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Cuba's New Visionary

Habanos's Spanish co-head, Fernando Domínguez Valdés-Hevia, speaks of a bright future for Havana cigars.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

Anyone who has smoked a recently produced Cuban cigar understands the vision of Fernando Domínguez Valdés-Hevia, the joint managing president of Habanos S.A., the global distribution organization for the island's most prestigious product.

Until recently, bad construction and poor blends plagued Cuban cigars, but the new crop of habanos on the market not only drew well but delivered excellent flavor. Reviews of Cuban cigars in this magazine over the last year have underlined this improvement, with many receiving outstanding ratings.

Domínguez, the 44-year-old Madrid-born co-president of Habanos with Cuban Oscar Basulto, believes that this improvement in quality represents the future of Cuban cigars, which will not only include the high-quality smokes of today but also the development of new products and brands.

"In this company we have experienced a change in the concept for Cuban cigars," said Domínguez, who was named to the Habanos post last year after the departure of the highly respected co-head Jaime Andrade Garcia. "Volume is not important, because Cuban cigars are a luxury product. Our main focus is on quality, quality and quality. I think that deficiencies we have had in the past years we have solved, and quality is now the most important thing. It's been due to a change of mentality in the entire industry in Cuba."

Just a few years ago, Cuba embarked on a massive expansion policy in hopes of producing hundreds of millions of cigars each year to bring much needed currency to its weak economy. Some of the key heads of the Cuban cigar industry believed the island could reach an annual production of close to 300 million cigars. It all almost ended in disaster as quality plummeted. The Cubans simply overstretched their resources and capacity. Today, exports are estimated at between 140 million and 150 million cigars, although Habanos will not supply actual figures. Some say shipments are much less. In any case, cigar production finally appears to be in line with tobacco growing and processing, and with the newfound consistency in quality, Domínguez doesn't expect production to increase drastically in the near future.

Domínguez, whose favorite smoke is the Cohiba Siglo VI, moved to Havana four years ago with his wife and two daughters to take a position with Habanos. He likes his life in Cuba with his family and enjoys Cuban culture and various sports, such as tennis. He is a former semiprofessional volleyball player. However, what Domínguez really relishes is the challenge of his job. A nuclear engineer by training, he has worked most of his adult life for the Spanish tobacco giant Tabacalera S.A., which in 1999 merged with the French tobacco multinational Seita to form Altadis. He has done everything from overseeing the domestic cigar production in Spain to developing a strategy for Tabacalera for building a major cigar portfolio before the company went public in 1998.

"So I have more or less some ideas from my past experiences about the cigar business," he says enthusiastically. "It's very, very interesting. I love very much the tobacco sector, but above all cigars."

In the last year, a lot of emphasis has been put on improving conditions in the key export factories for producing cigars, and Domínguez believes that much more can been achieved. "This [improvement in quality] has been not only the draw-checking machines in the factories, but also the in the crops and agricultural side—all the tasks done by the Tabacuba [the Cuban organization in charge of production and agriculture]. All the supervision in the fields in the crops, with all teams of quality control then supervising every estate, has been very important.

"I think that there has been a tremendous effort on the agricultural side of our business, including some technological innovations," he adds. "It coincides with the handmade idea of the product. We have had many technological innovations in all processes, from the nursery and seedlings to the curing and fermentations."

However, the most obvious changes in the last year or two have been in the production side of the business. This year, the H. Upmann factory (José Martí) was moved to a new building and La Corona and Por Larrañaga factories will be consolidated and moved to another new building. In addition, Heroes de Moncada was closed and workers were reassigned to other Havana factories. The new factories are cleaner and better organized. They resemble many of the modern cigar facilities in other prominent manufacturing countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.


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