Father and son have received us cordially. However, presently only the son is speaking, while Kelner Sr. seems to be waiting to see how the conversation is developing. Once we start throwing in some quick questions, Hendrik „Henke“ Kelner joins in on the conversation more and more, and finally takes it over completely. Hendrik recounts his life story and the development of his cigar manufactory in an almost mischevious way. Even his father, Klaas Kelner, was involved with the planting, fermenting and export of tobacco. In 1937, he emigrated from Holland to the Dominican Republic, where he married.
In Santiago de los Caballeros, on the 16th of December 1945, his wife gave birth to a son-Hendrik. Originally, his father had imagined another life for Hendrik and sent him to the Institute of Monterrey in Mexico, where he was trained as an industrial engineer. However, dealing with tobacco ran through Hendrik’s blood and the love for this exquisite product was by far stronger than the plans of his father. Accordingly, in 1969 Hendrik began to work in the state-owned Tabacalera in Santiago, which produced cigarettes and a few cigars. He soon worked his way up to the position of production manager for Carlo and other cigar brands; in 1978 he became general manager.
After 14 years at the Tabacalera, Hendrik Kelner wanted to reform cigar production, which however proved rather difficult in a government-owned factory. Therefore, he gave up his secure job in order to plunge into the adventure of his own cigar production. Commitment, imagination, entrepreneurial spirit and instinct, together with specialist expertise about choice tobacco were the components making it possible for Hendrik Kelner to establish “Tabacos Dominicanos (today ”Tabadom Holding’’).
Enthusiasm and Know-How
From then on, Hendrik was in full swing; full of enthusiasm, he is describing the beginning of his cigar production. The interview develops into a lively warm discussion, creating the impression that Hendrik feels transferred into former times while enthusiastically describing the development of “Tabacos Dominicanos”. His words, but also his lively body language, fully express his love for tobacco. With every drawn his cigar his words are even more emphasized: “Duringmy entire life I have loved tobacco, grown up with it, and worked with it. With a small start-up capital of 15,000 U.S. dollars, he established his first factory with six cigar rollers. In 1985, Kelner was producing 900,000 cigars, and by 1997 that grew to 22 million. By then Kelner’s cigar factory had reached its capacity limits; further plants had to be constructed. He decided to manage three factories: Cidav Corp. produces cigars exclusively under the Davidoff name. The brands of Avo, Griffin’s, Zino, and other long-filler cigars are made in the O.K. Cigars Corp., and the third in this group is the Occidental Cigars Corp.
All those manufactories are now integrated into the „Tabadom Holding“; the buildings are in Jicomé, Villa González and Santiago. The tobacco for all the cigars comes for the most part from the best plantations of the Cibao Valley. During his elaborations, which he expresses with visible pride, Hendrik also explains how the „O.K.“ designation came into existence: „The name should have been simple and easy to memorize. O.K. is the most widely used abbreviation in the world and the K stands for Kelner“, he adds with a smile. Through all his gestures, Hendrik expresses his joy of work, his keen sense for tobacco and his love for cigars. There is hardly a moment during which Hendrik isn’t holding a cigar in his hand. In answering the question about how ma cigars he is smoking per day, he hesitates. This is because he is not smoking the cigars entirely (which is explaining the half-smoked cigars on his desk).
Instead, he is often switching them, smoking various cigars. This is the best way he can evaluate cigars, therefore leading to their improvement in terms of quality. However, could he figure out how many cigars that is, if all the cigar sections smoked by him would be totaled together? After thinking about it briefly, Hendrik responds with the following answer: “Approximately 20 inches per day” (1 inch = 2.5 cm). Does he smoke daily? “Yes, except on the weekends, for the sake of my family and to give the skin, mouth and tongue a period of recuperation”, ex plains Hendrik with a smile.
Affectionate and Heeding The Highest Quality
Before we begin the tour of the Davidoff cigar manufactory Hendrik allows me to choose a cigar and lights it in an expert fashion. The tobacco leaves which are harvested from 360 hectares of plantations are prepared in gigantic halls and expertly rolled into cigars. Seventy percent of the 530 rollers are men. There are 235 workdays per year. On the average, a roller produces 212 cigars per day. In 2006 this resulted in a production of 26.4 million cigars. In 2007, he will have 600 rollers and a total of 1,450 employees. Women are also working as rollers, however the majority of the female personnel are involved in special production areas (processing of cigar leaves, selection of the cigars according to color, sorting, wrapping).
During the rounds, Hendrik patiently fulfills my request by patiently positioning himself next to the rollers for the photos. In doing so, he also enjoys exchanging a couple of words with the locals and one realizes his rather affectionate relationship with these employees. Though, unlike his son, he is not in the production area every day, he does however consider it to be important to take a look at each of the individual production steps as often as possible. „Only this way can quality improvements still be achieved.
Back again on the executive floor, Hendrik lights a fresh cigar, draws on it a couple of times and examines its burning behavior. After giving some instructions to his secretary, he discusses with his son the quality of the cigar which he is currently smoking. After a couple of further draws, Hendrik passes the cigar on to me and asks me for my opinion. Excellent – there are good reasons that cigars from the Davidoff company be long among the best in the world. And with visible pride Herndrik puffs away on his cigar while, as President of the Dominican „ProCigar“ Association, he is explaining to us the route to other tobacco factories and says goodbye to us like old friends.