Abdel fernández has proven like no one else how to triumph through perseverance, hard work, and by demanding a high level of performance, especially from himself. almost 20 years after settling in nicaragua, a.j. fernández acknowledges his success in the cigar world while at the same time describing his path, which is paved with clear ideas and tenacity, as follows: “Keep calm in the face of adversity.”
”I make an enormous personal commitment to everything that I take on,” divulges Abdel J. Fernández, at the moment one of the most important men in the cigar world, when asked about his recipe for success. He adds, “I’m doing well despite all the stress, I just have to keep calm.” This is (in the original: “Tranquilo, en la lucha”) a typical Caribbean oxymoron that describes a persistent and determined person who reveals to us an essential part of the recipe for his brilliant success. Less than 20 years have passed since A.J. arrived in Nicaragua from his native Cuba, and the numbers speak for themselves: three factories – two large and one medium-sized; thirteen fincas for cultivating his own tobacco, plus all the tobacco farmers who work exclusively for A.J. Fernández; 3,500 employees, of whom almost 1,000 are rollers and bunchers who produce between 140,000 and 150,000 cigars a day. Abdel epitomizes triumph through perseverance, the main ingredient of his success, like no one else. Yet he also displays composure, with both feet always planted firmly on the ground. He is direct and modest, in addition to being practical and realistic.
“Fortunately, it seems like we’ve done our thing quite well, which is what makes a result like this possible in the first place,” he says, describing developments over the past two decades. “First of all, I have to say that I’ve had a lot of help, especially from my family, plus some luck, which is absolutely necessary. After all, how many people do their thing well but still don’t get to enjoy this kind of result?” And the results speak for themselves. Within a very short time, A.J. Fernández has grown into a large tobacco company producing over 40 million cigars per year, and Abdel himself is no longer the barely 20-year-old youngster who started making cigars in a garage with only four cigar rolling tables, a little help from his family, and a bit of luck.
Now 43, he runs three factories, two of them in Estelí, the heart of Nicaragua’s tobacco region. The larger of the two employs 200 cigar roller couples; the other, mediumsized factory is located in the city center and employs 80 couples. These two are now joined by the factory in Totogalpa, a small town about 70 kilometers north of Estelí, between Condega and Jalapa, where A.J. Fernández has created an entire industrial park. “The one in Totogalpa is bigger, bigger even than the one in Estelí,” Abdel notes. “My goal is to create an industrial park that will produce 20 million cigars in 2023. This is a big investment, partly because of our responsibility to the customers of our private brands, and partly because we feel responsible to our employees. We have an obligation to them, and we can’t limit growth just because we don’t want to invest more money.”
Abdel is without a doubt the man of the hour – a designation that obviously neither undermines nor changes his character, nor how he views life or the tobacco business. “Keep calm,” he says, “even if it’s difficult,” and this despite the fact that even multinational companies would like to get in on the action these days. Not only do they want to launch prestigious brands with him, but also, and this is noteworthy, they want to be able to present consumers with the complete picture: made by A.J. Fernández. They all want a piece of Abdel, or maybe all of him. “Yes, I’ve had offers for the factories and the brands,” he confirms, “but if I were to sell my company, I would die. I built it, I love the work on my land, for my people. My father says that what matters in life is not what you have, but what you need, and money is not everything. Fortunately, I have enough to keep my refrigerator full. Other than that, I don’t need anything other than to grow the business and have the respect of my people, who get up at five o’clock in the morning to come to work with us; I want to earn their respect. I feel a great obligation to them – they are my responsibility.”
His sense of duty to his employees, the people he works with every day, is exemplary. “We have 3,500 employees, many of whom have worked for us for over 15 years. They are loyal, they were trained here, and I owe them something.” That’s one of the post-pandemic challenges in Nicaragua: staff shortages. Tobacco workers are emigrating to the US in droves, which is beginning to eat away at factory productivity. Abdel is sympathetic: “People leave because they are hoping for a better life. They have dreams and goals, it’s natural. It causes problems for us, but we cushion them by training our own staff, from the apprentices to the managers of the galeras. They have not yet been ‘manipulated’ in other companies. We offer them the best working conditions, and the result is something to be proud of.”
THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Perseverance, equanimity, discipline, ambition … step by step, Abdel Fernández reveals the entire recipe for his success, those ingredients that have made his company a global benchmark for cigars from Nicaragua. A dash of help, as well as luck, is undoubtedly important (he emphasizes this again and again), but a triumph like A.J. Fernández’s consists of, above all, a lot of hard work, high expectations (especially from himself ), and foresight. “Especially in the last 15 years, things have been going pretty well here in Nicaragua,” he confirms. “The competition is doing a great job, so we need to learn more, get better every day, look for new challenges, set new goals, and commit to achieving them, but in our own way.”
Abdel has a philosophy of persistence that fits seamlessly with the motto that has defined the company’s trajectory: “Passion, discipline, great cigars.” These three principles are prioritized as follows: “First and foremost is passion, because without it you can’t succeed, no matter what you do. This word is on everyone’s lips in the cigar world because you need passion to dedicate your life to tobacco, that’s an incontrovertible truth. But discipline is also part of it.”
According to Abdel Fernández, in most cases consumers don’t realize how difficult it is to make a great cigar. They have no idea how complex, intricate, and laborious the process can be. “Of course, that’s not supposed to be the aficionados’ concern either, just ours. They want to smoke a good cigar, that’s all, and many don’t even know about the sacrifices, the effort, and the many hands a cigar has to go through before it reaches them. This enormous task can only be accomplished with passion and discipline; but the end result is always a fantastic cigar. At least that’s how I see it, but I could be wrong.”
The recipe for success, however, contains another important ingredient. We already have the following: passion and discipline, perseverance and hard work (plus a little help and a little luck), vision, and a pronounced sense of purpose. To this must be added control; total control over all aspects of production, which can also be translated as an ambitious level of performance. Control means training the staff yourself, growing the tobacco yourself, and knowing the entire process down to the smallest detail. “You always have to make demands. First and foremost of yourself, and then of course of others,” Abdel confirms. “I always keep an eye on everything, all the processes. That’s how it has to be, to make sure everything works well, to be able to fix mistakes and learn from others. Someone once said to me, ‘Abdel, you always see the negatives.’ And that’s true, I’m always aware of all the shortcomings, but that’s just my job: to see what’s wrong so everything can be perfect.”
NEW WORLD EL DORADO
It takes discipline not to fail and not to betray the trust of customers. “We do a lot of tastings, looking for new combinations and alternatives that will deliver even better products. A lot of work goes into making a good cigar. Then you have the customer’s response, and after that point you can’t change anything. That’s why discipline is so important, because if I choose one wrapper today, another tomorrow, or change the binder or filler … that’s not discipline,” Abdel says.
He is currently in the process of completing preliminary work on a cigar that, while it doesn’t yet have a launch date, already has a name: New World El Dorado. “The tobacco comes from a finca that I fell in love with. The soil there gives the tobacco an impressive sweetness. We’re still doing a lot of testing, but this cigar is an incredible smoke.”
But creating a new blend is just the first step. After that, it has to prove itself in the market – with consistent flavor and a reliability that satisfies the public’s demands. For that, in turn, you need decisive foresight, based on a solid foundation, and you have to have both feet firmly on the ground. Discipline also means being well-organized, especially when it comes to forecasting, which is essential for the quite difficult balance between cost control and quality assurance. “That’s the hard part,” Abdel says, when asked how to maintain a brand’s good name with consumers. “But with discipline and good organization, you build a solid foundation. Let’s say I make 40 million puros this year; for that I have to grow the tobacco two to three years in advance, and enough of it so that when the time comes, I can hit that number. I have to plant more, grow more wrappers, bale more tobacco, all of which has to mature for at least three years before it’s ready for processing.” Therein lies the secret to consistency – with its attendant costs – “so aficionados can enjoy a well-processed, aged cigar with plenty of flavor, depending on the variety and its characteristics.”
