The Aurora Effect
The oldest cigar company in the Dominican Republic does things its own way
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Daniels-The Newsroom, July/August 2012
When a visitor walks into a factory, he might be met with suspicious looks from the workers. It doesn’t matter if the visitor makes himself as unobtrusive as possible, or if he’s accompanied by the factory’s top managers: his standout clothing and demeanor alone can disrupt the workflow. Even workers who pretend not to
notice can still be visibly distracted.
But this isn’t the case at La Aurora S.A., the Dominican Republic’s oldest cigar company. Rather, there’s focus and concentration. Not the type of tense concentration that comes from oppressive managers or the prodding fear of unemployment, but the calm that comes from an entire room of people who are physically and mentally dedicated to their work. If 109 years in the business has taught La Aurora anything, it’s that a happy workforce makes for great cigars. “Look around my factory,” says Guillermo León, the company’s president. “Do you see misery? No. They are happy because we take care of them. And they stay here a long time. For us, our number one asset is the people.”
León is a quiet and commanding presence as he walks through his factory, trading glances with passing employees. The 51-year-old is handsome by any conventional standard, and congenial, though at the same time preoccupied with the details of his operation and not unnecessarily talkative.
“Don’t write about this,” he says as he passes by a large contraption. Yes, León is friendly, but guarded as well. Whatever that machine is, it looks quite modern compared to the rest of the old, yet well-maintained heavy equipment in the factory. Everything here runs with oiled efficiency.
Somewhere in its long history, La Aurora seems to have taken an atypical move for the cigar industry and adopted Japan’s “5S” workplace principles. Banners hang from the high warehouse ceilings of the 150,000-square-foot-factory: Seiri—sorting; Seiton—stabilizing; Seiso—systematic cleanliness; Seiketsu—standardization; Shitsuke—sustaining.
Perhaps this is what it takes to last as long as Aurora has, but the company that now produces 8 to 10 million premium, handmade cigars per year (it makes even more flavored cigars by machine) started out in 1903 with only three rollers working out of a small space in the under-developed zone of Guazumal, a small town located between Santiago
“My grandfather, Eduardo León Jimenes, made cigars for local consumption,” says León. “But he had to move to Santiago in 1912. The situation was difficult at the time. There weren’t a lot of roads. His cigar was simply called La Aurora.”
The cigars back then were made mostly of Dominican tobacco with Indonesian or Cameroon wrappers. Wrapper leaf was not grown in the Dominican Republic at the time, so it had to be imported, but binder and filler tobacco was readily available. While some of it came from a few family-owned plots, much of it was procured from other local growers.
By 1945, the business had expanded, and La Aurora began exporting its cigars to other Caribbean islands, requiring León’s grandfather to establish closer business relationships with local farmers, purchasing the tobacco in addition to growing some himself. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Guillermo’s father, Fernando León Asensio, took over the operation.
“My father really knew tobacco,” says León. “He had a keen sense for it and could identify its origins very easily. I remember one time we were buying some tobacco from another farmer and my father looked at the tobacco, which was packed in a 100-pound tercio. One guy came with a hand-truck and put the bale of tobacco right in front of him. My father inspected the leaves, took a few out, smelled them and said to the farmer ‘This isn’t yours. This isn’t your tobacco. This comes from someone else.’ And he was right. The farmer admitted it.”
León takes a puff of his cigar and laughs, recalling his father’s sense for the leaf. “Another time he was given tobacco and said, ‘This tobacco was near an orange tree.’ ”
It took six decades, but by the early 1960s, La Aurora had finally made its way to the United States, primarily through Miami. The company produced around 15 conventional cigar sizes that became very popular over time in both the stalwart cigar market of Miami and the rest of the United States.
León’s father Fernando handled La Aurora and the premium cigar business with respect and reverence, but in terms of revenue, it was only a small part of the family business. Around the same time that La Aurora’s cigars hit the shores of the U.S., Aurora began producing cigarettes in a separate factory, churning out local brands such as Premier, Oro Negro, Aurora Cigarettes and Apollo. The Dominican Republic’s local cigarette industry was previously controlled by dictator Rafael Trujillo. After Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, La Aurora had free reign to start its own mass-production outfit. This lead to a partnership with tobacco giant Philip Morris and a contract to produce Marlboro cigarettes solely for the Dominican Republic.
