A Relative Newcomer to the Cigar Industry, La Flor Dominicana Is Taking Root and Blooming
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97
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Gomez and Lorenzo started with five rollers in 1994, turning out about 3,000 cigars a week, or 150,000 a year. Today, La Flor Dominicana has 43 rollers, producing about 60,000 cigars a week, more than three million a year, while seated in ergonomically designed office chairs.
Keeping high-quality rollers in a cigar factory is a top priority, especially in the face of exploding competition. Training someone to roll a good cigar takes a minimum of six months; some of the best rollers have been on the job for decades, and their value can't be overstated. New cigar factories, desperate for quality rollers, often try to lure outstanding rollers away from established factories with promises of better pay. This is one of the reasons that Gomez and Lorenzo take great pains to treat their workers well, giving them good pay and benefits and a clean, modern workplace.
Dominican cigar factories generally experience the biggest turnover of rollers at the end of the year. At this time, workers get a check from their employers that reflects how many days they've worked throughout the year, a sort of pay-as-you-go Social Security system. Rollers who have been offered work at other factories won't leave until January, after the bonus money comes in. They are like ballplayers who are free to sign with other teams. But, with few exceptions, the rollers at La Flor Dominicana stay because of the good pay, the congenial atmosphere and the prestige of working for a well-respected cigar company. "I treat them like friends," Gomez says. "I treat them like artists."
Gomez explains that the respect he has for his workers stems from a common bond. He grew up in a poor environment, as did most of his workers, so, he says, "I identify with them."
Manuel Rodriguez, a roller who has been with the company for more than two years, says he stays "because it feels good to work here. It's secure and the pay is good." Besides bright lighting and the ergonomic chairs, he also appreciates the access he has to his bosses. "At other companies, it isn't possible to talk directly to the owner if you have a problem," Rodriguez says. "Here I trust Litto to listen to me, to hear my opinions. He's the best. There are a lot of rollers who want to work for La Flor Dominicana."
Being the owner of a cigar factory in the Dominican Republic also means being sensitive to the passions of the people who work for you. A few years ago, a major dispute broke out over the type of music that was being played on the stereo on the factory floor. "I had to negotiate an agreement about which radio station is being played--in order to stop a war," Gomez says with a smile. At one point, all of the rollers stood to walk out over the issue. "Some wanted bolero, some merengue, others wanted salsa or bachata. I started laughing until I realized it was a major deal." Finally, a schedule of music was worked out and order restored. Luckily, all the women in the back packing room were not involved in the dispute as their work area is in another part of the factory. "They prefer bolero," Gomez confides. "It's more romantic."
In the beginning, acceptance of La Flor Dominicana by many of the established companies came slowly. They didn't know what to make of this new cigar operation with no pedigree. "Tobacco has always been a small family--not a lot of names are there," Gomez says. "There's a huge tradition. Because we didn't have that personal history in tobacco, I did what I did to bring the respect of the others who have that tradition." Once they saw the amount of money, care and commitment to quality that Gomez and Lorenzo were investing in La Flor Dominicana, not to mention the quality of the cigars they turned out, attitudes changed.
Today, the couple are well-respected members of a special group of Dominican cigar makers. La Flor Dominicana, along with a number of other prominent cigar manufacturers, is a member of the Dominican Cigar Association. The association has a representative in the government-run Tobacco Institute who can speak, in one voice, for the group as a way of responding to the nation's increasing efforts to regulate tobacco. At a recent meeting at Santiago's Mesa Note restaurant, Gomez and Lorenzo were joined by Carlos Fuente Jr. of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., Jose Blanco of Tabacalera La Palma, Augusto Reyes of Tabacalera Reyes and Pablo Carbonel of Carbonel Cigars. Apart from providing a show of solidarity, this gathering of tobacco families includes some of the Gomez's and Lorenzo's closest personal friends. Gomez adds, "I think I'm an extremely lucky person. I've always had a lot of help from people in my life."
While Gomez runs the manufacturing end of La Flor Dominicana, Lorenzo runs the company's distribution through their Premium Cigars Co., from its offices in Coral Gables, Florida. "It's a constant challenge to improve what you do even if it is already good," she says. They are constantly exploring new ways of attracting customers--ads, new products and visits to retailers, for example. "When someone smokes a Flor Dominicana," she says, "you want them to say, 'This is better than the last one.' "
Todd Trahan, owner of The Cigar Merchant of Atlanta, says La Flor Dominicana is "one of the best-selling cigars in our humidor, and we carry over 90 brands." He adds that La Flor Dominicana has established a reputation for high quality and has been able to maintain it. "Their quality is outstanding and very consistent, and they haven't had a price increase since we've been carrying them. That's very rare." Trahan adds that La Flor Dominicana is able to deliver its product within four days and there's rarely a back order. "They are wonderful people to deal with."
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