It’s a hot and hazy Los Angeles morning when I arrive at Keith K. Park’s head office. The founder and CEO of Prometheus International and God of Fire cigars is running slightly late for our appointment, but with this year’s RTDA Trade Show just a few days away, this is understandable. Fortunately, this gives me a chance to escape the heat and cool down inside, where a myriad of Prometheus humidors, lighters and ashtrays surround me as I wait. A five foot canvas illustration, „Prometheus Bound“ hangs on the wall. Depicting the Titan’s punishment for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to mortals, the same image adorns many of Prometheus products Keith arrives at his office, stepping out of his silver Audi with requisite God of Fire cigar in hand. Moving inside, he greets me warmly, but immediately usurps my role by asking about my thoughts on the preference of some for Cuban over non-Cuban cigars. With an inquisitive look and the beginnings of a smile, hoe asks for a no-bullshit answer, kicking off our discussion of the Keith K. Park story, cigars and the rise of Prometheus.
The son of Korean immigrants, Keith arrived in the USA in 1980 when he was 15 years old. Now 43, he relates that much of his current career occurred by accident. After enrolling in the Economics Ph.D. program at Columbia University, Keith recalls that one of his college mentors sat down with him and expressed concern that he didn’t envisage Keith as being an economics scholar. He said – “I know you want to be a professor, but I think that this is the wrong profession for you. You come across as a real entrepreneur“, Keith relates. “After finishing my Masters, realised he was right, it wasn’t what I wanted. I worked for a time in the research department of an investment bank in New York but still felt unfulfilled.“
The corporate sector did not give him creativity he craved, so he returned to the family home in southern California to work with his father who at the time was importing various lighters from Korea and China.Keith’s younger brother, James (currently CEO of KGM Vector), also joined the rapidly growing family business – KGM Industries. Keith’s father had begun KGM Industries in Korea before bringing it with him to the USA. “My father was an entrepreneur. I grew up, watching this man. In a way, I have picked up his entrepreneurial spirit.”
In 1992, Keith went on his first business trip to Korea and in the process launched a luxury brand of lighters: Prometheus. The premium lighter division of KGM was born, later adding humidors to its ran Selling S 1000 humidors and premium lighters alongside mid range and disposable lighters, KGM soon came to a critical juncture. “Questions were raised. How do we define the company? When we hired employees, we had to teach them how to sell luxury products and also how to sell containers of disposable lighters.” Towards the end of 1996, Keith was inspired by Toyota and its introduction of the Lexus prestige brand, complete with its stand-alone operations. “Prometheus was the brand I created and I truly believed that in order to realise its full potential, the brand should be managed separately. My brother ran the other divisions and was happy to continue with that aspect of the business“, Keith states. After a family meeting, he sold his share of KGM Industries back to the family, receiving the Prometheus brand in return.
Five years after setting up the Prometheus division of KGM Industries, 1997 saw the birth of an independent brand that belonged solely to Keith. This separation could not have occurred at a better time, just as the cigar boom reached its crescendo. No fear“, he begins. „I was a young ‚kid in the middle of the cigar boom and had no fear.“ At the 1997 RTDA Trade Show Keith sold 200 Limited Edition humidors with the retail price of 2,500 in two days. This great reception helped cement the Prometheus name in the industry. Two years later, Prometheus presented the Limited Edition Fuente Fuente OpusX Humidor, complete with Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, beginning his long standing relationship with one of the finest cigar producing families; the Fuentes.
God of Fire Created
Since launching Prometheus, Keith always dreamed of creating his own cigar line to complement his accessories. „I saw Prometheus lighters, ashtrays and humidors displayed in stores, but no cigars. I wanted to complete the picture.” The opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2003 as Keith and Carlito Fuente sat down to dinner in the Dominican Republic. During dinner, he explained his vision of a cigar line to Carlito. Carlito not only greed to make the cigars in partnership with his family, but also helped Keith resolve one other dilemma in launching his cigar brand. Keith did not want to brand the cigars as “Prometheus“ Seeing too many restrictions on tobacco products, he wanted to keep his cigar accessory name separate.
