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During these unprecedented times, CIGAR.com focuses on our community of cigar enthusiasts, bringing interviews right into your home with some of the most prolific names throughout the industry. Visit our CIGAR.com Facebook Page for the full-length Virtual Herf Seminar with Klaas Kelner of Davidoff Cigars.
LH: We have a really special guest with us today. We have Senior Brand Ambassador for Davidoff, Klaas Kelner. Klaas, welcome!
KK: Hi, Lindsay, thank you for having me on the show. Very excited. It’s early in the morning, but not without my cigar or without my drink, so it’s a good way to start the day.
LH: What are you going to be lighting up today?
KK: Today I will be lighting up a Davidoff Yamasa Piramides. Probably one of my favorite lines, maybe I’m being a little bit biased because it is Yamasa, but definitely one of my go-tos. This is the cigar you’re going to find the most in my humidor; it’s never not there.
LH: Let’s get down to brass tax. For those who don’t know a lot about you, you come from this illustrious tobacco pedigree if I do say so myself. Almost everybody in your immediate family is involved in the tobacco business in some way, shape, or form. What was it like growing up in this whole tobacco lineage?
KK: My father has always joked that we are a not very creative family. We always do the same thing. We all work in tobacco, tobacco, tobacco, tobacco. Of course you need to have creativity, but none of us branch out into other things. It’s kind of part of the family; we take it as it is, we learn to love it at a very young age, and it’s not a hard choice. My father always gave me the choice if I wanted to work in the industry or not. I personally had no doubts. Growing up you think maybe I’m going to be a soccer player, you have these aspirations about being an astronaut, firefighter, policeman—I had cigars pinned to my hat as my future when I was very young. I knew I was going to be wearing the typical cigar outfit growing up, so that’s what I grew up to be. It was easy; my dad always said ‘yes’. He never said ‘no’; he did give me options though.
It’s very fun growing up in the cigar industry. You very early on realize that to be a part of it, not only do you have to learn it from the bottom to the top—you really have to understand everything because there is so many people that work in so many aspects of the company: processing, growing, seeds, fermentation, rolling cigars—so you have to understand what everybody’s job is, and because your family puts you in that situation where you actually get to learn and get to work in all these different parts of the industry, you learn to appreciate the amount of labor and love that the people do behind these amazing cigars. Once you appreciate it, once you love it, you can’t go back; you’re done. And for the rest of your life, it’s going to be a part of you. We have fun, it’s not all just work. In the cigar industry you get to have a lot of fun, and that’s another reason why my family loves this industry—it’s the people, being able to communicate with people whether it’s in person, in a cigar lounge, or on the farm, or now, virtually.
LH: Speaking of growing up with your dad, Henke Kelner, the man responsible for Davidoff’s reincarnation if you will; I had heard stories throughout other people that I know have spoken to you that your dad kind of self-prescribed you this dream internship. Can you walk us through where you started and how you weaved in and out of all these different areas of the business?
KK: I was almost like an undercover boss, it was very fun. A lot of people in the company already knew me because growing up in the factory, farms, everybody gets to see me; but I disappeared from the scene for four to five years. I wanted to study abroad; I studied in France, then I studied in the United States. I came back and my dad put me in this internship. My first three months were out on the farms. It was growing season at the time. I did three months of getting to know all our regions, all the 15 different regions that Davidoff has. The different farms, get to know the farmers, get to know the people out there so that I have a personal relationship with the farmers, and that’s where I started. Those first three months I learned a lot about seed hybridization with our master agronomist.
From there on, moved on to reseeding of tobaccos from the farms, then to fermentation—about two months in fermentation and aging—then I did one month in every factory. At the time we had three factories in the Dominican Republic, now two of them merged, so now we have two. So I did one month in every factory, so I got to learn Davidoff products but also the AVO brand, The Griffin’s brand, Camacho—all these other brands we make. Of course, learn how to roll cigars—I don’t say I’m an expert—but I know how to roll some cigars.
Then they sent me off to the United States for three months. It was about a year and a half of internship. In the US, I did market research, marketing, sales—I got to know a little bit about everything. And because of those three months, they put me as Brand Ambassador. They realized that I knew what was going on in the factory, and I also had a background in marketing. That’s when I started my career as Brand Ambassador. Since then, I’ve moved back and forth from the Dominican Republic back to the United States, and back to other markets, but I’m more in marketing and then in the factory only when it’s harvest season. I go down to the Dominican Republic from December to about March/April—at the farms because my family still owns farms, and I’m also there seeing the people that come visit the farm.
LH: There are things on your farms that some people who have gone on tours and trips might know about, but the larger audience I think is not necessarily privy to—you guys do things a little differently than other brands when it comes to farming. There are some things you do to make sure the seeds and seedlings are as happy as possible—you guys hand-plant seeds. I’ve also heard of workers dipping their rubber gloves in milk to reduce stress on the roots. When did something like this start? Why is this something that is done with your tobacco?
KK: We have 52 greenhouses. From these 52 greenhouses, we are producing about nine million plants every single year that we spread out through all of our farmers. Davidoff is a vertically-integrated company that controls everything. We even create the seed. But the reasoning behind the greenhouses is because we’re able to grow the plant—45 day-old plant—when given to the farmer, has a better chance of survival. It’s the seed we want, with the resistance to the type of diseases, and the yield that we want, and this 45 day-old plant has a better possibility at a full, nice life. Because the original, traditional way was in a seed bed out on the farm, when you sow the seeds on the seed bed—if there’s a storm, if there’s a little bit of rain—the plants can actually drown. So, in these 52 greenhouses, our plants for the first 45 days of their life are perfectly protected, and they have the necessary nutrients. We even import soil, so our soil actually is from the Canadian tundra—all of our greenhouses use this soil.
For the full-length Virtual Herf Seminar with Klaas Kelner of Davidoff Cigars, visit our CIGAR.com Facebook Page.
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