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
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And, thanks to a massive domestic distribution network, with salespeople visiting 40,000 stores each week, down to the smallest grocery in the most remote village, a new food division is already selling 13 tons of Tang drink concentrate per week.
Other León family members own book and magazine pub-lishing firms, printing plants and graphics shops. Despite their wealth, none are active in the Dominican Republic's often turbulent politics.
"This is a family of straight arrows," says one admiring competitor in the cigar business. "They like to make money but they avoid politics, educate their kids here instead of the United States and treat their workers better than most."
The United Nation's World Food Organization gave León Jimenes a prize this spring for the program of low-cost harvest loans and assistance it offers to more than 500 tobacco growers in the Cibao each season. The aid promotes small-scale private farming that stands at the root of successful economic growth, the organization says in its citation.
All factory workers get free uniforms, pay half the cost of two daily meals at spotless cafeterias, get two free car washes per week in the company parking lot and can take home up to 30 packs of free cigarettes per month. And, although they can't take home cigars, they can smoke as many as they want at the factory.
"If you're lucky enough to land a job here, you're set for life," says one security guard at the Santiago complex, with 130,000 square meters of land and 50,000 square meters of buildings. "Everyone here has a list of brothers and cousins they want to bring in." Little wonder the cigar division, smallest of the León Jimenes enterprises and probably the least profitable throughout the '70s, '80s and early '90s, lagged somewhat when U.S. cigar sales began soaring in 1993.
Don Fernando, who had worked in tobacco from the age of 15, retired from active management in 1991 and joined his brothers Eduardo, Guillermo and Jose on the board of directors. Jose is now president of the company. Fernando's son Guillermo, the youngest of five brothers and two sisters, is one of five León cousins active in the firm's management.
León Jimenes today has 53 cigar makers, a training center for 50 apprentices and ambitious plans to use its corporate muscle to buy the best leaves, manufacture good cigars and promote them. "We will always be around to offer what the market wants," says Guillermo León.
"Guillermo wants to recover León Jimenes' position in the cigar market. It's a matter of family pride to him," says marketing assistant Giuseppe Schiffino. La Aurora, made with Cuban-seed piloto and a Cameroon wrapper that imparts a mild taste typical of Dominican cigars, is sold in 10 sizes ranging from a 30-ring, 4-inch Fino to a 50-ring, 7 1/2-inch Double Corona. The premium León Jimenes cigars have a bit stronger blend and come in nine sizes, including a glass tube holding a 42-ring, 6 1/2-inch Cristal.
While other Dominican cigar makers have focused their efforts on the booming U.S. market, León Jimenes has done well elsewhere because of Philip Morris' presence in airport duty-free shops around the world. One out of every 12 León Jimenes cigars is sold in a duty-free store, and another 500,000 cigars are sold each year in direct European sales, mostly in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy. "Working with Philip Morris is a truly advantageous deal," says Guillermo León.
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