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
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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.
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