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James Leavey's Corner
Jemma Freeman – Keeping Cigars Safe And In The Family

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Jemma Freeman –keeping cigars safe and in the family


by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey

When you look atthe close relationship between Jemma Freeman and her late father, Nicholas,you start thinking that maybe there's some truth in that old belief, “sonstake after their mothers; daughters take after their dads.” 

Jemma's greatgreat great grandfather, James Reykers Freeman, was born in England and hismother came from a cigar family in Holland.  J.R., as he was known, went toHolland in the 1830s, where he learned how to make cigars.  When he returnedto London he became probably the first person to manufacture cigars inBritain, in 1839, under the business name of  J.R. Freeman and Son. 

J.R.'s businesshas since prospered through six generations, initially from J.R. to GeorgeFreeman, to 'D.G.' Freeman who, with his three sons, built J.R. Freeman intothe second largest cigar manufacturer in the UK, with a thriving exportbusiness.

In the late1920s,  J.R. Freeman bought J. Frankau & Co., which owned the H. Upmannfactory in Havana and the world rights to the brand. In 1935, D.G. sold theUpmann factory to Alonso Menendez who, with his partner, Pepe Garcia, wenton to create the Montecristo cigar.

Due to World WarII, no Havana cigars came into England from 1939 until 1953.

“Cuba had adollar currency, and during this time the British weren't allowed to spendany dollars except on war materials,” said Jemma. “When the war hit, J.Frankau had no cigars to import, and no business. We did a joint venturewith Menendez Garcia and set up a factory in Jamaica, which became one ofthe biggest factories on that island and produced cigars right through thewar. When Cuban cigars came back on to the market in 1953, we sold theJamaican factory to the management”.

In 1947,Gallaher's bought J.R. Freeman from one of D.G.'s sons, Robert Freeman; J.Frankau was included in the deal. Robert then joined the main board ofGallaher’s, left in 1953 and bought back J. Frankau. 

 In 1954, Freemanacquired the business of John Hunter, Morris & Elkin,  the oldest Havanaimporter in the UK, and ran them as two totally separate companies;controlling about 20 per cent of the imports of Havanas into the UK. Theythen went into partnership with Roy Siemssen, and went public in 1957 as theSiemssen Hunter Group.

In 1962, afterqualifying as a chartered accountant, Nicholas Freeman joined the Group onthe cigar side. In 1963,  he masterminded the amalgamation of John Hunter,Morris & Elkan and J. Frankau & Co and created Hunters & Frankau. 

“At that time,the whole tobacco industry was in the doldrums, and people were talkingabout the end of the tobacco industry,” said Jemma. “My father diversifiedinto educational publishing within this public company, which was then splitinto 60 per cent  publishing and 40 per cent tobacco.

“In 1979, thegroup was sold. My father engineered a management buyout of the cigardivision, restoring Hunters & Frankau to the status of a private companywith the majority shareholding in the hands of the Freeman family, where itremains today.”

In 1990, Hunters& Frankau acquired Knight Brothers, which had the Romeo y Julieta agency,and had been taken over by the Cubans.

“We gave theCubans stock in Hunters & Frankau in return for their share in KnightBrothers and that's how we inherited Cuban shareholders in Hunters & FrankauLtd, our trading division,” said Jemma. “In 1993, we acquired Joseph Samuel& Sons, who had always been one of the biggest Cuban cigar importers in theU.K. And that gave us all the Cuban business”

Today, Hunters &Frankau Ltd is the exclusive agent for all Cuban cigars in the UK and hasthe exclusive rights in the UK. for Agio Dutch and Villiger cigars. Thecompany also imports Dominican and Honduran cigars, including Santa Damianaand Macanudo.

Jemma Freeman wasborn in 1974, and educated at Marlborough College and Manchester University.During her school holidays she worked in Fox’s cigar outlet in Harrods underthe expert tutelage of Jean Clark, and in Fox’s cigar shop at 19 St James'Street. She also worked for Tom Assheton while he was setting up TomTomcigars, after which she went into brand consultancy and became a strategicplanner for an advertising agency.

When NicholasFreeman, who was then chairman of Hunters and Frankau, died at the age of62, in 2000, Jemma decided to join the family business.  It helped that shehad long enjoyed sampling the family's well-known, if politically incorrect,products; her favourite cigar is a Trinidad Reyes.

“I was abouteight when I tried my first cigar,” she said.  “It was whatever my fatherwas smoking at the time, probably a Montecristo No.1. He had a friend athome who was smoking a pipe so I tried both. I preferred the cigar.”

She certainlycouldn't have asked for a better teacher.

“My father taughtme to be honest, to never do a deal that didn’t benefit all parties and toplan ahead,” said Jemma. “He also taught me to treat cigars with respect andthe same goes for everyone involved at all levels. The cigar world is anexceptionally close community and most of all he showed by example that heloved the industry and enjoyed every minute he spent working in it.”

Jemma Freeman isnow director of business development and export markets, in her family'scompany. Her mother sits on the board and her brother, Charlie, has justjoined the business.

“I  believe thatexactly the same challenges face me as face any other young person enteringour industry, as well as the same opportunities,” said Jemma. “So far I havereceived great support from the trade and those associated with theindustry.  I owe my father a great debt for the affection and respect thatis still there for his name in the industry, which has helped me enormously.

“But I have alsobeen lucky to work closely with a number of women in the last few years, allof whom are extremely good at their jobs and have taught me a great deal.These include Ana Lopez, former marketing director at  Habanos S.A., and nowa corporate director at Hunters & Frankau; Marie-Louise Bots at Altadis USA;Simone Hees at Villiger, and, not least, the skilled women who work on theretail side of the trade like Jean Clark and Magali de la Cruz of Fox’sHarrods and Bavna Patel of Broadweighs.

“Smoking cigarsis a great British tradition and very much part of our culture. It is notonly a refined hobby but a complete passion for many and not one that Ibelieve will ever disappear. Quite the opposite, sales in America arereportedly booming and there is certainly a great deal of interest here inthe UK in all things cigar-related and Cuban.

“The averageBritish Havana lover smokes 3-4 cigars a week and he or she will always findsomewhere to light up; there are a number of prestige bars, restaurants andhotels around the country developing cigars divans for this very reason. Ido not believe there will be a blanket ban in the UK, but I do believe thenumber of places we will be able to smoke in will be reduced.  Almostcertainly those places that choose to remain smoker-friendly will beenormously successful, as has been witnessed in New York.

“There is noreason to believe we will not be selling cigars in the UK in ten year'stime.  The demand is there, production levels are up, and the quality isfantastic. We have been selling cigars for two centuries, despite countlesshurdles and challenges, and I see no reason for that to end in theforeseeable future.”

The UK's tobaccobusiness, especially cigarettes and pipes, may be facing an uncertainfuture, but when it comes to cigars one thing is certain: Nicholas Freemanwould be proud of his daughter.

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