I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult to convince Aimee Cooks to pose for photos for an article about herself.
Not because she’s not easily one of the most photogenic people in the cigar industry, but because modesty has been her strongest trait in her last 20 years at J.C. Newman, and – as I learned in this interview – maybe her whole life.
Cooks has never fully grasped the gravity of the work she does at El Reloj. It was a no-brainer for me when it came down to who to choose for these employee spotlights, but I wasn’t sure she’d be so convinced to talk openly about herself and her work, given that her title is Human Resources and Tampa Factory Director. H.R. and interviews are not notorious for going hand-in-hand.
I let Aimee know I’m going to record the audio as we take photos and she chuckles nervously, but once I let her know that she can edit her grammar in post-production, she lightens up and lights her Diamond Crown.
For our first photo, I ask her to pick up a rotary phone that hasn’t been in use since 1977 but still hangs just outside the blending room on the 3rd floor of our factory. I ask her to tell me about how she started at J.C. Newman, and how her career has evolved from a part-time role to a position in which she’s hired 90% of the people that work in El Reloj.
“It was June 1, 1997 I’ll never forget my interview. I had on a power suit. It was yellow, short, tight-fitting. I guess those are back in style now. It was just supposed to be 20 hours a week. I was supposed to work full-time just for a couple of weeks to pick up some slack and that turned into a couple more weeks which turned into months. They asked me to write some policy manuals and then Stanford [Newman] started teaching me about the factory. Then that turned into a human resources role and acting as the in-between person in the office and the factory…I morphed into many different roles after that. I feel like it happened so quickly that I can’t tell you how long I was in payroll to human resources to quality control to export – I’ve touched every part of this business – except marketing.” She chuckles and throws me a wink; ever the jokester, even when she’s in an official HR interview.
Aimee’s actual phone rings. She returns the handset on the rotary phone, silences her cell after a brief apology, and we move on to our next area for photos.
“For whatever reason, Stanford took an interest in my interest for just knowing how the business runs. Three or four times a week…he would come sit in my area and he would just teach me about employees, leadership, his experiences. He was a really great leader. His temperament was a lot different than [his sons] – he was pretty feisty. I see that spirit in Drew now…in this next generation. They’re very similar. They have an idea, they know what they want, and they just go for it.”
There’s something about the way Aimee shifts focus from herself – maybe the Human Resources part of her – but there’s more to her work here than her relationship with Stanford.
Something that doesn’t get mentioned as often as her kindness, tenacity, and loyalty are her more inherent traits. Cooks is a woman, and a Person of Color. Cook’s mother is white, and her father is black, and this is incredible when put into the context of the history of this company. Julius Caeser Newman immigrated to America 30 years after the end of the Civil War. “I am a person of color here, and in the industry and running the show and making cigars and shipping things out. I’m in charge of 150 employees now. With everything that’s happened in the world and throughout history – I am so proud of my heritage and from where I come. I am happy to see people of color and different ethnic backgrounds in our industry. I am proud this industry is inclusive and perhaps what has drawn me in and helped me to stay.”
“The expectation from my family was that you would go to college, get your degree, and come home again. And when I was 28 and I packed up my family to move [to Tampa] and months leading up to the move my family would try to discourage me from going. But when I moved away from home, my goal was to raise my family. I would do something part-time, but as soon as I could, I was going to shift my focus to being a full-time wife and mother. It was my uncle that pulled me aside and said, ‘You know what Aims, one day, you’re going to be running that place’ – meaning J.C. Newman Cigar Co. I shrugged it off. But now looking back at where I started and where I am now and everything I’ve done here – he was right. No one can take that away.”
This is the second story she’s told me about people in her life – Stanford, and her uncle – that saw in her what she never saw in herself. I call it to her attention. She blinks, hard, and says, “huh, I guess you’re right.” It’s such a genuine reaction, it’s clear she’s never considered this before.
I ask Cooks to sit on our rolling tables and prop up her Cole Haan shoes; a single pair that numbers among what I know is her massive shoe collection. They’re too gorgeous not to make them the focus of her photo and so I ask her about them.
“I just love shoes.” She kicks them up and twists her ankle around, admiring them as if it’s the first time she’s tried them on. She says this with such a girlish enthusiasm I am instantly charmed. As an employee at J.C. Newman, I’m so used to seeing Cooks take a firm stance, setting rules, hours, regulations – it’s infectious to see her glow this way.
Aimee’s walkie talkie buzzes to life.
This is the first time in the three years I’ve worked here that I’ve noticed just how frequently she’s contacted day-to-day. It’s like moving to a home right near train tracks – eventually you start sleeping through the horn in the night. Each of the problems that have arisen during this photoshoot will be handled and handled well. Her team knows that. She might be a little too accessible.
She clicks it to the off position and asks me where we left off.
I set up a chair and ask Cooks to sit under a few signs hanging in our third-floor hand rolling room. These signs were recovered during the factory restorations, and so it’s a nice segue to move onto the topic of just that.
“I cannot tell you how absolutely touched I was that the Newmans – and Drew specifically – trusted me. [Drew] took a chance on me. I don’t know why. But that was probably the biggest moments in my “career.”” She uses air quotes when she says career, further emphasizing her modesty. “I don’t know anything about construction! I appreciate the confidence they had in me.”
If you’ve been to the factory since our restoration, you know that this seems like a lie. Each space has been curated, and opened, and changed to welcome visitors but also provide a more efficient and safe space for employees to work. “But that’s what the Newmans do. They make you feel confident, and they trust you, and they give you the tools to get better and do better.”
We move to the shipping department for one final photo – this is Cooks’ domain. She may have started in payroll, and she may have a big desk in the office now, but this is where she is at the top of her game. The fluorescents make it hard to capture her flawless skin and so I ultimately opted out of using in this article, but while she giggles and shares a few awkward glances with the employees gathered around, I get a quick shot, and we wrap the interview.
It’s clear to everyone how proud Cooks is of how far she’s come, even if she isn’t always consciously thinking about it. The legacy that her name will leave for her family, and the imprint she made on this factory, these employees, and this company will stand the test of time.
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