Cigars ‘beautiful pieces of nature’ for Swedish Match chief

Lennart Freeman hasn’t lost his Swedish accent.

Nor has he lost his flair for cooking Swedish meatballs and Swedish ham and a dish called Jansson’s Temptation, which you probably don’t recognize unless you are Swedish or you have had Christmas dinner at the Freeman home.

He also has dual citizenship — the United States and his native Sweden.

Besides all that, “I’m more American now than I am Swedish,” said Freeman, 58, who was born in Kristinehamn, Sweden, and grew up in Stockholm.

Freeman’s career of more than 30 years with Swedish Match, a Stockholm-based international maker of tobacco products, lighters and matches, has taken him to many corners of the globe.

For most of the past 20 years, though, he has lived in the United States and in the Richmond area.

“This is home for me,” he said.

Last year, he was named president of Swedish Match International, the company’s premium cigar, lighter and matches business.

His home base, along with more than 100 other Swedish Match employees, is in Chesterfield County’s Boulders Business Park.

The office also is the headquarters of Swedish Match North America, the business unit that makes tobacco products, including the smokeless and chewing tobacco brands Timber Wolf and Red Man. Freeman led that division for 10 years.

The part of the company that Freeman oversees has some of the top cigar brands, including Macanudo, Partagas and Cohiba.

Lennart Freeman is president of Swedish Match International, a Stockholm-based Intern. maker of tobacco products, lighters and matches.

Lennart Freeman is president of Swedish Match International, a Stockholm-based Intern. maker of tobacco products, lighters and matches.

Although he leads the premium-cigar business and oversees production of the company’s mass-market cigars in the U.S., Freeman says he only occasionally indulges.

“I enjoy a premium cigar now and then,” he said, though he talks of cigars almost as an art form, describing them as finely handcrafted “beautiful pieces of nature.”

. . .

Freeman is leading the business at a time of great changes for the tobacco industry, including higher taxes, more regulation and a growing number of public-smoking bans that have made the social use of cigars more rare.

Yet Freeman shrugs off questions about the difficulties of being an executive in the oft-maligned, highly competitive tobacco industry.

“I have a great time doing what I do,” he said. “Each industry has its challenges. I think I would rather be a tobacco executive now than an automotive executive.”

This year, tobacco companies have felt the impact of the largest-ever increase in federal taxes on tobacco products, including cigars.

It came at the same time the economic downturn has hurt sales of premium cigars.

Overall, sales of premium cigar have declined about 17 percent during the recession. Before the recession, annual cigar sales had been either flat or growing about 1 percent to 2 percent per year.

“It is looked upon and enjoyed like a luxury item,” said Freeman, but he believes the cigar market still has much growth opportunity in the U.S. and globally.

“Once the economy comes back, the category will grow again,” he said. “Despite all the smoking bans and other things, there will always be opportunities to enjoy a cigar with friends.”

U.S. consumers spend more than $1 billion a year and consume about 40 percent of the world’s premium cigars.

Also this year, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law legislation that for the first time gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products.

Cigars, however, are not being regulated by the agency.

Freeman thinks that will happen eventually, though he argues that premium cigars are a distinct, niche product that should not be included. Unlike cigarettes, “you do not inhale any cigar,” he said.

Because premium cigars are typically made overseas, Freeman says it would be nearly impossible for the FDA to regulate production. Also, cigar consumption in the United States is minuscule compared with cigarettes.

Then there is the possibility the U.S. will lift its trade embargo on Cuba, which has enormous implications for the U.S. cigar business, given the reputation of Cuban cigars.

Swedish Match has remained neutral on whether the embargo should be lifted, but the company has made it clear that the results might not be positive for all U.S. companies.

“Right now, we have no access to Cuban tobacco,” Freeman said. “We are not allowed to buy Cuban tobacco. We are not allowed to make Cuban cigars and sell Cuban cigars here in this country.”

“What we are telling Congress is, if you are about to lift the embargo, you need to ensure that we also will have access to Cuban tobacco in good time, so that we then can make Cuban cigars and compete with anybody else here in the marketplace,” Freeman said. “We think that is fair.”

. . .

Freeman is quite a globe-hopper, with a travel schedule that can amount to 120 days a year, largely because of his job.

Swedish Match’s cigars are mostly made in Caribbean and Latin American nations, such as the Dominican Republic and Honduras, where the company employs about 6,000 people. It also has operations in Indonesia and Europe.

But world travel has never been a problem for him.

As his wife, Susan, a frequent travel companion, puts it, “Lennart is not one to let moss grow under his feet.”

“One thing Lennart hates is being bored,” she said. “The exact same thing day to day drives him crazy, so he likes new challenges.”

Tom Hayes, the company’s chief financial officer, said Freeman’s international experience and his skills in four languages — English, French, German and Swedish — make him an excellent communicator for a company that works in many geographies and cultures.

Also, “he is an optimist,” Hayes said. “He sees the opportunities in the challenges that we may face as an organization.”

“He can be serious when the tone demands that we be serious, but he likes to laugh,” Hayes said. “When I think about Lennart, I think about someone who enjoys life.”

. . .

Growing up in Stockholm, where his father was an official with the Swedish national police, Freeman thought he might go into medicine. But his big dream was to see the world.

“I had this idea I wanted to go international,” he said. “I had no specific plan to make it happen, but when the opportunity came, I grabbed it.”

Freeman was working for the automaker Saab in the mid-1970s, not long after his graduation from the Stockholm School of Economics, when he saw an advertisement that Swedish Tobacco, the precursor to Swedish Match, was looking for a management trainee.

“I really wanted that job,” he said, because his interest was in marketing and he knew the company had the highest reputation for marketing in Sweden.

He applied, and “out of 70 applicants, I was the one who was chosen.”

By the early 1980s, Freeman had been assigned to work in California to develop a market for Swedish Match products in the U.S. and Japan. After the company acquired Richmond-based Pinkerton Tobacco in 1985, he moved to Richmond.

. . .

Freeman and the former Susan Dunford, a group exercise instructor at local YMCAs, met on a blind date in April 2001.

He proposed that December and they married the next year.

“He is smart as the dickens when it comes to business, but also a real romantic guy and a real softy when it comes to his family,” said Susan, who also jokes about the Swedish accent. “He sometimes tries to say y’all, and with the Swedish accent it does not come out right.”

And then there are the holiday dinners, which bring out the cook in Freeman.

“Of course, I do the Swedish meatballs and the famous Swedish ham,” he said. “And I import the Swedish pickled herring and cheeses.”

The Jansson’s Temptation “is a kind of potato au gratin,” he said, adding that versions of the recipe can be found online.

Asked how Swedish meatballs are different from other meatballs, he says, “They just taste much better. That’s what I hear when people taste them. I won’t give the recipe. It’s my mother’s old recipe.”


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