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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

Montecristo. H. Upmann. Romeo y Julieta. They're three of the biggest names in Dominican cigars, and they' re made by one man. Odds are, you don' t know his name.

Jose A. Seijas isn't nearly as famous as many of his contemporaries in the Dominican Republic, but he runs Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., the factory that makes that troika of brands and a score of others. The 270,000-square-foot factory is one of the biggest on the planet, fitting because its owner—Altadis—is the world's largest cigar company.

"I don't do cigars for me, I do cigars for the market," says Seijas, sipping a coffee in his office. Many of the better known cigarmakers are Cuban, but Seijas was born in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. His father, Miguel, born and bred in La Romana, twice served as the mayor of the town, in the 1970s and '90s. Seijas didn't follow him into politics. Instead, he went to school to study industrial engineering.

Most of his engineering books were in English, which helped him learn the language. At age 24, Seijas was hired by Tabacalera de Garcia to analyze crops and perform other quality-control jobs in La Romana.

Twenty-six years later, the 50-year-old is now vice president, general manager of Tabacalera de Garcia. He's tall and fit, strong enough to hammer a golf ball 300 yards and skilled enough to keep it on the short grass—most of the time. Despite his beard, he could pass for a decade younger. He has three children—daughter Karen, who is 24, and two sons, Ricardo, 17, and Enrique, 16. He has been married to his wife, Carmen, for 27 years.

Friends and associates in the business call him Josechu. It's a Basque name meaning Little José that was given him by an uncle who lived in Bilbao, Spain, when Seijas was a child. The nickname followed him through his professional career -- even if it is mispronounced at times.

The door to the office is open. His desk is crowded, but not quite cluttered, with a tray of fresh cigars that need to be tasted in lieu of an "in" box. Cigars in boxes sit atop a row of books on his credenza, and cigars in humidors sit on a coffee table. Still more cigars, unbanded ones, lie in a row on his desk.

Seijas has been especially busy lately. His operation in La Romana has quietly become the heart of Altadis's American brand portfolio. Altadis was formed in December 1999, the merger of two of Europe's biggest tobacco companies, Tabacalera S.A. of Spain and SEITA S.A. of France. Both companies had been on buying sprees to build up a presence in the U.S. market—the merger left Altadis with an excess of production capacity in a post-cigar-boom America.

The company shut down Tabacalera Nacional Dominicana—a cigar factory near Santiago that made Romeo y Julieta and VegaFina cigars. Those brands have been brought here to Tabacalera de Garcia, and now Seijas watches over their construction. The world's biggest cigar company is consolidating, and that's making Tabacalera de Garcia—and Seijas—a more important part of the company.

Tabacalera de Garcia processes 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of tobacco a week. About a quarter goes into the factory's handmade cigars, and the rest is either fed to the machines that make mass-market cigars or is shipped to other plants. The factory at full capacity can produce about 60 million handmade cigars a year.

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