Fresh Spark | Tobacconist magazine

Fresh Spark

For 25 years, Prometheus and God of Fire have provided a new spark in the cigar accessory and premium cigar industries

By Stephen A. Ross

Keith K. Park was at a crossroad in his life. A brilliant 27-year-old economics Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University with several published finance books already to his credit, Park was nearing the end of his academic career and had secured a job as quantitative analyst for a prestigious financial firm on Wall Street. His career in finance and academia seemed set to soar. But there was a major problem—as Park imagined himself working in finance for the rest of his life, he was not thrilled by this career prospect. What was he to do, swallow his rising unhappiness and settle on a financially rewarding but spiritually draining career or strike out on a new path? Fortunately for Park, a mentor persuaded him to follow his heart.

“I found it unsettling that all the years of hard studying and scholastic achievement had come down to buying and selling stocks and bonds,” the now 53-year-old Park recalls. “Professor Arnold Collery was the head of Columbia University’s economics department at the time. I had taken a class with him, and we developed a very close relationship. He shared with me the wisdom he had attained throughout his life, which I was too young to understand most of the time, but he told me that he saw me more as an entrepreneur than an academic. I was sort of lost, but Dr. Collery’s advice sent me in a new direction.”

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That direction would be west, back to Southern California, where his family had immigrated from South Korea in 1980. Park’s father, Michael B.W. Park, who was a serial entrepreneur, had started several businesses in the U.S., including KGM Industries, a smoking accessory business. Keith Park accepted his father’s offer to join his business, at least while the younger man tried to figure out his future. What neither expected was that he would find the fresh spark of entrepreneurial spirit working in his family’s company. The kind offer from father to son would ultimately lead to the formation of Prometheus and God of Fire, two of the most innovative brands to appear in the premium cigar industry in the last 25 years.

When the younger Park joined KGM Industries in late 1991, the company sold a broad selection of lighters. Anything from table lighters to grill starters, oil lighters, fireplace lighters and disposable lighters could be purchased from KGM Industries, but the company lacked a selection of super-premium lighters. In the spring of 1992, accompanying his father on a trip to Asia to tour factories where their lighters were made, an idea in Park began to emerge. Park reasoned that if he could successfully introduce a line of premium lighters, this would set the foundation for expanding product categories and building a global luxury cigar accessory brand. He created a separate division with KGM Industries, which he named Prometheus.

“When I shared my idea with my father, he was quite encouraging,” Park says. “Being a serial entrepreneur all his life, he understood what I was dreaming about.”

Keith and his fatherKeith and Michael Park, circa 1992

 Within a few short months after the Asia trip, Park had arranged for a good selection of premium lighters from the elite lighter factories in South Korea to be ready in time for the 1992 RTDA (now IPCPR) show.

“Retailers came up to me and my younger brother, James, at the show and told us that they couldn’t believe the selection we offered,” Park remembers. “They were not aware that we weren’t the new kids on the block. My father had been in the business since the 1980s, but maybe he didn’t offer so many products that premium cigar retailers were interested in. So, in that sense, we were kind of new.”

While he was still involved in other aspects of KGM Industries, Park was in charge of running the Prometheus division and constantly worked on releasing new products for it. There were new lighters, to be sure, but he also added cutters, humidors and other cigar accessories to the catalog. As the demand for cigars grew in the mid-1990s into the heady days of the Cigar Boom, the demand for cigar accessories soared as well. “People were buying premium cigars, and they wanted to light their cigars, cut them and store them with premium accessories,” Park explains. “That’s what Prometheus aimed to deliver.”

In five years, the product offerings by Prometheus had grown significantly, filling the demand for super-premium products that passionate cigar connoisseurs wanted. Prices for some of Prometheus International’s products crested the $1,000 mark, and these products appeared in the same catalog as KGM Industries’ other offerings, including disposable lighters. Offering so many products at vastly different price points confused retailers as well as KGM Industries’ employees. So, once again with his father’s full support, Park established Prometheus International as its own company at the end of 1996.

“My father allowed me to spin off the Prometheus division of KGM Industries on the condition that I only took the computers, desks and inventory to set up my own company. In order to finance my new venture, I asked him to help me secure a bank line of credit. He flat out told me, ‘No, you have to do it on your own.’ It was one of the many great things he had done for me.”