The portfolio grew. In addition to cigarettes, the family business entered the beer industry, first constructing a brewery in 1983 called Bohemia, and then acquiring Cerveceria Nacional Dominicana (CND), the brewery responsible for Presidente Beer. Presidente started as a local brew and went international in the early 1990s. Now, it’s the biggest beer brand in the Dominican Republic. Cigars, cigarettes and beer all fell under the family’s corporate umbrella, Empresa León Jimenes, a conglomerate that also has interests in spirits, printing and banking. The beer business eventually became the largest by far in the corporation, and earlier this year Anheuser-Busch purchased a controlling interest in CND from Empresa León Jimenes for a reported $1 billion.
No matter how large the other group’s assets became, Fernando never grew distracted from the premium cigar business, and he always regarded it as the center of the Group’s universe, regardless of its comparative revenue. This mentality brought La Aurora’s annual production to between 3 million and 3.5 million cigars per year during the 1980s—a decade that included the Cameroon-wrapped La Aurora brand, León Jimenes in Connecticut wrapper, and the popular machine-made brand, Principe, which had been produced since the 1950s.
The ’80s was also the decade when Guillermo joined the family business. A young man then, in his 20s, he handled logistics behind the beer, cigarette and cigar operations.
“My main objective was to keep shipping costs down,” recalls León. “I enjoyed it very much, but one day my father said he wanted me to work at La Aurora. For me, it was an honor because I knew he cared greatly for the brands."
With a large part of his childhood spent in the factory, the younger León was very comfortable around tobacco. “I’d be in the factory every day because it was a second home. Some of my best memories are with my father, traveling to the fields and receiving tobacco.”
León started work solely in La Aurora in 1994, right when the U.S. demand for premium cigars was booming. Focus for León now shifted from beer and tobacco logistics to premium cigars and the first thing he did was bring one of La Aurora’s old factory managers out of retirement and back on the payroll. The manager had worked for the family for 65 years and León wanted him to return. He also brought the Preferidos size—a bulbous perfecto—to the United States. León considered the classic shape a company hallmark, and integral to the family’s history. Like the original blend, the Preferido was reintroduced in a Cameroon cover leaf, then other wrapper varieties like Corojo, Connecticut and Brazilian Maduro followed.
And with the premium cigar market in such a state of hyperactivity, León walked right into a storm, facing formidable boom-time challenges as soon as he took over the factory’s operations.
“People who no one had ever heard of were coming down to the Dominican Republic with a lot of money, buying the tobacco from farmers that we contracted for—farmers we were doing business with for decades. This didn’t just happen with us. The whole industry faced this problem. Some of our growers, however, stayed loyal and honored our agreements.”
León also explains another boom-time problem—the workers.
Cigar rollers would train at La Aurora and then be coaxed to another factory with the promise of more money. It’s a practice that has always existed in the Dominican Republic to some extent, but was greatly
accentuated by the ’90s need for skilled rollers.
“We opened a training school for cigar rollers. Some of them would train with us, and then leave,” he says.
Despite the unusually high demand, La Aurora never ran out of tobacco. “Our problem wasn’t with available tobacco,” León says. “We could always meet demand. The problem was with future inventory.” Leon frowns a bit, shakes his head and sighs. His eyes widen for a moment as though reliving a nightmare. “Planning for the future—it was tough.”
The situation eventually reversed itself. In 1998, the intense demand for cigars had settled and Aurora found itself sitting on a cigar surplus with 5 million finished sticks in inventory that the company was looking to move. Rollers were laid off, and León set to focus more on quality.
The factory continued to produce quality premium smokes and León, along with his father, brought the factory to its 100-year milestone anniversary in 2003. To celebrate, La Aurora created a limited run of 400,000 cigars called 100 Años (known as Cien Años, Spanish for 100 years), a Dominican puro made with Corojo wrapper and Corojo filler that the company had been growing in country since 1999. Cigars made solely with Dominican tobacco are still uncommon in the world of premium smokes on account of how difficult it is to grow the wrapper leaf, but the Aurora 100 Años is one of the few brands that still comes to mind when considering exceptional Dominican puros. Though it came in four sizes, the Belicoso was such an exceptional standout, it ended up as Cigar Aficionado’s No. 2 Cigar of the Year for 2004.
“Cien Años was a very special project,” recalls León. “We wanted to use the best of the best.” There are very few 100 Años left, but the line’s popularity has inspired Aurora to seriously consider reintroducing the line. Details were not available at the time this story went to press, but plans for a new 100 Años brand are in the works, most likely in a limited three-size run.
A lot has happened since the 100-year anniversary. In 2006 the partnership between Philip Morris and Empresa León ended; León’s father and company patriarch Fernando León Asensio passed away in 2009; and last year, the family’s corporate group made the decision to completely divest itself of La Aurora. Before the group could officially put the factory up for sale, León purchased it from his family for terms that were not disclosed. He is now the owner and operator of the oldest cigar company in the Dominican Republic.
