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The Quiet Man

You might not know José Seijas, but you probably smoke his cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

Montecristo. H. Upmann. Romeo y Julieta. They're three of the biggest names in Dominican cigars, and they' re made by one man. Odds are, you don' t know his name.

Jose A. Seijas isn't nearly as famous as many of his contemporaries in the Dominican Republic, but he runs Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., the factory that makes that troika of brands and a score of others. The 270,000-square-foot factory is one of the biggest on the planet, fitting because its owner—Altadis—is the world's largest cigar company.

"I don't do cigars for me, I do cigars for the market," says Seijas, sipping a coffee in his office. Many of the better known cigarmakers are Cuban, but Seijas was born in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. His father, Miguel, born and bred in La Romana, twice served as the mayor of the town, in the 1970s and '90s. Seijas didn't follow him into politics. Instead, he went to school to study industrial engineering.

Most of his engineering books were in English, which helped him learn the language. At age 24, Seijas was hired by Tabacalera de Garcia to analyze crops and perform other quality-control jobs in La Romana.

Twenty-six years later, the 50-year-old is now vice president, general manager of Tabacalera de Garcia. He's tall and fit, strong enough to hammer a golf ball 300 yards and skilled enough to keep it on the short grass—most of the time. Despite his beard, he could pass for a decade younger. He has three children—daughter Karen, who is 24, and two sons, Ricardo, 17, and Enrique, 16. He has been married to his wife, Carmen, for 27 years.

Friends and associates in the business call him Josechu. It's a Basque name meaning Little José that was given him by an uncle who lived in Bilbao, Spain, when Seijas was a child. The nickname followed him through his professional career -- even if it is mispronounced at times.

The door to the office is open. His desk is crowded, but not quite cluttered, with a tray of fresh cigars that need to be tasted in lieu of an "in" box. Cigars in boxes sit atop a row of books on his credenza, and cigars in humidors sit on a coffee table. Still more cigars, unbanded ones, lie in a row on his desk.

Seijas has been especially busy lately. His operation in La Romana has quietly become the heart of Altadis's American brand portfolio. Altadis was formed in December 1999, the merger of two of Europe's biggest tobacco companies, Tabacalera S.A. of Spain and SEITA S.A. of France. Both companies had been on buying sprees to build up a presence in the U.S. market—the merger left Altadis with an excess of production capacity in a post-cigar-boom America.

The company shut down Tabacalera Nacional Dominicana—a cigar factory near Santiago that made Romeo y Julieta and VegaFina cigars. Those brands have been brought here to Tabacalera de Garcia, and now Seijas watches over their construction. The world's biggest cigar company is consolidating, and that's making Tabacalera de Garcia—and Seijas—a more important part of the company.

Tabacalera de Garcia processes 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of tobacco a week. About a quarter goes into the factory's handmade cigars, and the rest is either fed to the machines that make mass-market cigars or is shipped to other plants. The factory at full capacity can produce about 60 million handmade cigars a year.

When Seijas started working at Tabacalera de Garcia in 1974, the factory made Primo del Rey cigars, but cigar making was of minor importance at the plant. Then-owner Consolidated Cigar Corp. used the Dominican plant to process tobacco, most notably the Connecticut shade that it grew on its own fields near Hartford, Connecticut. Much of the wrapper went for export to Europe, while some was sent to the company's main cigar factory in the Canary Islands, the home of H. Upmann and Montecruz cigars. In 1978, Seijas's bosses sent him to the Canaries for a close look.

It was an excellent learning ground. At the time, Americans smoked more Canary Island cigars than any other premium, and Dominican cigars were a curiosity and not much else. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Canary Islands were losing their appeal as a manufacturing base. Strikes were common. Labor rates were rising, compounded by a strengthened local currency. The union of factory workers was pressuring the cigar company for even more money and benefits. The conglomerate Gulf + Western, owners of Consolidated, decided to shift the Canary Island cigar-making operation to La Romana. Consolidated had ceased growing its own shade tobacco in Connecticut, so the building was largely unused.

The people in charge of Tabacalera de Garcia wanted five years to move the operations from the Canary Islands. Gulf + Western insisted on no more than 18 months.

"It was a terrible timetable," remembers Seijas. "I think that caused quality to suffer."

Premium cigars can be made in a variety of ways. The simplest involves only hands. The bunch, which comprises the filler tobaccos and binder, is created using only palm power, a method common in Cuba and Central America. The bunches inside most modern-day Dominican cigars are fashioned differently—workers use a hand- powered device known as a Temsco, placing tobacco leaves on a flexible, thick sheet, then pulling a lever to form the bunch. Cigars manufactured with this process are still considered handmade.

The cigars from the Canary Islands circa 1980 had even less contact with human hands. The inside was bunched by a machine, not by hands or a Temsco, and only the wrapper was put on by hand. The machines were faster than human hands, and allowed for some short-filler tobacco to be used among the long filler, cutting costs. When Gulf + Western shifted its cigar production from the Canaries to La Romana, it brought along its bunching machines. Workers struggled to learn how to use them in the short time given for the transition. Quality suffered.

