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The Quiet Man

You might not know José Seijas, but you probably smoke his cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

(continued from page 2)

"The first week we implemented the system, we rejected 35 percent of our production," says Seijas. "Now, we reject 2 to 3 percent."

The move to making cigars by hand helped the Dominican H. Upmann, Don Diego and all the other brands from Tabacalera de Garcia become serious players in the American market. H. Upmann is one of the top 10 premium brands sold in America.

"Ever since we did that change, this company has been enjoying increasing sales, increasing production," says Seijas.

It's hard to imagine a more pleasant place to work than La Romana, a town on the country's southeastern coast. The factory is a five-minute drive from Casa de Campo, the world-class resort owned by the Fanjul family, the sugar barons of Florida. Steps from the small airport that sits next to the resort, waves of the blue Caribbean crash alongside the all-too-tight fairways of Teeth of the Dog, the resort's Pete Dye golf course. It consistently rates among the world's best and it's a constant lure for Seijas, a passionate golfer who sports an 11 handicap.

Despite the draw of the sea and golf, Tabacalera de Garcia is the only cigar factory in La Romana—nearly all of the other ones in the Dominican Republic are clustered in and around Santiago, a manufacturing city well to the west. No commercial flights connect the two towns, just a traffic-laden, often dangerous road and a four-hour drive. In the cigar world, La Romana is isolated, and that benefited Seijas during the cigar boom; while his counterparts in Santiago were losing cigar rollers to newcomers, Seijas's workers stayed put.

The shelves behind Seijas's desk are jammed with books about business. Reading up on business practices is a Seijas hobby, perhaps as a result of the interesting slew of mergers and acquisitions he's watched from ringside in his 26 years with the company. Billionaire Ronald O. Perelman has twice bought and sold Consolidated: in 1984 he bought it for $118 million, only to sell it four years later for $138 million. He bought back the business in 1993 for $181 million and took it public in 1996, only to sell the company in 1999 for a blockbuster $733 million (including $200 million worth of long-term debt) to SEITA. In between there was a management-led leveraged buyout—enough business activity to send anyone short of Henry Kravis running straight to the business library.

"It's like I worked in four or five different companies," says Seijas, "but despite the company being sold many times in the last 17 years, there has been great stability in the senior management, and the direction of the company has been constant since August of '84, striving to make, what we feel, are the best cigars in the world."

In the sprawling factory, Seijas has divided the workers by cigar brand. Montecristo rollers sit in one area, for example, Por Larrañaga makers another. "I try to have smaller factories under one roof," he says.

Seijas has introduced a number of innovations in the factory. A roller finishes the cap on a Montecristo robusto, then places the cigar in a little tray on top of his rolling station, apart from his others. The cigarmakers have been instructed to select the best of their work for that tray, which is the first thing that a supervisor will inspect, to gauge a worker's idea of how great cigars should look.

Many of the cigar rollers use little wheeled cutters on sticks to trim wrapper tobacco instead of chavetas, the traditional crescent-shaped knives in the cigar business.

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