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Portrait of León Herbert

La Aurora – The History of Five Generations in the Tobacco Industry

Family, famiy, family. This is the key word to understanding La Aurora. A company that is over 100 years old and maintains a horizontal corporate structure – despite the fact that it has more than 1,000 employees, despite its annual production of over one billion cigars, despite its size, and where the door of the president, Guillermo León Herbert, is always open.

He is already in his office early in the morning: he’s one of the first to arrive at the factory and one of the last to leave. He often works on Saturdays, and he makes the decisions for every facet of the factory’s daily business – on a horizontal level, the way it’s supposed to be in a family.

With a president who participates so much, it’s no wonder that the standard of all the employees is so high. “At La Aurora, the most important thing is the human capital,” explains Guillermo León to us, slowly and with a lot of calmness, fully conscious of the importance of the values that he has inherited from his predecessors. “ The company was founded by my grandfather, Eduardo León Jimenes, in 1903. He was succeeded by my father, Fernando León Asensio, and my uncles, Eduardo, Guillermo and José. They had a clear vision of how to put together a team, a team that is not only highly qualified but also proud to belong to the family of La Aurora.”

THE FIFTH GENERATION

But even before Eduardo León Jimenes, there were two tobacco workers in the family: Antonio Gabino León and Elías León, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, respectively, of Guillermo León Herbert, and thus the first and second generations of León in the tobacco business and testimony tot he family’s rural origins, which they never deny. Quite the contrary. In Guillermo’s office one can see the León’s profession of faith, a creed that has been signed by all the family members and which they proudly claim for themselves: “Family of rural origins, steeled by continuous work and strong sun,” and they dedicate themselves to “working for the common good, to integrity, authenticity, honesty, steadfastness, respectability, and to passion for excellence.”

“La Aurora is a company whose origins are 100 percent Dominican, from which a series of values arise that have been passed down from generation to generation. They have given sense to our 113-year-old history,” repeats Guillermo León, a man whose word means as much as if he had signed piece of paper. “ The quality in the production processes, in all their details, is very important to us. Our system of quality control is very elaborate, in order for us to guarantee that the products our consumers hold in their hands surpass their expectations.”

And finally, we get to the topics of time and consistency of taste. It is a known fact that everything that has to do with tobacco costs money, and that the more time it takes to process tobacco, the more money it costs. However, “Time is scared. Each tobacco needs its own time for drying, for fermentation, for maturing and resting in the aging room. If you don’t take into account the necessary time span of the individual processes, you can’t make a good product. And, although it significantly raises our production costs, we give the tobacco the time it needs to reach its optimum condition.”

Photo: Tony Nunez

OCTOBER 3, 1903

The tradition goes back even further, but it was on October 3, 1903, when Eduardo León Jimenes, son and grandson of tobacco farmers, decided to go one step further than was planned in the family tradition of tobacco cultivation. Aged only 18, he founded the cigar factory La Aurora in Guazumal in the province Santiago de los Caballeros. “It was already my grandfather who dreamed of creating a cigar brand of global proportions,” Guillermo assures us. “His beginnings were very modest, with a few hectares of land and only six tobacco rollers. Back then, he manufactured Double Figurados; today they are known as La Aurora Preferidos, or Edición 1903.” About how the brand got its name is under discussion. Some claim that Eduardo León dedicated it to the wife of one of his Father’s neighbors, the woman who had given him the courage to found his factory. Indeed, a woman was pictured on the first label of the cigars, in the middle. Guillermo León, however, believes that the name, because it is used with the Spanish article “la,” could also refer to “a new day” or “dawn” which would explain why the sun rise is also depicted on the label. Perhaps both stories are true.

But what is not in doubt is that business ran well, thanks to the initiative of Eduardo León and his loyal brother, Herminio León, and the factory was moved to the Calle Independencia in Santiago de los Caballeros in 1912. Today, the yellow factory, with its huge, colonial-style windows, and also the lion, is the company symbol of the brand.

Yet the true revolution of La Aurora did not begin until 1930. In that year, although La Aurora remained intact as the cigar brand name, the company was changed to E. León Jimenes C. por A., a joint-stock company, which is indicative of the extent to which the volume of production had increased. Eduardo León died in the year 1937, and his brother Herminio took over the reins of the company. His nephews, Eduardo and Fernando, were still too young to take the lead. With huge support from Eduardo’s widow, Mayún Asensio, Herminio made it his job to pass on the values of the family to the next generation. Furthermore, Herminio León was also an excellent connoisseur of the fields and of the plant itself. He passed on his love for tobacco to his nephew Fernando León, father of the current president, Guillermo León Herbert.

