The massive wooden tobacco barns that are clustered on the lush Copata farm in Mao, Dominican Republic, look out of place. Curing barns in this country are often rickety structures with thatched roofs and open sides, but these solid barns, baked Nantucket gray by the sun in this agricultural town west of Santiago, are proud, tall and long, each brimming with cigar tobacco. A woman in a white, corporate polo shirt steps outside of one, walking from the darkness into bright sunshine. Surrounded by 1,200 acres of fertile tobacco farmland, she might also appear out of place to some because she is a key player in the male-dominated cigar industry and has been instrumental in bringing these barns here, with the hope of producing higher grades of tobacco.
"To go from the culture of filler tobacco to binders and wrappers, it's little by little," says Modesta Fondeur, 58, executive vice president of tobacco, manufacturing and operations for General Cigar Co., one of the world's leading handmade cigar producers. For five years, General has built up this farm, improving the type of leaf it grows. Every cigar it makes in the Dominican Republic now has some tobacco from here. "You cannot do this quickly, from one day to the next. It has to be little by little," she says. "So we don't make mistakes."
One of the most powerful women in the entire industry, Fondeur supervises the nearly 6,000 employees in the Dominican Republic and Honduras, who make such storied cigar brands as Macanudo, Partagas and Punch and grow the tons of tobacco required to keep each brand moving from factory to cigar shop. To her, being here is natural. "I never thought 'I have to work harder, because I'm a woman,' " she says. "It's a matter of what you can do."
Fondeur, who celebrated her 34th year with the company in June, was hired straight from college in 1975 by General's former parent company, Culbro Tobacco. In those days, Culbro was merely sorting tobacco in the Dominican Republic; now General rolls cigars here by the tens of millions and grows filler, binder and even wrapper tobacco on this farm. Fondeur began her career as a controller, but an innate curiosity and skeptic's eye found her exploring areas of the business beyond her desk and well outside of the ledger books. "As a controller, you have to see what is happening," she says in lightly accented English, quietly confident. "You have to see that what's on the books is the real thing."
She finds her economic background a boon, giving her an atypical perspective on the business. "Most people started in operations. I started in the reverse," she says. "Most tobacco people are very good at making cigars, fermenting tobacco, but not when you ask 'What's the cost of this?'"
Born and raised in Santiago, Fondeur begins each day with a short cup of Dominican coffee made in a greca, a coffeemaker most commonly used to make espresso on a stove top. She pairs it with a small cigar, such as a Cohiba Miniature. "I love the miniatures," she says. "I don't like overpowering cigars, and I don't like big cigars." She once smoked cigarettes, but moved to cigars when a 1990s promotion brought her into the manufacturing side of the business. "You have to try them," she says with her broad smile. "There's no way you can do it if you don't try."