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Normalcy in the Dominican Republic

The gold rush days of the cigar boom are gone, and so are most of the quick-buck artists who flocked to the Dominican Republic
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

(continued from page 3)

As he unwraps a set of new cigar molds for an experimental shape that he's testing, Fuente Jr. looks as happy as a teenager who has just stumbled onto a secret trove of fireworks. "I've never been so excited about the cigar business in my life," he says, smiling.   Not all of the survivors are prospering. "I am selling the same quantity of cigars, but I'm making less money," says Blanco. Beneath him lies a mountain of tobacco bales. "I have expensive inventory, and the customers want better prices."  

UST Industries International Inc., a Dominican factory owned by smokeless tobacco giant UST Inc., is nearly deserted. Six cigarmakers--three bunchers and three rollers--are making cigars in a large rolling room filled with empty benches. Piles of wooden cigar molds are stacked in a corner, unused, and the aging room is full of Habano Primero cigars.  

"When we started this thing, there was the big boom and people were stealing cigarmakers, and the free zones were full. So we created our own free zone," says Bent Ahm, 49, the manager of the plant. He pours honey into his morning coffee as he sits at a desk covered with experimental cigars. "It's a little tough to have all that tobacco sitting around, but I think it will be an advantage soon."  

One of his company's most original ideas is Habano Primero 365, a cigar aged for one year. To prove to the world that the cigars truly have that much age, they have been packed in bundles and sealed in cheesecloth with notarized bands inside the company's aging room. They will be released beginning in August.  

Innovative ideas such as that help to make the Dominican Republic such a valued source of cigars for the U.S. market. Thanks to the slowdown, many Dominican cigarmakers believe that their best cigars are soon to come. General Cigar Dominicana is creating figurado shapes of its Macanudo and Partagas cigars. Gomez is starting to ship a Cabinet selection version of his La Flor Dominicana 2000 Series cigars. A row of cigarmakers makes the elaborate cuts on cigar wrappers needed to roll zeppelin-shaped Avo Domaine 20 cigars.  

"I'm positive that the quality of cigars is being improved a lot," says Guillermo León, the executive vice president of La Aurora S.A., the maker of Aurora and León Jimenes cigars. Many people call the 39-year-old the Prince of the Dominican Republic, a nod to L. León Jimenes CXA, the parent company of La Aurora and the largest company in the Dominican Republic: it brews Presidente and Heineken beers, and makes Marlboro cigarettes, Tang and, of course, cigars. The company's Santiago factory is immaculate and sprawling. Security guards wear crisp uniforms, the grass is as closely cropped as a marine's hair and every surface seems spit-shined. "It's Disneyland," says a friendly competitor. He's not joking.   Like several cigarmakers, León had to cut back on the number of cigar rollers he employed in early 1999 because he simply had too many cigars. By the summer, he began rehiring workers. "We have back orders again on a few shapes," he says. Sitting atop two to three years' inventory of tobacco, León is confident that the calmer market is allowing his company to make better cigars. He recently turned heads with the release of his Aurora 1903 Preferido, a classic perfecto cigar that looks like the cigars made popular 100 years ago.  

Of the current atmosphere León says, "It's better for everybody."   Back at Matasa, Quesada offers a prototype cigar to a visitor, who swears to keep mum on the project. The boom has turned Matasa into one of the more attractive cigar factories in the country. Marble floors, rich wooden walls and smartly decorated offices have replaced the beat-up furniture, stained floors and cheap wood paneling that once defined Matasa. Still, Quesada can't but help referring to his place as a dump...with a smile.  

"The emphasis has gone from supply to demand," says Quesada. His family has been in the tobacco business for more than 100 years, and 25 years ago he and his father became one of the first cigarmakers to set up shop in Santiago's first free trade zone. Today, Matasa is squeezed between a Fuente cigar factory and a plant that makes Levi's jeans. The Santiago free trade zone has never been busier, but Quesada is enjoying the relative calm.   "We used to sit here and field all types of people clamoring for cigars. And we didn't have time for anything else," he says. "Now it's back to what it used to be, where you dedicate yourself to preparing the tobacco, making the cigars and selling the cigars. So the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed."  

He can feel the change. He sits back in his chair and draws on a Fonseca Vintage, reflecting on the new atmosphere as a refreshing breeze blows through the open window. "For the first time in seven years, I was able to leave at five o'clock to play tennis," says Quesada. The ash on his cigar glows red for a moment, then slowly fades. "Things are much more relaxed now."   

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