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The First Family of Tobacco

For decades, the Oliva family of Tampa, Florida, has been supplying tobacco to many of the world's top makers of premium cigars.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

It was the summer of 1995, harvest time at La Meca, an Ecuadorian farm where high temperatures, a muggy climate, and fertile soil conspire to make it an ideal place for growing tobacco. As far as the eye could see, green leaves covered the landscape like a carpet. Mist hung heavily in the air, and the dirt felt soft as clay underfoot. Cutting a swath through the field of seven-foot-high tobacco plants, Angel Oliva walked with a proud gait. For him--a Cuban emigrant who started with nothing, revolutionized the post-Castro cigar industry and became a multimillionaire in the process--this lush farmland truly represented a field of dreams.

Oliva was a small-framed man with a shock of white hair. A straw-weaved fedora protected his face from the sun, and he wore his guayabera as a nod to the old country. Jammed between his teeth was his fourth cigar of the day, a custom-made corona, manufactured just for him by his old pal, Frank Llaneza, who happens to head up the venerable Villazon cigar company. It contained Ecuadorian Sumatra-seed wrapper, Connecticut broadleaf binder, and a blend of Honduran, Nicaraguan and Dominican filler. Except for its broadleaf, the cigar's contents were all grown on Oliva's farms.

Age had not diminished this 88-year-old man's passion and instinct for tobacco. He would stay out until after sunset, comparing various plants' leaves, critiquing the manner in which tobacco was carried and picked, debating the differences in seed strains that far younger men could not discern. During daylight hours Oliva would crouch to feel the dirt between his fingers, then move on to a humidified barn where he would get deeply involved in the tobacco sorting operation. The work was tedious but highly valued because it determined where various grades of tobacco needed to be shipped and what should be charged for them. In many ways, sorting is the heart of any tobacco growing operation. Angel Oliva prided himself as one of the best in the business.

Nearly a year later, in early August 1996, at the Oliva Tobacco Co.'s headquarters in Ybor City, a part of Tampa, Florida, Angel Oliva was a blur of puffed smoke and pumping legs. The ever-present cigar was stuck inside his mouth and he drew from it while peddling a stationary bicycle. After getting off his bike, the company founder called over the intercom to his son, John Oliva, heir apparent to the business.

John is a hard-angled man with a softly sweet interior. He possesses a keen interest in computers and an acquired appreciation for tobacco. He trusted Angel implicitly and respected the man in a way that transcended most father-son relationships. They sat in Angel's office, smoking custom-made coronas. "I need you to do something for me," Angel said, speaking the Spanish of rural Cuba. "When you go to Honduras this month, I want you to take care of the Christmas gifts for this year."

"Why now?" John asked. "I don't want to give Christmas gifts in August."

"Look," Angel responded, sounding urgent, "I've always done what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. This is what I want you to do for me."

John honored his father's request. On Aug. 8 all gifts were distributed; on Aug. 31 Angel Oliva died of cancer. He left behind a self-made empire that provides tobacco to the makers of some of the finest cigar brands in the world--Arturo Fuente, Punch, La Gloria Cubana and El Rey del Mundo all feature Oliva tobacco--and generates more than $8 million in annual sales. Eight-hundred-fifty acres of Oliva-owned farmland are spread throughout Honduras, Ecuador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and the Connecticut River Valley, and more than 3,000 employees currently rely on Oliva Tobacco Company for their livelihood.

Flash forward to the present, as John Oliva, the family's new patriarch, shares these memories with a visitor and his son, Johnito. He and Johnito are sitting at a table in a back room at Bern's Steak House in Tampa. Though the Olivas have adopted many American customs, some Cuban ways persist. At the moment, the most obvious one is the son's respect for the father. Though 32-year-old Johnito is a bright, engaging, passionate businessman who is highly respected in the cigar community, he continually defers to John (just as John had once deferred to Angel). With few interruptions, the younger Oliva allows his father to narrate their family history.

Johnito smiles as his father offers a familiar tale of how he almost wound up far from the cigar business. After majoring in engineering at University of Florida, John wound up working for a computer company and expressed no interest in tobacco. When, in 1968, he seemed too immersed in technology to be satisfied with the family farms, Angel tried to pressure him with an ultimatum: Join the business or else it will be sold. "The old man was a manipulator from the word go, and he pulled off what I consider the greatest charade ever," John recalls. "A gentleman came down from Holland and talked about buying Oliva Tobacco. They bickered about a lot of nitpicky things and he seemed close to making a deal. Then, in 1970, as negotiations were still going on, the company that I worked for got bought out and I was offered a big-time position in Houston. But I didn't want to move to Texas, and I didn't want to see something that my father started from nothing getting sold away because nobody had an interest in it. So I agreed to join him. I spent the next three years with my arms crossed, listening to everything my father had to say. I looked like a bodyguard, but I learned a lot." John turns, gestures toward Johnito, then half-jokes, "My job then was what his job is now." (In 1974, John's brother, Angel Jr., joined the company, and today he remains active as a vice president.)

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