Fathers and Sons, Part 2
The second part of our look at the important generational partnerships that define a large part of the cigar industry
(continued from page 1)
John Oliva Jr. didn't need as much convincing as his dad. He relished his early trips to Ecuador with his grandfather, and after trying the seafood business for a time, he eagerly entered the family tobacco trade, in 1992.
"He and I get along because I'm exactly like my mother," says John Jr. of working with his dad. "We're complete opposites. He doesn't want to look at tobacco and I don't want to look at the computer," he says with an easy laugh. John, a 42-year-old who looks much younger, sports a much more laid-back personality than his dad. He even speaks in a hushed voice, a few octaves lower than John Sr.'s, which booms with authority and enthusiasm.
The elder Oliva beams with fatherly pride when speaking about his son's talents in the tobacco business, which he claims outstrips his. John Sr. sees some of his father in his son. "John got more of my father's love of tobacco than anybody else," he says. "I love the business. [But if] I'm looking at tobacco, I look at it, I say, 'Here you go, it's worth this.' He actually likes it. He handles every sample himself. There's not a lot of people like that. He's much more like Dad than I am."
John Sr. is particularly complimentary of the way his son cases tobacco, a dreary process that, when done properly, involves careful handling of each tobacco leaf so it can be treated with water. "When he cases the tobacco, the acceptance rate goes up. Why? Because it's properly cased," says John Sr. "He takes every leaf at a time and separates them so it gets the water properly. That takes an enormous amount of patience."
He describes how one of their workers in Ecuador has been casing tobacco nearly his entire life. "This guy was born in tobacco, and his samples are OK. But they're not like his," he says, his arms crossed in front of his broad chest, nodding to his son. "And I'm not saying it because he's here. It's a fact. The acceptance rate ain't there when I cased."
It must be tempting to skip a few leaves when doing the process one leaf at a time. John Sr. fields the question quickly. "Can't do it," he says. "Those would be the first three or four leaves the customer would touch."
So how does one follow in the footsteps of a legend?'
"You want to know what the trick is? Don't try to do it. I never did," says Oliva Sr. "Don't ever try to follow your dad's footsteps—make your own. I don't care who your dad is. I can tell you right now, my father is an unusual man. He created a business from nothing. I can't tell you I ever did that. My goal was to try to make it as big as I could, make it bigger and more profitable. You do what you do best."
Gilberto Oliva Sr. + Jose Oliva
Oliva Cigar Co. has been growing tobacco in Nicaragua for decades. The Miami Lakes, Florida, company (which is not related to the Oliva Tobacco Co. in Tampa) branched out into cigar manufacturing 11 years ago. It now sells a variety of cigars bearing the family name, from the bargain-priced Oliva "O" Classic Olè (which was one of Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 Cigars of the Year) to the higher-end Oliva Master Blends, a new version of which comes out every year. Company vice president Jose Oliva joined the family cigar and tobacco business when it started making cigars. He was 22 years old, fresh from studying marketing at St. Thomas University in Miami, and he thought he could teach a few things to his father, family patriarch Gilberto Oliva Sr., who was then 64.
"Working with my father is a thing that has evolved," says Jose, who is now 33. "Eleven years ago, there was a good deal of frustration, me thinking things needed to be done a certain way. Now, it's pure admiration and appreciation for him."
When the Olivas first began making cigars, they tried to emulate the popular brands of the day, putting light-colored Connecticut-seed wrappers around a mix of Dominican and Central American tobaccos. They failed to find an appreciative audience.
Salvation came from the family's disdain for taking on debt: the company turned to Gilberto's large inventory of aged Nicaraguan tobaccos and began making puros. The change worked well, as Americans were growing more enamored with rich Nicaraguan tobacco leaf.
As a young man, Jose didn't understand the value of having bales of tobacco piling up in inventory, not making money. "I, being very young, wanted to see additional money put into marketing, additional money put into packaging. He wanted it all to go into tobacco," he says. "There was a tremendous amount of what I thought I knew."
Hendrik + Henry Kelner
It's early in the afternoon on a sunny Monday in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Lunchtime is over, and business is set to move into the spacious corner office of the boss, Hendrik Kelner. Cigars are lit, and he and his son sit down in front of an ashtray that can hold a dozen cigars. On the smoking agenda for the afternoon is a pair of Zino Platinum cigars, the Barrel and the Grand Master, plus a new size that may end up at the upcoming Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show, five weeks away.
Hendrik, 60, is a tobacco man by blood, and his 33-year-old son is no different. How long has he worked with his dad? "All my life," says Kelner Jr., who goes by the nickname Henry. "In the '80s, I worked during the summer, in the '90s, I worked part-time, and since 1993, I work full-time." Today, the father oversees the three cigar factories that comprise the entire operation that makes Davidoff, Avo and a host of other cigars, while the son is manager of Cigars Davidoff, the factory where Davidoffs are rolled.