“In the late ’80s, Toyota introduced Lexus and Honda introduced Acura as luxury brands,” Park explains. “We had that same idea in mind. Lexus had a separate headquarters from Toyota. Acura too. They also had separate dealerships. Once the Prometheus brand was launched, we ran into a problem that it was doing so well. We started with premium lighters and then got involved in the humidor business. The humidors were made in France. We were also making cutters in Germany. The Prometheus brand was started as a lighter brand but expanded into a full collection of premium cigar accouterments. I was strategically building the product portfolio as a brand. We wanted to make it a truly luxury global brand. The problem was that we had a catalog that started with disposable lighters and ran to $1,000 humidors. Some of the shops that really wanted to carry luxury items saw the disposable lighters in the catalog and decided that we weren’t serious about our luxury products. The customers who wanted to carry disposable lighters saw the expensive items and thought that our products were too expensive. The employees when they sold products got confused too. It was a natural progression that it would be best for the Prometheus brand to be run separately as a luxury brand. We spun the division off as a separate company at that point.”

While Park had his father’s blessing to make Prometheus a stand-alone company, he received little other help. While his father’s refusal to help any further might have seemed unreasonable and cruel at the time, it was a wise move that Park appreciates today.

“My father allowed me to spin off the Prometheus division of KGM Industries on the condition that I only took the computers, desks and inventory to set up my own company,” Park explains. “In order to finance my new venture, I asked him to help me secure a bank line of credit. He flat out told me, ‘No, you have to do it on your own.’ It was one of the many great things he had done for me. It made me a resilient and resourceful entrepreneur. My father stayed in the industry and helped my younger brother James run KGM Industries (now known as Vector KGM) for a few years until he retired in the early 2000s.”

At the 1997 RTDA show, his first trade show after establishing his own company, Park’s entrepreneurial spirit soared, and he released his first limited-edition humidors priced at $2,500 each. They sold out within two days. It was the height of the Cigar Boom, and seemingly anything cigar-related was being snatched up by retailers, collectors and speculators—all eager to turn a quick profit on the mania surrounding the premium cigar industry. There were a lot of companies that sprung up seemingly overnight. The companies that survived the boom and bust cycle were the ones that eschewed the easy money for integrity and quality. While Prometheus International’s products weren’t inexpensive, they were clearly worth the higher price points, made to exacting standards that consumers appreciated and continue to seek whenever they need a lighter, cutter, humidor or other smoker accessory.

“I’ve always wanted my products to be synonymous with the best that you can get. I want the consumers to be excited about getting a Prometheus product. That means that the quality must be second to none and the product design inspires passion and enthusiasm from consumers. I really enjoy the artistic side of the business—designing a product that’s functional but also beautiful is really satisfying. It’s important to be an artist and, at the same time, a good businessman as well. If you cannot produce your great design at a competitive price and with superb quality, no one will buy your products. It’s also gratifying to see that people appreciate your ideas and that the products I make will give them enjoyment for many years to come.”

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There’s also a certain amount of pressure involved in constantly creating special products that people will treasure for years to come. Park enjoys the challenge and has answered the demand for the new and unique with some pretty amazing limited-edition products, which organically led him to create his own cigar brand.

“In 1997, with a licensing agreement with Consolidated Cigar Corp. [forerunner to Altadis U.S.A.], we released the limited-edition Montecristo humidors,” Park remembers. “In 1998, we made the Romeo y Julieta humidors. When Tabacalera SA purchased Hollco-Rohr, who was the brand owner of Romeo y Julieta in the U.S., in 1998, Benji Menendez became the chief cigar maker at Tabacalera and made special limited-edition Romeo y Julieta cigars just for the Romeo y Julieta humidors produced by Prometheus. It was really cool to work with a great cigar maker like Benji.”

So cool in fact that Park wanted to create something really special to celebrate the upcoming new millennium in 1999. He approached the Fuente family to obtain permission to make a series of OpusX branded cigar accessories, including a production of 200 limited-edition humidors. He also asked the family to provide some special OpusX cigars to pair with the humidors. While the Fuente family approved the first request, the second one took some time before the family agreed.

“It took a lot of convincing, but Carlito [Carlos Fuente Jr.] agreed to give me cigars,” Park explains. “Carlito, who runs his business with a great vision, wanted to know what the whole point of the project was. He then told me that it would be very important and meaningful if we could do a project for charity. I suggested that a humidor be auctioned off at Christie’s. I called Christie’s in New York City and told them that I wanted to auction one of the 200 limited-edition humidors. It would be a very special humidor which held 400 cigars. They were excited about it because they were thinking about doing a major cigar auction in the U.S. They put the OpusX humidor on the cover of the auction catalog, and somebody paid $35,000 for it. This special humidor came with a box of every size of OpusX cigars that were then available. It was impossible to collect a box of all those sizes on your own, so it was one of a kind. We donated the auction proceed to St. Jude children’s hospital. We did something for children, and that was great. Then the Fuente and Newman families established the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation to help the children of families that work at Chateau de la Fuente. It was just natural for us to continue that association to provide charitable donations to the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation.”

