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Tobacco Man

Henke Kelner, the maker of Davidoff cigars, is a true lover of the leaf and a demanding connoisseur of a good smoke.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 2)

Kelner's manufacturing operation consists of two factories: one for Davidoff, called Tabadom, located on the outskirts of Santiago, and the other in Villa Gonzalez. He has about 550 employees, including about 119 cigar rollers at Tabadom and 110 rollers in Villa Gonzalez. The latter factory produces about 5 million cigars a year, while Tabadom makes more than 6 million. The Swiss-based company Oettinger owns a large chunk of Kelner's firm, although he claims he still retains the majority interest.

"Davidoff would like us to make 18 million cigars a year, because I am sure that we could sell more than 20 million, but we don't want to grow too quickly," says Kelner, who plans to make about 15 million cigars in 1996. "We still have to maintain our quality, and it's difficult if you grow too quickly."

Kelner has come a long way since 1984, when he was a general manager at the Dominican Republic state tobacco company, Tabacalera S.A. An industrial engineer by training, Kelner worked primarily in cigarette production, although he was instrumental in reestablishing a premium cigar factory for the state-run company. "It was really good for me to work in the cigarette business," he says. "The business is very advanced and very high-tech. I learned a lot, especially about tasting, flavors, analysis and other aspects of tobacco. When I decided to go into the cigar business, I decided to apply some of the technologies from the cigarette business to cigars. The cigar industry has been too traditional in the past. New ideas and technologies must be applied to making cigars, as well as maintaining the important traditions."

Watching his two factories in action, a visitor would be hard-pressed to see many innovations. Nearly everything is still done by hand, which follows Kelner's view that making cigars should remain an art. The new ideas and methods Kelner has incorporated at his factories are mostly behind the scenes, in tobacco processing and quality control. It was Kelner's dedication to quality and his frustrations with the government's bureaucratic mentality that had convinced him to leave his state job and strike out on his own. "I had some major problems with people working for the state," he recalls. "I basically treated my job like I was in a private company, and that didn't go over so well. I loved my job because I loved tobacco, but one day I decided that it wasn't worth it anymore. I wasn't making that much money and I was always fighting with people."

In 1984, after nearly 15 years with the state tobacco group, Kelner founded his own cigar business. He discovered that it was relatively inexpensive to get started. With loans from friends and family, he opened his first factory--the same one that now makes Davidoff cigars and a few other brands in Santiago. "I started off with $8,000 of my own money," he says with a laugh. "In total, the investment was about $80,000. We started making The Griffin's brand and inexpensive bundled cigars. We didn't have many contacts in the industry. We were making less than 1 million cigars in the first year. In the second year, we were up to about 1.5 million and by the third year, we were close to 2 million."

Remarkably, Kelner never thought about making his own brand at the time, although the thought does cross his mind from time to time. "Of course, I have thought about it," he says. "I would love to have my own brand, a Kelner brand. But my customers might start thinking that I am using my best tobacco, my best rollers for my brand and not theirs. I don't need that. For me, it is more important to make very good cigars for my customers. I don't need the fame of my own brand."

He definitely has plenty to contend with already, as production is soaring for most of his major brands. In 1995, production from both factories totaled: Davidoff, 5.5 million; Avo, 1.4 million; The Griffin's, 1.2 million; Paul Garmirian, 600,000; and Troya, 300,000. Kelner's forecast for 1996 is 6 million Davidoffs, 2 million Avos, 2 million The Griffin's, 700,000 Paul Garmirians and 300,000 Troyas.

In addition, Kelner has a few experimental projects under way, such as growing a couple of acres of shade- and sun-grown tobacco for wrappers. "I am very excited by these projects," he says. "The quality is very good. I don't think that I would get into the wrapper tobacco business. It's too expensive and I have enough going already. But maybe I can interest another company to do so."

Kelner is always brewing up new ideas. He never seems completely satisfied. After lunch at his home in Santiago, with his wife, Enilda, and five children (the oldest is 22 and the youngest is two), Kelner sits with a small glass of Spanish brandy and a Davidoff double corona. He puffs on the cigar and talks about life--family, cigars, friends, wine and just about anything else that comes to mind. The man looks totally content, but then someone brings up Cuba. Kelner perks up, puts down his glass and thinks for a moment. "I would love to make cigars with Cuban tobacco," he says with an almost dreamy look in his eyes, as he watches the smoke from his cigar float into the room. "But it would be a blend. I am sure that Cuban tobacco and Dominican tobacco would work well together."

Who knows what the future holds for Kelner. Cuban cigars, Dominican wrapper leaf--there doesn't appear to be much that Kelner can't do with tobacco when he puts his mind to it.

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