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From tobacco to Topper

The unlit Macanudo rests easily in his fingers as he talks about the cigar industry, from the varied tobaccos which make up a cigar to how to identify "fake Cubans," cigars sold as the Cuban cigars not legally available in the United States since the 1960s. Norman businessman Adam Warmuth grew up in the tobacco industry, and Cuban cigar makers like the Fuente and Garzaroli families of Graycliff cigars are friends.

His relationship with Cuban cigars was legal, as Warmuth grew up in Ontario, Canada, where his father was Canada's premier manufacturer of pipe tobacco and importer of cigarettes and cigars. From his childhood on, he learned as he worked beside his father in the manufacturing, wholesale and retail operation.

It was a business that grew from a little retail space in the corner of his grandparent's wicker furniture store in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Warmuth's father was an industrial engineer educated in Canada where he met and married a nursing student. They had moved around as he worked in the engineering field, and ended up in Tennessee near the Warmuth family. That is where Adam Warmuth lived as a pre-schooler.

His father developed an interest in tobacco, "and found a niche market in pipes and pipe tobacco. Then he began to blend pipe tobacco for customers, and the business grew. But Mom wanted to go back to Canada to be near her family," Warmuth relates. He began kindergarten in Windsor, Ontario.

"I went to a French school, so I am bi-lingual, tri-lingual really, since I speak a little German."

In Canada, the senior Warmuth found the tobacco industry wide open. There was no manufacturer of good pipe tobacco there, so Empire Tobaccos was formed. The business grew until it was selling worldwide. As a teen, Adam began working in the business, "everything from moving bales of tobacco to helping customers. Dad was a teacher, and he made sure that I learned as I worked."

He learned that rolling a cigar is not the art form that some think it is. The art comes in selecting the leaves for a blend of flavors, in rolling the variety of leaves so that the flavor remains true through the length of the cigar, and selecting the fine-veined outer leaves. The art in preparing the finely hand-rolled, hand-finished cigars for sale also is in the packaging, he says, selecting cigars for uniformity of color, or a careful gradation of color as they are packed in the boxes.

The cigar industry was booming in the 1990s, so there was a lot of counterfeiting of the big names in cigar labels. Once one learns the characteristics of the fine cigars, "fake Cubans can be identified from across the room," he says. It is not hard to get some tobacco and roll a cigar, and maybe get a manufacturer's label, or even get a box that looks like the signature boxes of the Cuban manufacturers.

"Anyone can get one element or two, but no one gets it all right," he says. Often the fake Cuban cigars are made from the castoff leaves, "even the floor sweepings of bits of tobacco, and that is why you will meet someone who says 'I tried a Cuban cigar once and it was awful.' They weren't smoking a true Cuban," he says.

After seeing the intensity that the business world demanded of his father, Warmuth was not interested in being a business owner. He wanted to study industrial engineering. He played football as a high schooler in Ontario, and was recruited by several U.S. schools.

"We thought of American football players as the biggest, baddest, strongest ... because they started playing football in the fourth grade," he says. At 6 feet 7 inches and a member of a championship team, he was well recruited by U.S. teams, and was signed by Western Kentucky, playing tackle or defensive end. Released after his freshman year, he was recruited by several schools. He chose Oklahoma State University on the advice of his uncle, an engineer who felt that he would get the best engineering program in Oklahoma. "All I knew about OSU was Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas," he recalls.

His story at OSU and the school's lying on scholarship promises was documented in a Sporting News story "The Big College Lie" and on HBO sports. Warmuth returned to Canada and finished a degree in economics. He joined his father's business and married a girl from Newcastle, so his tie to Oklahoma remained strong.

Playing in the Canadian Football League, off season was spent in the tobacco business where he launched the international wing of the business. "We had a retail license, and handled Cuban cigars, selling all over the world." Their prices were hard to beat, he says, as items they shipped outside of Canada were not subject to Canada's "sin" tax.

While he learned more and more about the tobacco industry, he was less and less interested in owning a business. His wife, Keri, was less and less interested in Canadian winters, so they returned to Oklahoma, ironically arriving here on May 1, 1999, just two days before the tornado hit.

Based in Oklahoma, he worked for several years in a job that required lots of traveling, but now feels that he has found his own niche in the insurance business. His insurance and financial services agency on campus corner is growing, and in 2006 made the Farmer's "Toppers" designation of the top 15 per cent of agencies.

His family left the tobacco industry when his father died, and Warmuth seldom even smokes a cigar, "primarily because of the kids," he says of his two daughters and son. But his interest was rekindled when he recently attended a Cigar Night sponsored by a local tobacco shop. That was the source of the Macanudo, a premium cigar from the Dominican Republic, which remained unlit throughout the interview.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Source: Norman Transcript

From tobacco to Topper