During the filming of the Fuente documentary, The Fuente Family: An American Dream, in Dominican Republic in the spring 2002, Keith, who was the producer of the Fuente documentary was repeatedly called “God of Fire”, an obvious reference to Keith’s brand Prometheus and the Greek myth behind it. Carlito, remembering this reference to Keith, suggested he uses “God of Fire” as a cigar brand name. Keith’s exuberance during the reollection of these events is evidence of his enthusiasm for the God of Fire brand. 2004 culminated with the release of the Prometheus Limited Edition God of Fire red humidor, complete witlh God of Fire cigars Lighting up God of Fire Double Robustos blended by Carlito, we are momentarily interrupted, as he receives a call from France to discuss veneers for new humidors. Being the chief product designer for Prometheus products, Keith visualises his products at a onceptual level before he works closely with an elite group of master artisans from around the world. „Many good ideas come from listening to our customers’ feedbacks.
When I use a lighter or humidor, I see certain needs and think about improvements“, he says, observing that „a brilliant idea may be technically difficult“. „We have strong relationships with several master artisans from around the world. Our products are produced by these master craftspeople who are skilled in their specific trade.“ With cutters made in Japan, humidors from France, crystal ashtrays crafted in Italy and leather products from Spain, Prometheus draws on global input.
The company recently launched a range of men’s wallets and accessory boxes, and plans for cufflinks and belts are just around the corner, however it is Keith’s first product line, lighters, which still excite him most. A quick tour of his warehouse reveals staff busily inspecting each lighter before being packed for shipping. With a proud smile on his face, Keith presents the new Traveler lighter (worldwide patent pending) to me, which easily pulls apart for air travel and easy repair purposes. A quick inspection reveals that he hasn’t forgotten his roots: the word “Korea” is easily found on the base of the gas tank.
The Pleasure of Cigars
Our God of Fire Double Robustos haven’t set off the smoke alarms yet although I am waiting for water to start pouring from the overhead fire sprinklers any minute now due to the amount of thick creamy smoke both are producing, Keith’s appreciation of cigars is clear: “Cigars are a social thing; the only time I smoke alone is when I am in the car. One evening, I told my wife that I was going to pour myself a glass of wine, light a cigar and relax in the backyard. I started smoking and after five minutes, I thought this is boring! I enjoy socialising with other cigar smokers; it is one of life’s great pleasures. This is why I love hosting the God of Fire Dinner” The God of Fire Dinner is held in the early fall every year in Los Angeles. With two young daughters Keith met wife Michelle when he started the Prometheus brand, finding time to smoke is hard, yet he manages to indulge in a wide range of cigars including other manufacturer’s creations Cigar discussion soon turns to anti-tobacco legislation.
Keith is wary of increasing government intervention – a campaign poster against California Proposition 86, which the Californian cigar industry battled fiercely last year to stop the 135% tax on cigars, still sits on its easel in the corner of his boardroom, Keith travels often and regrets that many countries have severe anti-tobacco legislations. „Compared to other countries, there are a lot fewer restrictions to our local cigar industry but my concern is that America is becoming more and more like the rest of the world in terms of government taxation and legislation. Keith K. Park, embodies much of the American Dream: immigrants’ son, who worked hard to create his own business venture.
He values the freedoms of his adopted homeland, especially those afforded thus far to his beloved cigar industry. Fifteen years have passed quickly yet he aspires for more in the future, disclosing his wish to launch a corporate store. With my God of Fire Double Robusto down to its last third, Keith is called away to attend RTDA planning. He returns quickly noting that he is goin have to get back to work shortly. After finishing our cigars, leave Keith’s office in the middle of the afternoon to be greeted by the glaring sun which is still high in the sky. The sweltering heat and haze remain – weather well suited to a man of fire.