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Texas Clan Keeps Family Cigar Firm Rolling Along : Tobacco: Finck Cigar Co. was started as a hand-rolling operation in 1893. It is now an automated cigar factory, the only one in 20 states.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Never mind that cigars have become passe in America’s boardrooms or that the tobacco industry is under siege. Bill Finck isn’t about to snuff out the family business.

His grandfather, Henry William Finck, started Finck Cigar Co. in 1893 with $1,000 borrowed against a life insurance policy, establishing a hand-rolling cigar operation in part of an old house.

Automation did not arrive there until 1963. “My father didn’t like machines,” Finck, 59, explained as he puffed a Travis Club cigar during a walk between clanging machines and shoulder-high tobacco crates at the company’s downtown plant here.

Today, the company runs the only automated cigar factory in Texas--or in any of 19 other states in the Midwest or Southwest, for that matter, according to the Institute of Texan Cultures.

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The factory employs 76 workers who sort tobacco, operate cigar wrapper-cutting and filler-packing machines and oversee the packaging in cardboard boxes.

“It used to be that every big town had its own cigar factory,” Finck said. “I guess there was just too much competition for a lot of the little guys.”

The dozen members of the Cigar Assn. of America account for about 90% of the 2.5 billion cigars produced in the country each year.

Although Finck Cigar Co. is not a member of the association, the Fincks don’t consider their business small. The company produces millions of cigars a year, but Finck declined to disclose the exact number or reveal other financial details.

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“I don’t tell,” he said. “We’ve got to have a little aura of mystery surrounding us.”

Most Finck employees are women, and some have devoted their lives to the factory.

Liberata Fernandez has spent 73 of her 86 years there; Rafaela Sanchez has spent 72.

“I like everybody around here,” Fernandez said. “It’s easy for me.”

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Finck credits the tobacco blends and techniques the company has developed through the years with keeping its reputation rolling.

“I guess my grandfather knew what he was doing,” Finck said. “Nobody can do the combinations that we do.”

The Travis Club brand, sold regionally, has 14 types of cigars of various sizes, quality and prices.

The Fincks also run a mail-order business and produce cigar combinations requested by other companies.

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The company buys several varieties of tobacco to create its blends. The large brown leaves can come from places as close as North Carolina, Virginia or Connecticut, or from countries as distant as the Dominican Republic, Honduras or Brazil.

As for quality control, Finck says uniformity is the most important consideration. The best test is to simply look at the tobacco, he said. But Finck also likes to burn a spot in a tobacco leaf with his cigar to check the color of the ash.

Finck’s devotion to the tobacco business has influenced his 27-year-old son, Billy, a Texas A&M; graduate who helps run the company--and who also enjoys puffing on a stogie as he roams the factory. Some of Finck’s other children also have worked there.

“I let all of them come and learn how to lay cigar wrappers,” he said. “I think it’s good for them. They didn’t like it too much.”

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Finck himself became involved with the cigar business as a child, even as a consumer. “I smoked the first one in front of my parents when I was 8; they thought it was cute.”

Although the business occupies much of his time, Finck also does legal work. He keeps a set of lawbooks in his factory office and does legal work related to investor-owned water utilities.

Finck also has a reputation as a political maverick. He served in the Texas Legislature from 1967 to 1972 and became chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. When redistricting took effect in 1972, Finck lost his office in a Democratic runoff.

That did not keep him out of politics. He later ran for county treasurer with the promise of abolishing the office. He won. He kept the promise, setting fire to one of his paychecks with--naturally --a cigar.

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“Politics and making cigars kind of blend together,” he says.


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