Litto Gomez and Ines Lorenzo are driving the narrow road back to Santiago after visiting their new tobacco field at La Canela, in the beautiful Valle de Cibao at the heart of the Dominican tobacco growing region. They're a striking couple. Gomez is a handsome man with an electric smile and Lorenzo, his wife, is a statuesque blonde with classic good looks. They might be models returning from a photo shoot instead of owners of one of the Dominican Republic's rising cigar companies. A Dominican group is singing a love song on the CD player and Gomez is describing his passion for tobacco: "Sometimes when I smell a wonderful leaf, I don't want to smoke it, I want to eat it." He goes on, using words like noble and dignified, and in mid-sentence he pulls the car over sharply. Opening his door, he says to a guest, "Come look at this."
A few minutes later, after negotiating a barbed-wire fence in his expensive shoes, Gomez is standing in a field, proudly holding out a tobacco flower. "It's beautiful, no?" he asks. As he examines the soft pink petals, puffing away on his robusto, he looks like a man who's found his love. And it seems all the more appropriate that this flower is the name and symbol of his and Lorenzo's cigar company, La Flor Dominicana, the Dominican Flower.
Since breaking into the tobacco industry nearly four years ago, Gomez and Lorenzo have become one of the major players in the Dominican Republic. Starting with just 150,000 cigars in 1994, when the brand was known as Los Libertadores, La Flor Dominicana quickly expanded production, making three million cigars last year and shooting for four million in 1997. Last year's output included 2.4 million La Flor Dominicanas and 600,000 Habanos Hatueys, which is a stronger blend alternative to the company's main brand, for total sales of $3.6 million.
The couple's rapid ascension in the cigar world wasn't exactly what they had in mind when Gomez and Lorenzo met in 1989 at South Beach in Miami. After his initial overtures went ignored, they ran into each other again at La Guardia Airport, in New York, before boarding the same plane for Miami. Lorenzo made a point of dropping her suitcase to get his attention, which worked, and before long they were dating and eventually married.
Lorenzo was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States with her mother when she was 11. Gomez grew up in Uruguay and in 1973 emigrated to Toronto, where he worked in the restaurant business. In 1981, he moved to Miami, opened a pawnshop, and then operated a jewelry business, until a near-tragic event turned his life around.
One afternoon in 1993, while Gomez and a jewelry maker were alone in the store, two armed men burst through the front door. With a loaded gun pointed at their heads, Gomez and his employee were tied together on the floor. The intruders proceeded to clean out the shop and then bolted, leaving them still tied. A neighbor who happened by could see their bound feet from a back window and immediately called the police. The robbery shook Gomez deeply. He decided that he needed a change and, four months later, he was out of the business for good. Gomez loved cigars and had a number of friends in the tobacco business in the Dominican Republic, so he decided to give cigar making a try.
Los Libertadores, a cigarmaker in the Dominican Republic, offered Gomez a position as the manager of its manufacturing factory in 1994, and he accepted. He had enjoyed smoking cigars in the past, and although he had no history in tobacco, he had always had a great deal of respect for the industry. He saw in this venture a means of finding a new beginning, a new life. Gomez and Lorenzo entered into a partnership with Los Libertadores in early 1994 with the intent of producing high-quality cigars. But the couple soon learned that their partners were more interested in entering the high-volume market of cheaper cigars rather than the premium market that they had envisioned. A serious rift developed that proved irreconcilable.
A year later the partnership of Los Libertadores was dissolved, and although Lorenzo and Gomez owned the Los Libertadores brand, they decided to start fresh with a new brand instead, and La Flor Dominicana was born. The couple, who each own 50 percent of the company, made it their mission to produce high-quality cigars worthy of the proud industry for which they had such high regard. Despite the enthusiastic reception their cigars received from the beginning, they were very much aware that they were newcomers in an industry filled with tobacco bloodlines that in many cases went back for generations. Those great cigar families cast an intimidating shadow and spurred Gomez and Lorenzo to start La Flor Dominicana on solid ground, making every attempt to ensure that their company was worthy of the great tradition of tobacco. They sought the best raw materials, exceptional rollers, and a factory where they could consistently produce fine cigars for their customers at a fair price.
