Meet Omar Sanchez, Cuban cigar exporter

Updated: 2014-07-28 20:37

By Mike Peters in Beijing

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Meet Omar Sanchez, Cuban cigar exporter

Omar Sanchez grew up in Cuba, but never smoked a cigar until he began working for Habanos S.A., Cuba’s top cigar-exporting company. MIKE PETERS / CHINA DAILY

When Omar Leon Sanchez was offered his job in 2002 as chief representative in China of Habanos S.A., Cuba’s top cigar export company, he had to face his potential new employers with a small problem.

“I don’t smoke,” the Havana native recalls telling them. “And I don’t really plan to start smoking cigars for the sake of this job.’’

“The boss told me it was fine,” Sanchez says years later. “But he said to call him in a year and let him know if I was still not smoking cigars.”

Sanchez had every reason to think he could resist temptation. He had grown up in Cuba, smelling his father and uncles’ cigar smoke but never tried smoking.

This time, however, it was different. How could he sell something he’d never even sampled?

“I went home to my father and said, ‘OK, teach me how to smoke,’” says Sanchez.

He learned slowly, sampling different kinds of tobacco.

“I found it attractive,” he concedes.

“It’s a natural product you can relax with, like a good wine or a good coffee,” he says.

Cigar has been part of his native culture for more than 100 years.

Before working for Habanos, Sanchez had been in Beijing for a few years as a language student and a restaurant entrepreneur, but he wanted to bring a Cuban product here.

He looked at rum, coffee and even marble. But when the company approached him, the opportunity seemed right.

Sanchez’s China connection started when he was a boy. He had Chinese neighbors in Havana.

“I started visiting Chinatown — before 1959, Havana had the biggest Chinatown in Latin America, I think,” he says.

Young Omar Leon roamed the area happily, sampling the food and becoming addicted to wushu (kungfu) and Bruce Lee movies.

After the revolution, businesses were nationalized and Chinese workers moved to San Francisco and elsewhere.

Havana’s Chinatown faded, but was revived through public efforts in 1984, a revitalization project Sanchez was part of.

Eventually the connections Sanchez made during the project led him to a scholarship in an exchange program, and from 1992 to 1996 he studied Chinese in Beijing.

He was hooked. Today, he savors connecting the two cultures he loves.

“When we started in 2002, the people we saw smoking cigars were mostly foreigners,” he says.”Now the buyers in China are about half locals and half foreigners. And on an individual basis, locals buy more.”

Urban cigar clubs have been a popular marketing tool, he says, as well as special-event dinners.

The St. Regis, the Kempinski and other top hotels in China’s biggest cities now boast cigar shops with a broad range of price and quality. A medium-size Montecristo No 2, on the relatively inexpensive but still respectable end of the scale, costs about 200 yuan ($29).

The Chinese market is attractive right now as sales of Cuban cigars have declined around the world in recent years, due to the global economic crisis and anti-smoking campaigns. There is a big cigar culture in Hong Kong, where the market for such lifestyle items has been established for many years, but initially cigars, were not seen as a luxury product on the Chinese mainland, Sanchez says.

Now many experts expect the growth of the cigar category in China to outpace the rest of the world by the end of 2014.

At a luxury market conference in Beijing last year, the Oettinger Davidoff Group CEO Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard said that although the world cigar market is expected to grow by 4 percent, he anticipates that the cigar category will increase by 20 percent in China in the same period of time.

That would make China the third-largest sales market for cigars, trailing the US and Germany.

In 2013, there were 285,000 Cuban cigars shipped to China, valued at almost HK$9.62 million, according to the economic section of the Cuban embassy in Beijing.

Cigars have never been totally foreign on the mainland, according to Sanchez.

“There are famous pictures of Mao smoking cigars, and of course similar pictures of Fidel and Che,” he says.

These days it’s a sign of a good lifestyle, he says, and that resonates with locals who are riding a booming economy.

“A fine cigar is a perfect end to a good dinner,” Sanchez says. “It’s a treat or something you save for a celebration.”

That’s part of the social cigar culture, he says. But another part is private — the opportunity to relax and think alone.

“Whether you are focusing on a project or study, or you just want to clear your mind, a good cigar can do this,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez says that smoking of any sort can be potentially harmful, but is quick to add that smoking cigars properly (not inhaling) is probably healthier than smoking cigarettes.