"We had a number of problems," says Seijas. Exacerbating the situation was the image problem of the Dominican Republic, which had little cachet with American cigar smokers in the early 1980s. Consolidated was faced with the challenge of quickly training a new workforce, while competing with emergent brands from the Caribbean, most notably Macanudo cigars, made by hand in Jamaica.

In 1984, new management at Consolidated decided to overhaul the cigar-making process at the factory. Machine bunching was out, and making cigars by hand was in. Seijas was key to overseeing the switch.

"It was slower, it was more expensive, but basically we set our sights to produce the best cigar in the world, and to be able to compete," says Seijas. The change allowed the company to make cigars of higher quality. A buncher working by hand can make minute adjustments to the irregularities in tobacco leaf that no machine could approach. Furthermore, the change allowed the company to make fatter cigars—the bunching machines couldn't make a cigar thicker than a 46 ring gauge.

As Tabacalera de Garcia switched to making cigars by hand, it worried about draw problems. In 1984, the company began draw-testing its cigars, sticking the bunch in a suction machine to ensure that enough air could get through before the wrapper was applied.

"The first week we implemented the system, we rejected 35 percent of our production," says Seijas. "Now, we reject 2 to 3 percent."

The move to making cigars by hand helped the Dominican H. Upmann, Don Diego and all the other brands from Tabacalera de Garcia become serious players in the American market. H. Upmann is one of the top 10 premium brands sold in America.

"Ever since we did that change, this company has been enjoying increasing sales, increasing production," says Seijas.

It's hard to imagine a more pleasant place to work than La Romana, a town on the country's southeastern coast. The factory is a five-minute drive from Casa de Campo, the world-class resort owned by the Fanjul family, the sugar barons of Florida. Steps from the small airport that sits next to the resort, waves of the blue Caribbean crash alongside the all-too-tight fairways of Teeth of the Dog, the resort's Pete Dye golf course. It consistently rates among the world's best and it's a constant lure for Seijas, a passionate golfer who sports an 11 handicap.

Despite the draw of the sea and golf, Tabacalera de Garcia is the only cigar factory in La Romana—nearly all of the other ones in the Dominican Republic are clustered in and around Santiago, a manufacturing city well to the west. No commercial flights connect the two towns, just a traffic-laden, often dangerous road and a four-hour drive. In the cigar world, La Romana is isolated, and that benefited Seijas during the cigar boom; while his counterparts in Santiago were losing cigar rollers to newcomers, Seijas's workers stayed put.

The shelves behind Seijas's desk are jammed with books about business. Reading up on business practices is a Seijas hobby, perhaps as a result of the interesting slew of mergers and acquisitions he's watched from ringside in his 26 years with the company. Billionaire Ronald O. Perelman has twice bought and sold Consolidated: in 1984 he bought it for $118 million, only to sell it four years later for $138 million. He bought back the business in 1993 for $181 million and took it public in 1996, only to sell the company in 1999 for a blockbuster $733 million (including $200 million worth of long-term debt) to SEITA. In between there was a management-led leveraged buyout—enough business activity to send anyone short of Henry Kravis running straight to the business library.

"It's like I worked in four or five different companies," says Seijas, "but despite the company being sold many times in the last 17 years, there has been great stability in the senior management, and the direction of the company has been constant since August of '84, striving to make, what we feel, are the best cigars in the world."

In the sprawling factory, Seijas has divided the workers by cigar brand. Montecristo rollers sit in one area, for example, Por Larrañaga makers another. "I try to have smaller factories under one roof," he says.

Seijas has introduced a number of innovations in the factory. A roller finishes the cap on a Montecristo robusto, then places the cigar in a little tray on top of his rolling station, apart from his others. The cigarmakers have been instructed to select the best of their work for that tray, which is the first thing that a supervisor will inspect, to gauge a worker's idea of how great cigars should look.

Many of the cigar rollers use little wheeled cutters on sticks to trim wrapper tobacco instead of chavetas, the traditional crescent-shaped knives in the cigar business.

"It really helps them with the cut," says Seijas, watching over the shoulder of one of his workers. "It's faster, and really clean. We give workers the option, and they use both."

Seijas's cigars have always been known for their quality of construction, and today he is pumping up many of his blends with stronger tobaccos, making more flavorful cigars. Seijas and Tabacalera de Garcia may be making its best cigars ever. An H. Upmann 2000 Corona Larga scored 90 points in the August 2000 Cigar Aficionado, tying with a Cuban Partagas 8-9-8 as the highest-rated lonsdale of the tasting. It's the best rating ever given to a Dominican H. Upmann.

Seijas takes a dark, oily cigar from his desk. He offers it to a visitor. It's beautiful, with a reddish-brown wrapper, typical of the new brands he is bringing to market. It's powerful from the first puff, completely unlike any of the blends from his factory in the past.

Seijas sits quietly in his chair, smoking. The hum of the office seems to fade in the blue smoke, the worries of the day temporarily put on hold. Seijas's cigar of the future slowly turns to white ash.

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