Gomez went to see Oscar Boruchin, owner of Mike's Cigars in Miami, whose wife used to buy jewelry from him, and, as an unknown, showed him some of his cigars. "He was nice enough to receive me at his office," Gomez recalls. On the strength of that single sales call, Boruchin placed an order and became a promoter of Gomez's cigars. At the Cincinnati meeting of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America in 1996, Boruchin pulled aside Lionel Melendi, the owner of De La Concha Tobacconists, in New York, and said, "Come on, Lionel, it's time you buy from these guys." Today, Melendi is one of Gomez's and Lorenzo's best customers as well as their good friend. "Through Oscar we acquired some of our best accounts," Lorenzo says. "We definitely owe him part of our success."
The couple spared no expense in the production of cigars at the state-of-the-art facility they own in Tamboril, outside Santiago, the capital of cigar manufacturing in the Dominican Republic. The factory, a converted disco, is itself something of a showcase. In the entranceway are columns that have been painted to resemble lit cigars, and a huge tobacco flower, the company's logo, bursts from an adjacent stucco wall. Inside, a massive mural of colorful tobacco fields adorns an entire wall, and in the center of the factory floor is an atrium that vaults 20 feet above a raised platform. Here Gomez, Lorenzo and the factory manager, Papito Pichardo, can discuss business. Seated in rattan chairs, they smoke cigars and sip coffee as rollers and sorters work in the background. In a room just off the factory floor is a walk-in humidor paneled with Spanish cedar that holds 330,000 cigars, one of two such storage rooms in the building.
Gomez and Lorenzo started with five rollers in 1994, turning out about 3,000 cigars a week, or 150,000 a year. Today, La Flor Dominicana has 43 rollers, producing about 60,000 cigars a week, more than three million a year, while seated in ergonomically designed office chairs.
Keeping high-quality rollers in a cigar factory is a top priority, especially in the face of exploding competition. Training someone to roll a good cigar takes a minimum of six months; some of the best rollers have been on the job for decades, and their value can't be overstated. New cigar factories, desperate for quality rollers, often try to lure outstanding rollers away from established factories with promises of better pay. This is one of the reasons that Gomez and Lorenzo take great pains to treat their workers well, giving them good pay and benefits and a clean, modern workplace.
Dominican cigar factories generally experience the biggest turnover of rollers at the end of the year. At this time, workers get a check from their employers that reflects how many days they've worked throughout the year, a sort of pay-as-you-go Social Security system. Rollers who have been offered work at other factories won't leave until January, after the bonus money comes in. They are like ballplayers who are free to sign with other teams. But, with few exceptions, the rollers at La Flor Dominicana stay because of the good pay, the congenial atmosphere and the prestige of working for a well-respected cigar company. "I treat them like friends," Gomez says. "I treat them like artists."
Gomez explains that the respect he has for his workers stems from a common bond. He grew up in a poor environment, as did most of his workers, so, he says, "I identify with them."
Manuel Rodriguez, a roller who has been with the company for more than two years, says he stays "because it feels good to work here. It's secure and the pay is good." Besides bright lighting and the ergonomic chairs, he also appreciates the access he has to his bosses. "At other companies, it isn't possible to talk directly to the owner if you have a problem," Rodriguez says. "Here I trust Litto to listen to me, to hear my opinions. He's the best. There are a lot of rollers who want to work for La Flor Dominicana."
Being the owner of a cigar factory in the Dominican Republic also means being sensitive to the passions of the people who work for you. A few years ago, a major dispute broke out over the type of music that was being played on the stereo on the factory floor. "I had to negotiate an agreement about which radio station is being played--in order to stop a war," Gomez says with a smile. At one point, all of the rollers stood to walk out over the issue. "Some wanted bolero, some merengue, others wanted salsa or bachata. I started laughing until I realized it was a major deal." Finally, a schedule of music was worked out and order restored. Luckily, all the women in the back packing room were not involved in the dispute as their work area is in another part of the factory. "They prefer bolero," Gomez confides. "It's more romantic."