“I didn’t do it out of necessity,” he says. “It wasn’t about the money. The group wanted to focus more on the beverage end of the business, and I’m much happier.”
León admits that even before he took over the factory, he had been changing his philosophy about the business for the last few years and has tuned in to the demands of the consumer now more than ever before.
Preferidos Cameroon and León Jimenes are, in a sense, period smokes—stylistically old-fashioned brands made as close to the company’s original blend as current tobaccos will allow. In this case, old fashioned does not mean dated or irrelevant. They are still flavorful and enjoy a loyal following in the world of premium cigars, however León is willing to move forward.
“We still maintain tradition,” assures León, “but I’m listening to what the customer has to say.”
The relatively new Guillermo León brand is a perfect example. It came out in late 2010 and was blended to León’s personal taste and standards. The Corona Gorda is his size of choice and was the first prototype for the blend. Like the rest of the line, it is made with two binders (a first for La Aurora) and has scored 92 points with Cigar Aficionado. Certainly, this is a very flavorful cigar, but the name also seems to be making a statement. Guillermo is now running the factory, so it’s only befitting that he has a namesake cigar. But sizes like the Gran Toro, a 6-inch by 58-ring gauge cigar, were rolled more to meet customer demand and show an understanding of the market despite personal preferences. The brand is by no means a vanity project but a sincere symbol of La Aurora’s future. A short, stout, 4 by 60 cigar called the Sumo is another response to market trends.
“It can be very personal sometimes,” León says of the cigar-making process. “The size and the flavor of the Guillermo León Corona Gorda is very much a reflection of my personal taste and what I think a cigar should be.”
When asked his opinion on the current market, he responded: “I think people tend to confuse strength with flavor. We’re looking to make complex smokes with full flavor, but we don’t have anything that is too strong—too strong and it overpowers that palate.”
Another evolutionary factor was La Aurora’s use of many different tobaccos. When the company started, there were no Cuban-seed strains grown in the Dominican Republic, nor was there any Dominican wrapper to speak of. Now, there are myriad tobacco varietals grown in the country, (both wrapper and filler) and La Aurora keeps voluminous stores of
Nicaraguan, Brazilian, Ecuadoran and Peruvian tobacco. This allows the company a diverse portfolio and greater blending options. The Guillermo León brand contains tobacco from five different countries.
León says that the company has only seen growth since he took over. Part of that growth includes making third-party brands for other cigar companies, one if which is Felipe Gregorio cigars. Brands such as Black Pedro, ReFusion and Silencio (a line consisting of mostly figurados) come off the tables of La Aurora’s rolling gallery.
“In my case in particular I make blends with my own tobaccos and La Aurora rolls the cigars for me,” says Philip Wynne, owner of Felipe Gregorio. “Manuel Inoa, the production manager, is very knowledgeable and runs a very organized ship. Their chief roller Luis Lopez, is one of the best rollers I have seen in my 20-plus years in the business. What I like about the company is that they are very quality-control oriented. They make sure that all the steps and proper time is given to the aging process and fumigation. Guillermo León is in one word a gentleman, and his word is his bond—something rare in the tobacco world.”
Boutique brand Falto, which is located in Puerto Rico, has been working with La Aurora since 1995. “I wanted to make my own blends, know the torcedores that would be hand-crafting my cigars and most of all make them in very small quantities and maintain the strict quality control that La Aurora has been maintaining and recognized for more than a century,” says brand owner Luis Falto.
Along with Guillermo León, Aurora’s other new brands include Aurora 107, León Jimenes Prestige, and the limited edition Puro Vintage, a figuardo that recently scored 91 points in Cigar Aficionado. The previously unreleased Don Fernando, a corona blended for León’s father, is also scheduled for commercial distribution. It will be a blend of Corojo wrapper and Piloto Cubano tobacco.
“The consumer always wants something new,” León says resignedly. Most of these consumers are citizens of the United States. The U.S. makes up half of La Aurora’s premium production. Spain is its second-largest market, and, according to León, La Aurora is the No. 1 cigar brand sold in the Dominican Republic. Right now, León has 5 million cigars in his aging room, symmetrically stacked to the ceilings in cataloged wooden cases waiting to be boxed and shipped to various markets. León takes the final puffs of his cigar. He’s reminded of that odd-looking machine a visitor spied earlier on the factory floor, and once again he is asked what it is.
“Well,” he says, “I’ll tell you this—You won’t see those anywhere else.”
León smiles, and then laughs. He has over 100 years of history in his hands, and probably 100 more.
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