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Milestones: 100 Years of La Aurora

The Dominican Republic's first cigarmaker celebrates its century mark
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 1)

Trujillo's assassination in 1961 created more civil unrest, but it opened the door to allow La Aurora to grow. "As soon as he was killed, we began to establish contracts. We started building the [cigarette] factory right after Trujillo's death," says León. By 1963, La Aurora was making cigarettes, and six years later the company had forged a relationship that continues to this day with Philip Morris. The American cigarette giant owns a minority stake in Empresa León Jimenes, which produces Marlboros for the Dominican Republic.

The money from cigarettes began to turn La Aurora into a giant, and it steered the company toward its next grand venture: beer. In 1980, Empresa León Jimenes bought a brewery in Alaska, and actually shipped the brewery by boat to the Caribbean. "We didn't expect to take over the market in a day," says León. "The first year we had 28 percent of the market. From then on, it was uphill, a big fight." When yet more local turmoil made it impossible for foreign companies to repatriate profits, the Leóns bought their largest competitor. "Now we have 98 percent of the market," León says. León Jimenes brews some Heineken and Miller beer, but its king brand is Presidente, which can be found—ice cold—almost anywhere in the Dominican Republic.

With virtually all of the Dominican cigarette market and even more of the country's beer market, one wonders—why make cigars at all? La Aurora is the oldest Dominican cigar company, with the nation's oldest brand, but its annual production is relatively small. The company says it makes 8 million cigars a year. In addition to the La Aurora brand, the company has made León Jimenes since 1987, and last year it introduced Indepencia, an inexpensive line of Dominican-wrapped smokes. It also produces small, handmade flavored cigars packed in tins for C.A.O. International Inc.

Cigars account for only 1 percent of León Jimenes's sales, and even during the peak of the cigar boom, profits from cigars paled in comparison with its twin core businesses.

"The margins on cigars and the output of cigars is not very great. We know cigars will always be a much smaller business," says León. "We find our profits satisfactory, but it's nothing to speak of."

Would La Aurora sell its cigar business? "No," answers León. "How can you sell a son?"

León's youngest son, Guillermo, 43, has run La Aurora's cigar business for most of the past decade. He responds in similar fashion to his father when asked if the parent would ever sell the cigar company. "Never. This is the mother of the whole group. Even if it is not profitable like the other [segments] of the group, we give very much importance to cigars."

As a symbol of that significance, La Aurora planned to release a celebratory line of Dominican puros called Aurora Cien Años, Spanish for 100 years, to celebrate its milestone.

"It's a one-time deal, only 400,000 cigars," says Jose R. Blanco, the amiable, baseball-loving sales director of La Aurora. "It will be a strong cigar, Cuban-like flavor. It's Corojo wrapper and it has a lot of Corojo filler. All of our tobacco."

To prepare for the project, La Aurora has been trying to grow the troublesome Corojo seed in its home country for this special cigar. The company lost about half its crop in 2001/2002 due to blue mold, a testament to the difficulties of the seed variety, which is prized for its flavor but loathed for its vulnerability. "It's one of the hardest seeds to grow, in any part of the world," says Blanco. "The yield on it is terrible. A lot of it has to become binder and filler."

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