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Ashes to Ashes: An Interview with Rick Rodriguez CAO Cigars
The name Rick Rodriguez may not come quickly to mind, but if you’re an ardent cigar smoker, you’ve smoked his blends; most recently, the cigars he’s created for CAO such as OSA, Brazilia Carnivale, and the new Flathead selection. So how does an otherwise, ordinary guy, go from being a sales manager for one of the world’s biggest cigar manufacturers to Master Blender for one of the world’s most respected premium cigar brands? To find out, read on to learn more with our interview of Rick Rodriguez CAO Cigars.
CigarAdvisor: How did you get into the cigar business?
Rick Rodriguez: That’s a funny story. I met a guy named Dave Bullock in a Lamaze class when my wife Susan and I were having our first and only child. Dave and I hit it off. At the time he was working for Nestlé Foods. After our babies were born, Dave tried to recruit me to work with him. Fortunately I turned him down, because four years later, out of the blue I received a call from him. Dave told me he no longer worked for Nestlé and was now VP of sales for General Cigar. He wanted to talk to me about becoming a territory sales manager for North and Central Florida. After some intense negotiations (which Dave ultimately won), I took the job, and at a lot less money than I was making at the time. But the job included all the free cigars I could smoke, so I thought, how could I turn that down? So, I started my career with General Cigar in January of 2000.
How did you transition from a sales person to a blender?
R.R.: About four years into being a territory sales manager, I was summoned to New York to have a meeting with Mr. Edgar Cullman Sr., the owner of General Cigar. I remember this meeting like it was yesterday. Mr. Cullman was a man who chose his words carefully. He started the meeting with this statement: “Your days of selling cigars for General Cigar are over.” At that moment I thought I was being fired, but instead I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime. He asked me if I would like to become a cigar blender for General Cigar. I was so surprised and honored that I quickly said yes. He laughed and said to me that the training was going to be long and intense, and that I should go back and talk to my family about this decision. I told him I could speak on behalf of my family, and that I would be honored to start my training as soon as he wanted.
Three days later I was off to the Dominican Republic to begin my training. I spent the next six months in the DR training under the then-president of General Cigar, Daniel Nuñez, learning about tobacco from the seed to the box and everything in between. After my training was complete in the DR, I was off to Honduras for another six months training under Edwin Guevara, the General Manager of HATSA, General’s Honduran factory. Training in every aspect of cigar making, and learning everything from agricultural practices to deep freezing was amazing. It all came together during the next five years when I learned the art of blending cigars from a true living legend-Benji Menendez.
Who were your mentors?
R.R.: I would have to start with Mr. Cullman, the gentleman that gave me this incredible opportunity. Next would be Daniel Nuñez. Although he was tough to please, I owe Daniel so much of what I know today, because every day he challenged me to be the best that I could be. Edwin Guevara who mentored me in Honduras also played a big part in my career. And most recently, I feel I owe so much to Dan Carr (president of General Cigar). Once CAO Cigars became a General Cigar entity, Dan gave me the opportunity to work on the CAO brand, and put me on a special team he created to keep the brand true to its roots. Finally and most importantly, the person who taught me more than I’d ever dreamed I’d learn about cigars is Benji Menendez.
What did you learn from them?
R.R.: From Mr. Cullman, I learned that everybody has a job to do, and that every job is very important to building a great company. “It doesn’t matter if someone sweeps the factory floor or is the president of the company,” Mr. Cullman told me. “You should respect everybody you meet in this company. You never know what you can learn from them, just as they never know what they can learn from you.” That’s a lesson that has served me well.
From Daniel Nuñez, I learned the entire process of cigar making from one of the forefathers of the Dominican cigar industry. From the beginning, Daniel started teaching me about soil and seedlings, and had me working in the fields. Once he felt I had enough knowledge under my belt, he had me work in every single aspect of cigar making. I also spent quite a lot of time with Jhonys Diaz who now runs the show in Santiago. I essentially cross-trained in every department of our factory, including the box factory. One thing’s for sure: I feel like I got a Texas A&M education from Daniel.