Abdel’s success is notable, especially considering the enormous responsibility that comes with running a company that, in a very short time, has become a benchmark in the industry, and on which the livelihood of many families depend. “We are in effect obliged to grow, not just because of sales, even if some believe that,” Abdel explains. “We don’t have the same cost structure today as we did when we were making 30,000 puros a day. We’ve hired a lot more staff since then, expanded the bodegas, opened additional factories, acquired more fincas … Also, our employees rely on their jobs being secure, which obliges us to guarantee a certain level of work and a certain level of quality, and to constantly tackle new problems, because every day in acigarfactoryisawholenewday.”
The evolution of A.J. Fernández is evident and inspires a good deal of admiration in the cigar world, but Abdel prefers growth to be organic and controlled. He doesn’t believe in cigar booms. In his view, what is going on in the markets today is not the same as what happened in the Nineties, but something more stable; something structural, and not just a boom. So in order to maintain largescale production with consistent quality, it’s important to have some foresight.
In the US, the company’s main market, A.J. Fernández brands made a name for themselves many years ago. The US is the largest market in the world, and there is fierce competition there, but Europe is a completely different story. Nevertheless, with the current shortage of tobacco, labor and other materials, good opportunities have arisen for those who have discipline and vision and know how to do their job well. “Europe is a difficult market,” Abdel also notes. “The US is much bigger, but also more homogeneous. In Europe, it’s different. What appeals to aficionados in Switzerland can be something completely different from what goes over well in Spain; and what works in France might not work as well in Belgium. Nevertheless, I’m very satisfied because we’re growing quite well in Europe, step by step, in an organic way. It’s a very sustainable growth. We are developing slowly but constantly, and that’s what makes the growth solid.”
MAINTAINING INDEPENDENCE FROM OTHERS
Growing his own tobacco is not only an obsession that Abdel has had since his first harvest, but also the part of the tobacco industry that he likes best. Everything that happens in the field, you later taste in the tobacco, say experienced farmers, but that’s not the only reason. “It’s the best thing you can do to maintain control and make good cigars. And not just because you know what varieties to grow for your particular blends to maintain quality and production,” Fernandéz confirms.
It’s also the best way to address another post-pandemic challenge facing the industry. Nicaragua’s tobacco crop is currently unable to keep up with the demand for cigars in the market. Demand for Nicaraguan tobacco has increased so much that it is not possible to depend on third parties to always have the same filler, binder and wrapper available. “If you’re dependent on others for your tobacco stock, you’re taking too much risk,” Abdel says. “That’s why I wanted to invest in fincas from the beginning. When the opportunity first came my way, I jumped at it, even though I was warned about the debt. But if I hadn’t done that then, I wouldn’t be able to guarantee consistent quality today.” With these ingredients, A.J. Fernández has grown larger and larger over the years, ensuring a future for its brands and, more importantly, its employees. It’s no easy feat to produce more than 40 million cigars a year, or to maintain that over time. “We’re working to expand A.J. Fernández‘s customer base, not only in terms of flavor and strength, but also in terms of price. There are people who can pay three dollars for a cigar and others who will spend as much as ten dollars for one. We want to reach the whole world, which is why a Bellas Artes is a completely different cigar from a Días de Gloria, because we want to inspire even more people to enjoy cigars and provide an assortment for the most diverse aficionados and occasions. Nicaragua offers us many opportunities for this.” Opportunities, such as those for growth that were presented to Abdel Fernández almost 20 years ago. Back then, a dream took off that has become an overwhelming reality today, grown from discipline, passion, hard work, a sense of entitlement, control and vision … as well as a little help and a little luck. “I think what fills me with the most satisfaction and pride in my life is that I came here from Cuba with nothing, and now I owe something to this country,” Abdel says. “I want to work harder than ever today, but the best advice I can give is what my father always says: ‘Don’t spend one minute of your life doing something you don’t like.’” A true statement, but with an addendum: “In the midst of all the stress, stay calm.”
Originally posted on October 11, 2022 @ 6:18 am