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Passing the Torch

David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras, 1962. A 20-year-old John Oliva Sr. watched as his father, Angel, examined a shipment of candela tobacco that awaited transport to the United States. The green leaves were going to Tampa, Florida, heart of the American cigar industry, and they were ready to leave the following day. Rather, they were supposed to be ready. But workers had failed to pack the leaves properly, and the frail wrappers risked damage on the boat ride through the Gulf of Mexico to Florida. The 55-year-old founder of Oliva Tobacco Co. declared that he and his son would have to repack the shipment. All 144 cartons.

"We proceeded to repack that tobacco," Oliva, now 60, remembers. "We started at 8 o'clock in the morning, him and I, and we sat there and we repacked. We took off an hour for lunch. We continued to repack that tobacco until 7 o'clock at night. We ate dinner. We came back with my mother and my wife. We brought in a guy from the street to help us. We finished at 3 o'clock in the morning."

The tobacco was ready, and Oliva was spent. "Hardest I ever worked in my life," he says. "I fell asleep on the way to the bed."

Having a perfectionist for a father is never easy, and it's only harder when that father is a legend. Angel Oliva was a lion of the tobacco industry, the man who bought the entire 1960 crop of Cuban tobacco -- some 3.85 million pounds -- and won a lifetime's worth of respect by declining to gouge cigarmakers who bought that crop.

Today John follows in his late father's footsteps, running Oliva Tobacco Co. from its headquarters in Tampa and providing some of the world's best cigarmakers, from Arturo Fuente to General Cigar to Altadis, with cigar tobacco. His Sumatra-seed Ecuadoran wrapper is the dark, oily covering for the hot Ashton Virgin Sun Grown brand. Oliva owns farms in Nicaragua, Honduras and Ecuador, growing nearly 2,000 acres of tobacco every year and brokering more.

In a nook in grandson John Oliva Jr.'s office, Angel stares out from a black-and-white photograph. His cane leans against the wall. Oliva Sr. turns serious when asked for the best lesson Angel ever taught him. The answer comes easily. "The most important lesson he taught me, brother, is to live by your word," he says. "It's nothing new or earth-shattering, it's just what he did his whole life. And that's what we try to do. If you can do that, then you can stand up in front of anybody."

David Perez stands next to a picture of his late father, Alfredo, whom he feels still looks after his company.
Five hours south and east, in Miami, David Perez sits in his office at the headquarters of A.S.P. Enterprises Inc., smoking a miniature Villager filtered cigarillo. It's an odd cigar, if for no other reason than it was made without any A.S.P. tobacco.

Perez shares something with Oliva other than running a major tobacco company. He, too, is following his father. Large, poster-sized photographs of Alfredo Perez are everywhere at A.S.P.'s offices. The burly, white-haired man, wearing a tuxedo, seems to stare out from every wall, looking down on his family as they carry on his work.

Perez died in April 2000 from a heart attack following a bout with pneumonia, leaving David to run the company. (David's grandfather Silvio still plays a role at A.S.P., but David runs the operations on a day-to-day basis.) A.S.P. (short for Alfredo and Silvio Perez) grows tobacco in Mexico, Nicaragua and Ecuador and sells to a host of companies -- which David declines to name. He doesn't mind staying anonymous.

Perez and Oliva could be considered the Coke and Pepsi of the premium cigar tobacco industry, but there is not a shred of competitive malice between the two. Instead, the two companies enjoy a mutual admiration. "They respect us and we respect them," Perez says of the Olivas. Says Oliva of his competition in Miami, "I think they're phenomenal growers and I think they do a phenomenal job. They're a first-class outfit." Oliva's son John Jr., 38, and David are buddies, and the two hunt deer every year on the Olivas' former candela farm in Quincy, Florida. The companies have many similarities and enough differences, and each is an integral part of the modern-day cigar business.

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