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The Dominican Cigar Explosion

With 1996 Cigar Exports up 70.9 Percent to About 140 Million, Cigarmakers in the Dominican Republic Have Shifted into High Gear
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 2)

The largest hit was felt at Tabacalera A. Fuente, in the room where all Fuente Fuente Opus X cigars are made. "We lost about 30 percent of the Fuente Fuente Opus X makers; that's nine to 10 people," says company president Carlos Fuente Jr. "Our production is way down." Fuente estimates that the loss of rollers would mean 25 percent less shipments of Fuente Fuente Opus X over the first half of 1997.

Fuente plans to open factories in the towns where he's losing the most rollers, including a 40,000-square-foot factory in Villa Gon-zález. Next year he may open a factory in Tamboril. Fuente says the factories will be his "Guantánamo Bays" to head off the competitors. "I hate to do it," he says, "but if you have a herd of cattle and there's a pack of wolves nipping at them, you have to bring out the cowboys with Winchesters."

Some cigar rollers don't even bother leaving factories; they simply work two jobs. "What can I do about it?" says Jean Clement, the owner of Tabacos Quisqueyanas S.A., producers of Juan Clemente cigars. "I already lost my best roller. If they finish their work and do a good job, what can I say about it? But sometimes they come in late or they are tired from their other job."

Something is being done about it. Most of the major factories are training hundreds of new rollers; some estimates place the total number of new rollers between 1,000 and 2,000. "I want to train more and more people," says Kelner. "Then I won't care if we lose people, because the people who go are the wrong sort of people to have anyway."

Many of the new rollers, and those in training, have come from the region's strong textile trade. The cigar boom has brought higher wages to the tobacco sector, and many textile workers see tobacco as better employment. Now it's hard for some textile companies to find workers. "The quality of the new rollers we are getting is fantastic," says Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, the owner of El Credito Cigars, which runs factories in Miami and Villa González. "I never thought that they could learn so fast and roll so well. It's amazing."

It's not only workers from the textiles industry who are seizing the opportunities created by the cigar boom. From tobacco sorter to factory manager, the cigar trade is providing a viable occupational alternative for many Dominicans. "It wasn't possible before to work in tobacco," says Marco Antuna, an industrial engineer with Puros de Villa González S.A., a large tobacco processor that recently began making cigars. "I still have a business in computers, but I am so interested in tobacco and the pay is better now, that I decided to get into the business."

Everybody here seems to be getting into the cigar business. "There are many positive things that have been here in Santiago since the cigar boom, but there are negative things, too," says Manuel Quesada (Alvaro Quesada's brother), who owns Matasa, maker of Fonseca and Romeo y Julieta cigars. "If the foundation is not solid, if it is not based around quality, it could all come crumbling down in a few years. That is what I am afraid of."

Manuel Quesada echoes the views of most established cigar producers in the Dominican Republic. While they are extremely happy with the increase in business and the improvements on the island, the downside is that the business has become a cash grab for many. "The problem is that a lot of people in the business now are in it just for the money," says Kelner. "They don't care about tobacco. They are not really interested in cigars."

David Savona, senior editor of Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider, a monthly newsletter by the publisher of Cigar Aficionado, contributed to this report.

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