The Kelners come from a long line of tobacco men. "It's a tradition of the family," says the elder Kelner. "My father [Klass] worked in tobacco. He started very young in Amsterdam, and came to the Dominican Republic in 1933. My father never had a cigar factory—the Kelners traditionally worked in raw materials, in Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic."
Hendrik Sr., known to the cigar world as Henke, has one of the most sophisticated palates in the industry. A veritable tobacco scientist, he can speak for entire afternoons about tobacco and rhapsodize at great length about the characteristics of whatever he is smoking.
"We always have lunch in the factory," says Henke. "After lunch, we try to have quiet, and it's a pleasure because we take our cigars and we say, 'What do you think about the taste? The aftertaste?' We have coffee and Cognac, and we compare. And when we agree, we are happy." Cigar smoking is work for Henke, who takes detailed notes on the cigars and how they stimulate the various flavor receptors on the tongue—salty, sweet, bitter and sour. "We have a chart," he says, describing the lengthy process he, his son and close associate Eladio Diaz go through when testing cigars. "The blend for us is not a formula.
"Normally when I smoke, it's my job," he says in his heavily accented English. "Sometimes, I smoke for pleasure. When I really like a cigar, after I smoke half, I say, 'This half of the cigar is for pleasure. No writing, no talking, just 'conjo, que buelo esta cigar,'" he says.
His son, a smaller, quieter version of Kelner, is humbled to follow in his father's footsteps. "I'm not as gifted as my father in terms of palate," he says. "I still have a long way to go." Kelner praises his son's progress in the trade. "He learns fast, but in the cigar business you learn every day."
Stanford, Eric + Bobby Newman
Sometimes being the son of the boss means an easier path to the top of the company, but Stanford Newman had a challenge working for his father. Stanford, 90, the chairman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., spent most of his career working in the large shadow of his domineering father, Julius Newman, who second-guessed nearly every move his son made until his death.
|Bobby (left), Stanford and Eric Newman|
J.C. Newman Cigar Co. survived the post-1950s industry fallout that caused most of America's small cigar companies to close, consolidate or move offshore. While U.S. cigar factories are rare today, the firm, now headquartered in Tampa, still makes cigars by machine in the upper floors of its headquarters, as well as serving as the U.S. distribution arm for the cigars made by hand by Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., which include the Cuesta-Rey and Diamond Crown brands owned by the Newmans. Stanford works alongside his sons: Eric, 58, is the company president and Bobby, 55, is executive vice president.
Back in 1914, J.C. Newman was making successful brands such as the five-cent Judge Wright, and the company owned the largest cigar factory in Cleveland. In 1934, Stanford began working for his father as the downtown Cleveland salesman, and three years later he joined the company full-time. He had reservations.
"If I could have found a job working for any other place, I wouldn't have worked for him. It was much too difficult," says Stanford, sitting in his conference room in Tampa. "My father was short, and he had a Napoleonic complex. He wanted it his way."
When Stanford was a child, his father had a habit of bringing a cane to dinner and pounding it to keep order and when he wanted attention. As an adult, Stanford discovered that J.C. could be just as demanding at the office.
"He used to go at six in the morning to the post office and read the mail. And then he would write on the bottom of the letters how I should write back," said Stanford. "He thought I never grew up."
The examples of J.C. meddling with Stanford's authority at the company are legion. In 1948, Stanford came out with a five-cent cigar called Cameo Bouquet. He and his father made a sales call, resulting in a deal to move 500,000 of the cigars a week to one account. Stanford left the room, and J.C. told the buyer that he was raising the price of Cameo cigars by one cent. When Stanford returned, the buyer cancelled the order. Other prospective buyers followed suit when J.C. tried the same tactic. The surprise price hike ended up costing the company half the Cameo business.
Soon after, at a time when cigar-making machines were in short supply, Stanford purchased 10 or them, only to have his father trade them for some Puerto Rican tobacco while he was out of town. When packed, the tobacco curled, which made lumps in the cigars. To deal with the new tobacco, Stanford bought a conveyor belt and had workers straighten the tobacco and put it in large cases, rather than into piles. When he returned from another trip, the cases were gone; his father had ordered the tobacco unpacked and put back into piles, undoing Stanford's work.
In 1958, Julius died, leaving the company to Stanford, his younger son, Millard, and the Newman family. As the decades went on, the cigar market shrunk and the family business suffered, which resulted in tension within the family.
"We had 14 other relatives [in the business]. It was very difficult. The cigar industry was going down, and our sales were going down," says Bobby. "In 1985, Eric and I went to Dad and said either we've got to buy our relatives out or they have to buy us out."