From Edwin Guevara, I learned about how different cultures work in different factories. The way Hondurans approach cigar making is different than the approach of Dominicans; not that one is better than the other, just different. Edwin really focused on how to break down the complex processes of managing many lines of cigars and delivering each with flawless execution. He is truly a great master of the industry when it comes to that.
Dan Carr empowered me to trust my instincts, as well as how to trust my team and rely on their expertise. He’s always encouraged me to lean on my colleagues in hard times and give them the credit they deserve in good times.
I can hardly put into words what Benji taught me about tobacco, cigars, the factories, and also about life in general. He taught me how to walk through a factory and look at the small things that ordinarily get overlooked when someone visits the factory. For example, the condition of the tobaccos that the rollers are using. He also taught me fermentation and how you can destroy great tobacco if you’re not careful. As far as blending, what he has taught me over the years would be another interview in itself. But my training didn’t end there. It continues every time I’m with Benji, because you can learn something new from tobacco every day.
What do you want to learn more about?
R.R.: This is an easy question for me to answer — tobacco. Benji taught me the one thing that you can count on with tobacco is that it never stays the same. Benji would say things like “Tobacco changes on you every year and with every crop. Just when you think you know everything about tobacco, it will change on you.” He also often told me that “Tobacco is a constant learning process.” He instilled in me that “A cigar is a living thing until you light it.” I have taken Benji’s words of wisdom with me and they continue to serve me well.
Tell us more about your role with CAO.
R.R.: My primary role is to develop new blends for CAO, and the way we go about doing this is somewhat unconventional. I sit down with Ed McKenna, the Sr. Brand Manager for CAO Cigars and we brainstorm. I take the comments I’ve gotten from the CAO fans I meet at events and use that to shape the next cigar we’re going to develop. Once we finalize the concept and get the green light to move ahead, I head to the factory to work with the team to develop the blend. And when I’m not working in the factory, I’m on the road promoting CAO. Asking me which thing I love doing more, is like asking somebody that has more than one child which one they love more. It’s impossible to pick one or the other — I love doing both equally.
How did you come up with the blend and packaging for the Flathead selections?
R.R.: Creating Flathead is an interesting story. This is the first time that I had a concept for the cigar before I actually knew what I wanted to do for the blend. When I host our events, CAO fans seem to want to talk to me about three things: cigars, cars, and women. I wanted to develop a line that combined all three subjects into one cigar. As for the blend, we wanted to use Connecticut Broadleaf as the wrapper because we haven’t used it in making any of our recent blends. Once that was decided, I went to the factory and started to work with the team to develop the blend. The reason I chose a box press shape for this cigar is because I love the blend as much as I love the wrapper.
What I mean by that is, many people don’t know that a box pressed cigar allows the smoker to enjoy more of the entire blend because it’s hard to close your lips completely around a box pressed cigar. In other words, when you smoke a box press, more air enters your mouth, cooling the smoke down, while delivering more of the flavor to your palate. Flathead came about when our Tobacco Operations Manager, Agustin Garcia, mentioned that we should create a flat head on the cigar if that was going to be the name. The design of the box came from my early love of hot rods. As a kid, I also enjoyed classic WWII pinup girls that I saw in the old movies. Not knowing that the pinup fashion is more popular today than ever, the combination of the cigar, the box, and the pinup girls all came together perfectly for Flathead.
What’s next for CAO?
R.R.: In November we are launching two small batches for the Christmas holidays: “Angry Santa” and “Evil Snowman.” As we did with the Brazilia “Carnivale,” we will use one tobacco from an original CAO blend to create a new version of that cigar. For these cigars I wanted to use one tobacco from the original La Traviata blends (Natural and Maduro) to create the new holiday cigars. If I tell you any more secrets I could get into trouble with my boss, but look forward to some small batches and a launch of another new collection at IPCPR 2014.