Industry legends Henke Kelner. Nowadays when you say Henke Kelner you say Davidoff. But that wasn’t always the case. Before the 1990s, Kelner was his own man with his own factory, own brands, and he created private labels for others. But his life changed when he met Davidoff’s owner, Dr. Ernst Schneider. Kelner changed the future of Davidoff and became the face of Davidoff Cigars.
The early days
Kelner is of Dutch and Dominican heritage. A Dutch father and a Dominican mother. His father Klaas, emigrated to the Dominican Republic in 1937 to farm and export tobacco to The Netherlands. 8 years later his son Hendrik aka Henke came into the world. Even though Henke is trained as an industrial engineer at the Institute of Monterrey in Mexico, he could not withstand the call of the tobacco plant.
In 1969, back in the Dominican Republic, Kelner got a job at Tabacalera. That company produced a handful of premium cigars and a lot of cigarettes. When Kelner climbed the ranks, he convinced the owners to focus more on premium handmade cigars. “It was easy to convince the board,” says Kelner. “There weren’t a lot of different tobacco types back then. We used Connecticut and Cameroon wrappers, as well as Dominican Olor, Piloto, and San Vicente tobacco. Exports were mainly to the U.S and Europe. To the U.S we made two brands: Cacique and Vega Real. For Europe, we made a small brand called The Griffin’s.”
The Swiss owner of The Griffin’s introduced Kelner to Dr. Ernst Schneider, the owner of Oettinger Davidoff. And that would be the start of something big.
In 1984, Kelner took a leap of faith. He left his secure job to venture out on his own. His brand new company, Tabacos Dominicana aka TabaDom, bought the rights to The Griffin’s. He made cigars under contract for Ashton before Ashton relocated production to Arturo Fuente y Cya. And in 1987, Avo Uvezian asked Kelner to create the Avo brand. That’s also when Davidoff comes into play. Davidoff opens its first American store in New York in 1988. Avo is one of its key brands.
The startup costs of TabaDom were less than $15.000 UDS. And it was a modest beginning with just 6 rollers producing just shy of a million cigars a year. But the expansion is amazing. Tabadom now produces more than 25 million cigars a year and has three factories. The main factory is Cidav. That’s where all the Davidoff Cigars come from. The second factory is O.K. Cigars, the home of Avo The Griffin’s, Zino, and other long-fillers. The last factory under the TabaDom umbrella is Occidental Cigars. But rolling cigars isn’t all that TabaDom does. Most of the tobacco that the company uses is grown by Tabadom as well.
The launch of Davidoff Cigars happens in 1968. Zino Davidoff had them made in Cuba. Two years later, the Oettinger Group acquired Davidoff. In the late 1980s, Davidoff and the Cubatobaco were fighting each other over quality and ownership rights. That led to publicly burning 100.000 cigars by Zino Davidoff as he deemed the cigars unfit to be sold. It was the end of the relationship between Cubatabaco and Davidoff. So Davidoff had to find a new producer.
That new production partner was TabaDom in the Dominican Republic. The knowledge of Henke Kelner made it possible for Davidoff not just to retain sales and reputation, but to improve and grow. Kelner is so knowledgeable that he knows exactly what tobacco hits which part of the flavor zones of the tongue. But that’s not all, tobacco has no secrets for Kelner. And he created the cigar that Dr. Ernst Schneider wanted for Davidoff. Mild with a light wrapper, not copying the Cuban flavor but something new.
More than partners
To continue the growth of the vertically integrated cigar operation, Oettinger Davidoff became a partner. They bought 30% of TabaDom in the early 1990s but by 2001, they were the full owner of TabaDom. But that doesn’t mean that industry legend Henke Kelner is no longer involved. He is still leading TabaDom Holding and is heavily involved in the day to day production of tobacco and cigars.
Kelner as a tobacco grower
As a tobacco grower, industry legend Henke Kelner also earns respect. He is constantly trying to create hybrid tobaccos. His first attempt was in 1985. It is a difficult process as hybrid tobaccos can’t produce seeds. You can compare it to the animal world. It is possible to cross-breed a lion and a tiger, or a zebra and a horse. But that offspring is infertile. That’s the same with hybrid tobaccos.
“When I work on a hybrid, the first thing I look for is disease resistance,” says Kelner in an interview with Cigar Aficionado in 2013. “But it has to have a high yield because the farmers need to make money. For a hybrid wrapper, you need at least a 45 percent crop yield. And the vein structure has to be in such a way that the veins disappear during rolling. It also has to cure evenly. When the color is uniform during the curing process, you know you have a good wrapper.”
Kelner is cross-breeding tobaccos in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. But Kelner is modest, he doesn’t take all the credit. His long time friends and partners Eladio Diaz and Manuel Peralta get the credit too. Both of them have been working with Kelner for close to 50 years.
Kelner earns his status as an industry legend. It is safe to say that without his knowledge, his passion, and his energy Davidoff would not be where it is today. As the founder of ProCigar, he’s also responsible for promoting the Dominican cigar industry all over the world. A true legend
And the future? Maybe in another 20 or 30 years, someone will write an industry legend article about the offspring of Henke. His sons Klaas and Hendrik are in the industry as well. Klaas is an ambassador for the Davidoff brand. Hendrik owns a small factory, the Kelner Boutique Factory. That’s where he rolls Smoking Jacket, Casdagli, Principle, and other cigars.
Photo credit header photo Ilse Orsel on Unsplash