In the beginning, acceptance of La Flor Dominicana by many of the established companies came slowly. They didn't know what to make of this new cigar operation with no pedigree. "Tobacco has always been a small family--not a lot of names are there," Gomez says. "There's a huge tradition. Because we didn't have that personal history in tobacco, I did what I did to bring the respect of the others who have that tradition." Once they saw the amount of money, care and commitment to quality that Gomez and Lorenzo were investing in La Flor Dominicana, not to mention the quality of the cigars they turned out, attitudes changed.
Today, the couple are well-respected members of a special group of Dominican cigar makers. La Flor Dominicana, along with a number of other prominent cigar manufacturers, is a member of the Dominican Cigar Association. The association has a representative in the government-run Tobacco Institute who can speak, in one voice, for the group as a way of responding to the nation's increasing efforts to regulate tobacco. At a recent meeting at Santiago's Mesa Note restaurant, Gomez and Lorenzo were joined by Carlos Fuente Jr. of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., Jose Blanco of Tabacalera La Palma, Augusto Reyes of Tabacalera Reyes and Pablo Carbonel of Carbonel Cigars. Apart from providing a show of solidarity, this gathering of tobacco families includes some of the Gomez's and Lorenzo's closest personal friends. Gomez adds, "I think I'm an extremely lucky person. I've always had a lot of help from people in my life."
While Gomez runs the manufacturing end of La Flor Dominicana, Lorenzo runs the company's distribution through their Premium Cigars Co., from its offices in Coral Gables, Florida. "It's a constant challenge to improve what you do even if it is already good," she says. They are constantly exploring new ways of attracting customers--ads, new products and visits to retailers, for example. "When someone smokes a Flor Dominicana," she says, "you want them to say, 'This is better than the last one.' "
Todd Trahan, owner of The Cigar Merchant of Atlanta, says La Flor Dominicana is "one of the best-selling cigars in our humidor, and we carry over 90 brands." He adds that La Flor Dominicana has established a reputation for high quality and has been able to maintain it. "Their quality is outstanding and very consistent, and they haven't had a price increase since we've been carrying them. That's very rare." Trahan adds that La Flor Dominicana is able to deliver its product within four days and there's rarely a back order. "They are wonderful people to deal with."
Lorenzo says that during the recent shortage of premium cigars, with retailers clamoring for their brand, La Flor Dominicana never raised its prices and always made sure that its customers were well supplied. Some of these customers later told the couple that La Flor Dominicana kept them in business. Lorenzo says that their policy is to maintain a commitment to deliver cigars every time a customers reorders, adding that they have been careful to develop a relationship with retailers who are serious about cigars.
Cigar Night at the bar of the Hotel Gran Almirante in Santiago is a weekly event that Gomez, Lorenzo and other luminaries of the Dominican cigar industry attend faithfully. As a local band played a merengue tune on-stage during a recent Cigar Night, Lorenzo and Gomez were seated at a table near the back. A man walked over to Gomez and offered him samples of his handmade cigars. He was about to start a small cigar-manufacturing operation and had sought out the cigarmaker's feedback on two of his prototypes.
They talked for a while, with Gomez listening carefully to the man's plans. He accepted his cigars, which he smoked after the man had left. Upon closer examination, it became obvious that one cigar was poorly constructed, with an uneven wrapper and loose filler. The other was better made. The man, it turned out, was a former employee of La Flor Dominicana whom Gomez had let go. Nonetheless, they have remained friends and Gomez was happy to offer him his advice, adding, "Don't show anyone cigars that you can't deliver later." The encounter spoke to Gomez's attitude about protecting the cigar business. "This industry is about relationships."
As the noise continued around them, Gomez and Lorenzo glanced at each other and smiled. For these two entrepreneurs, partners in both business and marriage, their success in the tobacco industry is tied directly to their own unique relationship.
Jim Daniels is a Maine-based writer-photographer who reports frequently from Latin America.