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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

(continued from page 2)

Thanks to Angel Oliva's prescience, Oliva Tobacco Co.'s sales exploded. Not only did Oliva have a head start setting up farms throughout Central and South America--in 1961 he invested $900,000 to buy land and equipment and hire Cuban tobacco farmers--but he also was able to plan his final shipment from Havana's ports. "He handled the last tobacco crop from Cuba," which totaled nearly 4,000,000 pounds, says John. "Then he gave 14 or 15 cigar manufacturers the opportunity to buy the tobacco at pre-embargo prices. He never gouged anyone."

Once that supply was exhausted, though, so was the legacy of Cuban tobacco for American consumption. And life became more difficult for Angel Oliva. He had to establish new infrastructures in politically unstable environments. He slept on the farms, instructed the workers, and dealt with risks and discomforts that are virtually unheard of in the United States. He insisted that when the Olivas visit their tobacco farms, they live in the same style as the farmers. "But a general rule of thumb is that if the tobacco is good, then the conditions are bad," says John, echoing lessons learned from his father.

"We were in Honduras once, staying on the farm with a Costa Rican customer and finishing up dinner, when four guys wearing military garb walked in. They put guns to us and claimed to be searching for marijuana--but of course there was none. Once they started searching people, my father stood up and announced in Spanish, 'You cannot do this to us. We are Americans. This will not be tolerated.' Meanwhile a guy had an M-1 in my stomach, and I could see that under his uniform he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I started telling my father in English, 'Dad, shut up. These guys are not military.' They robbed everybody except for me, and, once they left, the Costa Rican guy vowed to tell the newspapers about this, to get it reported in The New York Times. My father said, 'Do that and I will never sell you another bale of tobacco. With my wife's nervous condition and everything else, she cannot find out about this.' "

Though the Olivas cling to tradition, there have been some recent changes, including a partnership with Connecticut tobacco producers Calvin Arnold and Ken Chickowsky for growing wrapper in the Connecticut Valley, the purchase of a third farm in Ecuador and the computerization of the business. "We even have computers on the farms," says John. "Our people there take inventory and give us reports on what the yields are. I get my files every day through the Internet, so I can check on all aspects of the operation. I can check the sorting operations and know my inventory. I've been accused of being too hands-on, but I will never take my hands off of the inventory because that controls the business. Knowing the inventory, knowing what my customers want, that is the business."

The nerve center of the Oliva operation is in a nondescript warehouse in Ybor City, that like most other structures in the area, was originally a cigar factory. With windows facing east and west, there was plenty of natural light for the rollers, whose workday once stretched from dawn to dusk. Strolling through the storage space, puffing on an El Rey Del Mundo, Johnito explains that a cooling system was installed to keep the temperature at 55 degrees. "But the humidity is natural," he says, taking in the scent from boxes of freshly picked tobacco leaves. "This is the best humidor I've ever been in; I store all my cigars here and they keep really well. I tend to think that these walls must have been built so that they sweat a little bit."

Although the techniques for storing the tobacco remain virtually unchanged from the old days, just about everything else concerning the business has been transformed over the past decade. Demand for premium cigars is so high that Oliva cannot stock enough tobacco. Johnito insists that he now dreads attending cigar industry conferences and cigar smokers because he is continually bombarded with requests for tobacco that his company cannot provide. Even with new farms throughout South and Central America, the Olivas have a hard time meeting the demand, since it takes more than a year to grow and cure tobacco properly before it can be sold.

According to John, the shortage will continue for another two or three years, until production catches up with demand. He insists that the Olivas are doing their best to facilitate this. Since 1993, "we've more than doubled the size of our production in Ecuador, we're doing contract farming in Connecticut--something that we have not done in more than 30 years--and we're considering growing tobacco in Gadsen, Florida," he says, referring to a richly soiled area near the Georgia border. "Thirty years ago it produced 6,000 acres of shade tobacco, until economics pushed everything off shore. The land is there, man, and the local farmers know tobacco."

Further evidence of the Oliva's recent growth spurt can be gleaned from its numbers: In 1992 the Olivas grew 100 acres of Honduran wrapper and 70 acres of Honduran filler, in 1996 they grew 160 acres and 250 acres, respectively; in 1992 they grew 270 acres of wrapper in Ecuador, in 1996 the number rose to 375 acres; in 1992 they grew 350 acres of Nicaraguan filler, in 1996 it increased to 550 acres; in 1992 they grew 100 acres of filler in the Dominican Republic, and by the end of 1996 the acreage grew to 250. While John Oliva cannot break the growth down by region, he estimates that each acre yields, respectively, approximately 1,000 pounds of wrapper per year and 200 to 300 pounds of binder or filler.

The primary drawback of the current cigar boom, Johnito points out, is that some of the newer cigar makers see little choice but to buy inferior tobacco, while the more established companies feel pressed to release their products prematurely. "The cigars need to be aged just a little bit longer," he says, now sitting in the office that had once belonged to his grandfather, showing off a half-dozen or so Churchills that he is aging. "Some of the manufacturers just don't have the luxury of sitting on the tobacco, and that makes for cigars that don't smoke very well. They'll be good cigars, but they just won't draw the way they should." He holds up one of his young cigars for inspection, then adds, "This looks beautiful and it feels great, almost gummy. But it won't smoke for another six months. Let it sit for a year and it will be even better."

Back in the storage area, Johnito wraps a sample leaf around his cigar and lights it to check how well it smokes. He's pleased with how evenly it burns. While the family clearly owes much of its status to founder Angel's foresight in beating his competitors to the growing fields of Honduras, there is more to the company's longevity than that. "We have good land," Johnito says simply. "The old man knew soil. He found good farms."

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