Locally, many stories are told about Fernando. He is the fourth generation of the Leóns in the tobacco business. He’s an upstanding fellow who demands a lot, but who is fair and, due to his great knowledge, earned the respect of the Dominican farmers. He found a great teacher in his uncle. “My Uncle Herminio gave my father his education,” recounts Guillermo León. “One time, a farmer placed some very nice tobacco in front of him, and Herminio refused it. When my father asked him why he didn’t want it, his uncle explained that, the year before, the field had been used for the growing of guineos (the small, ne Dominican bananas), which the farmer also affirmed, and therefore the tobacco would not burn well.”

DAWN OF A NEW TIME

The dictatorship under Leónidas Trujillo did not leave the Dominican tobacco industry untouched. The “generalísimo” tried to suffocate the factories with random taxes and laws in order to create one single, national tobacco industry under his leadership.

La Aurora was able to withstand the governmental pressure and, in 1963, after the death of the dictator, the brothers León Asensio undertook the next step. During Trujillo’s rule, without investments, the situation was di cult, but La Aurora was a solid business and offered the necessary liquidity to open a cigarette factory in that year.

The cigarette brand La Aurora of that time no longer exists today. Six years later, this factory had its definitive breakthrough when it entered into a partnership with Philip Morris to produce Marlboro. La Aurora became the core of what would develop into one of the Dominican Republic’s biggest company groups: the León Jimenes Group, which, after it entered the beer industry and acquired the brewery Cervecería Nacional Dominicana (Presidente beer), represented 10 percent of the total tax revenues of the Dominican state treasury in the year 2000.

Photo: Tony Nunez

“That was when the new time for La Aurora dawned,” determines Guillermo León. “In 2011, we separated from the León Jimenes group. We went back to Guazumal, to our origins in Tamboril, and then concentrated on the production of cigars and other high-quality products.” And what Guillermo says is true. For, since 2013, La Aurora markets the rum La Aurora 110 Aniversario, a high-quality spirit, manufactured from a blend of reserves, which undergo additional aging in sherry barrels and of which only 3,000 bottles are released on the market per year. It is a rum that has been designated by the American Spirit Association as one of the best in the world.

Guillermo León inherited from his father, Fernando León, the high demand for quality, which can be seen in the smallest of details. He is a reserved person, who prefers hard work to the spotlight. One often sees him at the Procigar Festivals standing a step behind the other manufacturers, or sitting at the end of the table at the festival press conferences.

He has a different philosophy: “My grandfather Eduardo’s dream to create a cigar brand of international renown has been realized,” he says with modesty, but also with great satisfaction. “Today, La Aurora is known in over 60 countries and is sold in as many nations. And we are continually growing. That’s why it’s a good time to pass on our knowledge and our passion for tobacco. This target we are pursuing with the La Aurora Cigar Institute, which is the first in the world to offer courses in the field of tobacco.”

LA AURORA CIGAR INSTITUTE

The project, which really started to get ahead in 2016, is about more than just the tobacco industry. It also examines the dissemination and appreciation of Dominican tobacco culture: in the La Aurora Cigar Institute.

Guillermo León has rounded up some of the most well-known tobacco experts, such as Daniel Núñez and Benji Menéndez, who impart their enormous knowledge within the courses that are offered. “Our goal is to sustainably maintain and pass on this essential part of the Dominican culture,” assures Guillermo León. To this end, the company built a new building with two halls, each with a capacity for 60 students. In addition, there is a permanent exhibition about the preindustrial processes surrounding tobacco, a museum, which tells the 113-year-old history of La Aurora, and a smoking lounge.

“My family has been dedicating itself to tobacco for five generations. We are thankful to it for everything that we are, what we have achieved, and what we stand for,” Guillermo León concludes. “ The La Aurora Cigar World is our way of partly repaying the great debt we owe to tobacco.”

This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2016. Read more

Javier Blanco Urgoiti

Javier Blanco Urgoiti is a Spanish journalist who is crazy about the processes surrounding tobacco that take place before its manufacturing in the cigar factory – in particular the secrets of tobacco cultivation. This is an area in which he tirelessly tries to educate himself. Javier started smoking and writing about cigars in 1998, initially for the Spanish magazines La boutique del fumador and La cava de cigarros, and later, as chief press officer at La Aurora, the oldest tobacco factory in the Dominican Republic. Now he writes for Cigar Journal as a correspondent in Spain.


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