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Reviving a Tradition

A Business Powerhouse in the Dominican Republic, Empresas León Jimenes Is Returning to Its Cigar Making Heritage
Juan O. Tamayo
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

They still talk about Fernando León on the factory floor, about his unsurpassed knowledge of tobacco and his cordial ways with the poor farmers of the Dominican Republic's prime tobacco-growing region.

Don Fernando could bury his nose in a bundle of leaves and tell where in the Cibao Valley the tobacco was grown, recalls Manuel Jaquez, a tiny and lean whippet of a man who has rolled cigars for the León family for 52 years. He could smell it when the leaf had grown in the shade of an orange tree, says Jaquez, when a farmer was trying to sell him leaves from different plots, when the leaves were too thin to bear the violent changes of curing. "When Don Fernando spoke, all the other cigar makers listened. He had the respect of his class, of his workers and of his clients. He is a real cigar man," Jaquez says about the tobacco legend, who at age 74 serves on the board of directors of Empresas León Jimenes, the cigar maker's parent company.

Today, the León Jimenes cigar factory is fastidiously clean and modern, a small but increasingly important cog in one of the Dominican Republic's richest family empires and most modern industrial complexes. Every concrete-block building is air-conditioned and appears recently painted. The lawns are manicured, streets are immaculately swept and there are signs pointing to, or explaining, everything from "emergency axe" to "tennis court."

Indeed, the complex has the shipshape feel of a U.S. military base, a far cry from the tumult of the surrounding city of Santiago de los Caballeros. But on the cigar factory floor, workers remember the days before all that progress and neatness, the days when Fernando León made cigars good enough to sell to Cubans.

After years of focusing its energy on far more profitable enterprises--beer, cigarettes and food--the León family is trying to revitalize its cigar roots as the oldest cigar factory in the Dominican Republic and the first to export to the United States. Chosen to blend tradition and marketing, the venerable old and the brash new, is Don Fernando's youngest son, Guillermo León, 36, a business administration graduate and fourth-generation tobacco man.

Guillermo León could not be happier. As a child, he remembers playing hide-and-seek in the drying barns of his family farm and accompanying his father on the rounds of neighboring tobacco farms. "We left at first [light]," he recalls, "ate when we could and had no set return time, just when we were done."

Soft-spoken, engagingly direct and unpretentiously friendly, Guillermo León favors casual American-yuppie clothes, cobalt blue sunglasses and four-wheel drive vehicles. He knows many of his cigar makers by name and has the factory make him half a dozen special cigars a day--the same size (7 1/2 inches by 50 ring gauge) and with the same darkish Cameroon wrapper favored by his father.

Highlighting the younger León's peculiar stand between tobacco tradition and business is the location of his office in the company's cavernous transportation repair warehouse, one and a half blocks from the cigar factory. León oversaw the transportation repair department until he was named last year to head cigar operations. A new office in the cigar factory is under construction.

León has lost no time in shaking up the cigar department. He upgraded the blends in the premium León Jimenes and lower-priced La Aurora brands, switched to a Connecticut shade wrapper on León Jimenes and ordered new cigar boxes and better artwork for the labels and bands. Even the family's trademark lion--león is Spanish for lion--got an overhaul, with the drawing of an older, black-maned lion replaced with an image of a much more youthful, golden-maned version.

León also found new U.S. and European distributors, stepped up León Jimenes' already strong presence in duty-free outlets at European airports and even developed a small cigar aimed at women and those no-time-to-waste Americans looking for something that smokes fast.

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