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An Interview with Litto Gomez and Ines Lorenzo-Gomez

Owners, La Flor Dominicana

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The attitudes of the owners, the husband-and-wife team of Litto Gomez and Ines Lorenzo-Gomez, were clear from the start: they wanted to learn about the business and about cigars. Instead of copying the behavior of some of the newcomers, which might charitably be called arrogant, Gomez and Lorenzo-Gomez buckled down, spending time with some of the wisest people in the cigar business. They moved carefully, growing slowly and methodically as they acquired more expertise, better tobacco inventories and, finally, their own factory.
Today, La Flor Dominicana is considered the strongest of the new brands to hit the market in the past seven years. Gomez and Lorenzo-Gomez have remained focused on their original strategy--slow growth with improving quality--and they have garnered a loyal following among consumers and retailers.
Last October, they spoke with Cigar Aficionado's executive editor, Gordon Mott, at the magazine's New York City offices.
Cigar Aficionado: La Flor Dominicana is always mentioned as one of the success stories among the brands created during the boom. Why have you been successful?
Gomez: That is a good question. We didn't set out to do something differently than anybody else. It was just that we had a set of rules that we wanted to use in order to protect the brand and develop it over a period of 15 to 20 years. We didn't have economic goals. Today, we're still not even close to where we want to take the brand.
But name recognition is not something that happens over four or five years. It takes a lot more time than that. So, we made decisions that were designed just to protect that brand and make it respectable in the market. All of our efforts have been toward making a better product next year than we have made the year before.
How can we learn? That was our first question, since we are not people who have a long background in the industry. How do we learn something new every day, every week, in order to make ourselves better? Me, at my end, at the factory. Ines, at her end, dealing with customer service and the distribution part of the business. Everything was designed to improve our brand. All of our worries, every week and in our meetings over a cup of coffee or whatever, we talk about how can we do this better than we have done it the month before or the day before or the week before. There are no financial discussions, only about how to work better.
We asked ourselves questions like, do we sell the product to everybody that wants to buy cigars or do we keep it to a certain section of the market? Those are decisions where the consequence is that we sell a little bit less product than if we had given the product to everyone in the industry. Doing it the way we do it, we keep the brand only in respectable cigar dealers or cigar retailers as opposed to giving it to everybody that wants to sell cigars. Over a long period of time that kept us in a very safe and prestigious position in the market. Very small, but every year we have a very steady, small growth over the year before. Even given all the changes in the industry right now, we are still selling more cigars this year than we sold the year before.
CA: What are those production and sales figures?
Gomez: We expect that 1999 will be close to 2.5 million cigars, just for La Flor Dominicana. That's up from 2.4 million in 1998. When we started, the first year, we made just over 300,000.
CA: How do you make that determination about the right kind of retailer?
Lorenzo-Gomez: In the beginning, we did try to sell to every retailer. But then we decided over the years that it is best for the consumer to buy the product from those retailers that are knowledgeable, that keep the cigars in their right environment, that will be there for many years to come. It is very easy for anyone to open a cigar shop or to sell cigars mail-order or to sell over the Internet. But they are thinking about selling so many cigars that day or that week or that month or that year. They are not necessarily looking to the future. So we want to have the cigars with retailers who have the same outlook as we do, that we want to be in business for many years to come. We are going specifically to seek out those kinds of customers. There might have been an oversight [of some retailers] at some time, and we do try to correct it and give a shop our cigars. But we believe that in the end we are protecting the customer.
CA: I have been told that if a retailer doesn't display your cigars properly that they don't get cigars anymore.
Gomez: [everyone laughing] She is a cigar Nazi.
CA: Is that true?
Lorenzo-Gomez: It is upsetting if I walk into a store and I see our cigars on the bottom shelf.
CA: Do you still turn down retailers?
Lorenzo-Gomez: Yes we do, because we are not about numbers. We don't say we have to sell two and a half million cigars this year, or we have to sell 3 million cigars this year. We are about making a product that will be there for the long term. The numbers are not that important for us.
Gomez: There was a chain of supermarkets in Florida that called our office to carry our cigars and we told them we were not interested, and the guy couldn't believe that we were saying that. He said, "We are so and so, do you know who we are?" I said, "Yeah, we know who you are," and he couldn't understand that we were refusing such a volume of purchases from somebody. He couldn't believe that we were refusing the sales to that chain of supermarkets. But that is not exactly where we want to see our cigars sold.
CA: From your description, you're content to keep La Flor Dominicana a boutique-style of brand. Is that a fair conclusion?
Lorenzo-Gomez: Well, we do need to grow right now. But I feel that one of our goals for the future will be focusing on the international level. Although we are selling overseas, we are not selling the brand everywhere. We would like the consumer to be able to travel to anywhere and find La Flor Dominicana, whether it is London, in Tokyo, any major markets. We are trying to expand in those markets. As it is, I believe we are almost everywhere in the United States that we want to be [for now].
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