Henke Kelner Procigar

Photo Credit: Procigar

This year, we had an opportunity to ask Hendrick “Henke” Kelner, the President of Procigar, questions. Henke is one of the legendary figures in the cigar industry. He was best known for founding and running the TABADOM factory for Davidoff. He has worked in all aspects of the cigar business, including agronomy, production, and blending, and has also served as a brand ambassador. For the past 32 years, Kelner has served as the President of Procigar, the organization of leading cigar manufacturers based in the Dominican Republic.

For these questions, we focused on Procigar and the Procigar Festival.

1. Why was Procigar formed in the first place?

Henke Kelner: In 1991, the United States government imposed an embargo on Nicaragua, prohibiting the export of cigars to the United States, even though Nicaragua only had 17% of the market at that time. This situation resulted in an unexpected increase in demand for Dominican cigars, and immediately a problem arose in offering jobs to tobacco workers from other factories. Faced with this situation, a meeting of the main manufacturers was called to prevent this unethical market behavior (February 1992).

At this meeting, it was proposed to create an association that would ensure harmony among manufacturers, observe ethical behavior, and find a solution to production capacity. Thus, Procigar emerged with the objective of promoting and protecting Dominican tobacco.

2. How does a manufacturer become a member of Procigar?

Henke Kelner: According to Procigar’s statutes, an active member must have ethical and harmonious behavior, produce at least 1,000,000 premium cigars, have their own brand, and international recognition.

A few years later, the passive member category was created, including machine-made cigar manufacturers, tobacco financiers and processors, cellophane and ring manufacturers, packaging manufacturers, among others, with the idea of creating the most complete cigar cluster in the world.
Passive members must meet the requirements of ethics and harmony to be selected. This year, small premium cigar manufacturers who do not reach the volumes and international recognition with their own brands were included in this category, with the idea of encouraging them to grow so that in the future they can become active members of Procigar.

Currently, there are 12 active members and 23 passive members.

3. When did the festival start? What can you recall about the first festival?

Henke Kelner: The first Festival was held from 5 to 7 March 2008. Only 92 people registered, it was not known that it was a festival, but it was the first step to reach what we are today.

4. There are other festivals in the world, but why is Procigar special?

Henke Kelner: The Procigar Festival surpasses itself every year in terms of experiences and quality enjoyment. It starts in La Romana on a Sunday, visiting our partner with experiences such as dinners, factory tours, and tourism.

On Tuesday, we head to Santiago where we have a Welcome Cocktail, three spectacular dinners (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday), factory and tobacco field tours during the day, and a Field Day on Friday.

We welcome around 400 international guests and have between 800 to 950 people at the dinners. No one can offer as much as we do at a festival, which is why we are unique in the world. Organizing a festival is a huge task, and once it ends, we immediately start preparing for the next one. Thanks to our commitment to our country and the passion of our staff, every detail of the festival is successfully executed.

5. What are the origins of the “White Dinner,” and why is it special?

Henke Kelner: In the first festival there wasn’t a White Dinner, but that day we visited the area of the Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración with the mayor of Santiago, then we went to Parque Central and later we had dinner at the old private club. There were very few of us to occupy the Monumento, but we observed the interest that our international guests had, everyone took pictures and from there the idea of the White Dinner at the Monumento for the next festival arose.

6. The White Dinner is held at Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración, one of the Dominican Republic’s most historical landmarks, how did that happen?

Henke Kelner: We managed to get the Ministry of Culture to give us permission to hold the White Dinner at the Monumento, something exclusive to Procigar.

7. What are you most excited about this year’s festival?

Henke Kelner: What excites me the most about the festival is seeing how pleased and happy our participants feel, the experiences they gain from realizing why we are the best manufacturers of premium cigars, something that is achieved through the commitment of our members to quality. The support our members provide at the festival is extraordinary, without them, the success of each festival would not be possible. The success of Procigar as an association is the sum of the successes of our members who feel committed to our country.

8. What is the biggest challenge the Dominican cigar industry is facing?

Henke Kelner: The production of tobacco for our premium cigars is not growing in line with the demand for our cigars.

9. You are a legend in the cigar industry. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Henke Kelner:  I have been working in the tobacco industry for 55 years now. It is a family tradition, but what I am most proud of is having worked for my country. I have been the president of Procigar for 32 years. When Procigar started in 1992, the Dominican Republic was exporting around US$80,000,000 worth of tobacco products. Today, we export around US$1,200,000,000 of tobacco, cigars, and derivatives. That makes me happy.

In the end, we leave this world with empty hands. The only things you take with you are the things that have made you happy and are stored in your heart.

10. You are a baseball fan. Who is your favorite baseball player?

Henke Kelner: My favorite player has been and still is Juan Marichal, the first Dominican in the Hall of Fame, a disciplined, serious, and responsible man.