. His mother Mary is the office manager in Miami. His brother-in-law Michael Argenti is company vice president in charge of sales. Michael's brother Albert, just over from a 16-year career in telecommunications' is the new marketing consultant. "We're all in this together," Perdomo says. "There's never an issue of trust or giving credit to an individual. Every step forward is a win for everyone involved."