Park established God of Fire cigars in 2004 under a new company, God of Fire, separate from Prometheus International. God of Fire has grown in the past 13 years to include four limited-edition God of Fire cigar lines—God of Fire by Don Carlos, God of Fire by Carlito, God of Fire Serie Aniversario and God of Fire Serie B. Each God of Fire cigar features a band emblazoned with a depiction of Prometheus, the mythical Greek figure who gifted fire to humankind, bound to a rock as a bird eats his liver in punishment for his generosity. A second band signifies the blend and the year of the cigar’s production.

“Along with my father and professor Collery, Don Carlos [Carlos Fuente Sr., who passed away last year], was a mentor to me. He encouraged me to order more cigars than I needed because they would only improve with age,” Park explains. “The Fuente family age their finished cigars. That only makes the cigars better. Some of the cigars I’m selling now date from 2006. You can tell what year they were made by the second band on the cigar and collect them, store them in your humidor and then light them up on a very special occasion. I think the concept is doable because I am doing it with the Fuentes. They understand the importance of aging cigars. The business model doesn’t work for a company that needs to sell cigars as soon as they’re made to maximize their profit. It’s great to do business with a family who don’t run their business with the bottom line only on their minds. They want to do what’s right for their consumers, including me, and I’m grateful to be associated with them.”

The association with the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation continues as well. Park donates a portion of his cigar sales to the organization, which has established a community center and school in Bonao, Dominican Republic, that provides education and health care to the area’s residents, many of whom work at nearby Chateau de la Fuente. Park also co-hosts an annual God of Fire Charity Dinner in Los Angeles with his friend, actor Joe Mantegna. The event is attended by cigar enthusiasts as well as Hollywood celebrities such as Arturo Sandoval, Dennis Franz, Frank Mancuso, Jim Belushi, Paul Reiser and Andy Garcia, who envisioned the release of Fuente Fuente OpusX The Lost City.

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“Andy directed and starred in The Lost City movie, which required tobacco planted in the offseason,” Park recalls. “Carlito generously planted the tobacco for the movie, but he didn’t know what he would do with the tobacco once it was harvested—he had never planted tobacco in the summer. Andy suggested that Carlito make cigars out of that tobacco, and the sales would benefit the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. Two great artists with big hearts—Carlito and Andy—came together to make a cigar to benefit Dominican children. It really happened that night at the first God of Fire Charity Dinner in 2006. At Andy’s wish, we established the Lost City Scholarship Fund to help the graduates of the Cigar Family high school attend college. When the Fuentes were about to start shipping the Fuente Fuente OpusX The Lost City cigars, they had a shortage of boxes due to a fire at their box supplier. ‘If I ship Lost City cigars, I can’t ship my cigars,’ Carlito told me, but they went ahead and shipped the Lost City cigars first, sacrificing the finances of their business for the benefit of the children. The executive producer of The Lost City movie Johnny Lopez and producer Frank Mancuso Jr. have also been great supporters of the Lost City Scholarship Fund. It’s such an honor for me to be involved in this amazing project. The foundation was started with the elementary school; then there was the middle school and the high school. Now what? We’re helping them go to college. That’s the story of my association with the Fuente and Newman families.”

In addition to God of Fire cigars, Park has established other cigar brands such as Sencillo, with Nicaraguan and Honduran variations, and Angelenos, made to honor his hometown, Los Angeles.

“The Angelenos blend was created and given to me by Carlos Fuente Sr., and it has a special place in my heart,” Park says.

While the Angelenos blend may hold special importance to Park, it’s easy to see that his true love—the thing that provides the spark that gets him animated—is his work with Prometheus and the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation. Now more than 25 years after his mentor suggested he follow his entrepreneurial spirit, Park continues his journey with passion and enthusiasm, but his company’s silver anniversary gives him pause to think about all that he’s accomplished.

“I’m 53 now, and it’s time to think about legacy,” Park concludes. “I want every product that I introduce to have some sort of a meaning rather than just make something for the sake of making something new. I want people to cherish the brand so it will stand on its own long after I am gone. I really enjoy being a part of this charitable effort. It has been a great ride from starting the company as a 27-year-old kid and then growing the business to the point where I could donate a portion of my sales to a charity. That’s very gratifying, and I must thank our customers, suppliers and my employees who have made this possible.”

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