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Commentary: Cuesta and Rey, Young Revolutionaries

1 Jun 2011



[Editors’ Note: The following was written by Mark McGinty, author of The Cigar Maker. His work has appeared in Cigar City Magazine, Maybourne Magazine, and La Gaceta. You can contact him at mmcginty_32@yahoo.com.]

Angel Cuesta and Peregrino Rey, both in their thirties when they started the famous cigar company in 1896, were just a pair of entrepreneurs in a city with dozens of cigar factories. In fact, the Tampa Tribune thought so little of them that the newspaper didn’t even bother to check the spelling of their names and with little fanfare, announced that Cuesta Ray [sic] had formed in Ybor City, Florida, employing 100 workers. The paper would have never expected this pair of young Spaniards to create a revolutionary cigar company that would set industry standards for quality and marketing and become one of the most recognized brands in the world.

Cuesta and Rey’s idea of cigar company management included the novel ideas of international marketing, quality control, and worker incentives, ideas that are commonplace today but bordered on being radical during the 1890’s. But it was the unique talents of each man, and their ability to divide the responsibilities of management, that played a critical role in the success of Cuesta-Rey.

Cuesta was a promoter, Rey a production manager. While Cuesta created brand identification and customer loyalty though shrewd marketing schemes, Rey ensured the quality of the product matched the reputation touted in its advertisements. He imposed a rule that no shipment of incoming tobacco would be accepted until one of the partners had personally inspected it.

The same went for outgoing boxes of finished cigars. As soon as X-ray machines were commercially available, he bought them for the factory and inspected cigars for insects and other imperfections that might tarnish the company’s brand.

And as they created loyalty in the marketplace, Cuesta and Rey also repaid the loyalty of their workers. They bought land near the factory and built houses for the workers, and constructed buildings for stores, restaurants, and entertainment. They hosted a yearly banquet, open to families and published a newsletter that recognized achievements of individual workers and their wives and children.

These tactics paid big dividends and, by 1908, the company had opened a second factory in West Tampa and employed over 500 workers. They expanded their reach into the supply chain and purchased a facility in Havana where they placed the same quality standards on the purchase of raw tobacco. In 1914, Cuesta sent a large shipment of cigars to the King of Spain, Alofonso XIII, and to Spanish troops in Morocco, and soon both Cuesta and Rey were awarded the Cross of Isabella La Catolica for their generosity.

The company continued to prosper, to grow its workforce, and acquire smaller cigar brands. Company leadership soon passed to the sons of the founders, who were rigorously trained by their fathers. The sons started at the bottom and worked their way up, and the transfer of leadership from fathers to sons maintained the principles on which the firm was based.

Angel Cuesta died in 1936 and was known as a benefactor to the Tampa community, donating land and money to a school that eventually had his name (and was torn down in the 1970s). Peregrino Rey lived until 1920, served two terms as Mayor of West Tampa, and now has a park named for him in Ybor City.

In the late 1950’s Cuesta-Rey was sold to J.C. Newman who began manufacturing the cigars in the Dominican Republic. Today, Cuesta-Rey remains one of the most popular brands in the world. And it all started over a hundred years ago by two up-and-coming young men with differing talents, a shared vision, and a revolutionary approach.

-Mark McGinty

photo credit: Hillsborough County Library

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