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Interview: Frank Llaneza of Villazon

A discussion with the president of Villazon & Co., makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.

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CA: How large was your production in the early 1950s?

Llaneza: We were making only about 10,000 or 15,000 cigars a day, and we built it up to about 25,000. That was a big production at that time.

CA: How much of that was handmade?

Llaneza: I would say two-thirds of the production was handmade. And the rest was short filler. So it wasn't that many cigars. But then we started moving on up and making more cigars. We got different customers. The selling trends changed. The major manufacturers had jobbers [small wholesalers] at that time. It was very difficult for a small factory to add volume or to even compete with these big jobbers. Our only solution was to go to the clubs and have direct sales to the retailers. That turned out to be a blessing to us because the majority of the jobbers eventually went out of business. The retailers became strong enough where they could buy big amounts of cigars and warehouse them in their own humidors. The retailers became more powerful.

CA: At that time, in the early 1950s, were any of the brands that you owned what you would call national brands?

Llaneza: The only brands that we had in the early 1950s were Villazon and Villa de Cuba. And we had the Bustillo and Jose Arango brands, too, because we had taken over those companies. Just before the embargo started, we also acquired Preferred Havana, through which we got Bances and Eden, which was a big brand back then. Bances was almost dead, but we developed it.

CA: How did you acquire Bances?

Llaneza: It came with the Preferred Havana purchase. They had Bances, Eden, Calixto Lopez and Flor de Allones.

CA: What year did you buy Preferred Havana?

Llaneza: We bought it around 1956.

CA: How soon after that did you then begin to develop Bances?

Llaneza: Danny Blumenthal already had his store on Broadway in New York. We started the brand with him. He had an exclusive distribution deal for Bances in New York. But he was doing sub-jobbing on Bances out of his store, too. That's how it became bigger.

CA: Was it a hand-rolled, long-filler, natural-wrappered cigar?

Llaneza: Yes. But made in Tampa. That's how the company existed until we finally got the Palicio brands in the 1960s.

CA: When did you meet Danny?

Llaneza: During a period when I was making Benson & Hedges cigars for Philip Morris in the 1950s, I used to have to go to New York twice a year to speak with then vice president Joe Cullman and the people at Philip Morris. I was there one year and we just couldn't do any business there. But somebody told me to go see Danny. So, I went to see him and we got together then. We were both pretty hungry.

CA: Do you remember what year that was?

Llaneza: I was married already. It had to be about '56 or '57, right in there.

CA: Was he involved in the Preferred Havana purchase with you?

Llaneza: No. The Bances deal with Danny came after we had purchased Preferred Havana, and he helped us to develop the Bances brand after the purchase. But his business was called Danby. When my brother José retired in the mid-1950s and stepped out, we rejuggled the company. Danny was in charge of Danby, and then, Danny became a major partner with me in Villazon.

CA: Was that 1958?

Llaneza: Yeah, right around there.

CA: So your involvement with Danny began before the Cuban revolution?

Llaneza: Yes. Danny was buying a lot of Cuban cigars at that time and had contacts with a lot of Cuban manufacturers. He was selling the Cuban cigars through his store in New York. When the embargo came, we were already working together. Danny had helped us build Bances up to a pretty good production level. Philip Morris had left the cigar business by that point, and the slack in our factory was taken over by Bances. It became a major factor in our production. That was our premium cigar.

CA: When did the Palicio business become part of your company?

Llaneza: Fernando Palicio didn't want to sell to us right after the Cuban embargo was imposed. He figured the embargo wasn't going to last too long. He just kept saying that he didn't want to sell his Hoyo de Monterrey, Belinda and Punch brands. But he said, "Let's make Flor de Palicio." We had an inventory of Havana tobacco, so we brought out the brand and we made all the cigars out of Havana tobacco, and we sold them all to Dunhill. That was how we started with Palicio, and we paid a royalty to him. But as the embargo kept going, he finally sold us the rest of his labels. So we bought the rest of the brands because he had them all registered in the United States.

CA: You said you were in Havana in 1959. What were you thinking at that point?

Llaneza: I thought that this was the greatest thing that ever happened.

CA: Really?

Llaneza: I thought this Fidel Castro was a hero. I was just like

the other dummies. Here comes a guy, and everybody's crying, everybody's bringing him flowers. There were kids directing traffic. There were no policemen, and everybody was laughing and joyous. I thought he was great. Then when I came back to the United States, my uncle, who was working at the Villazon factory, said, "Son, you're just naive. That's communism." I said, "What in the hell is that?" Then, just like my uncle said, Castro declares himself a Communist.

I remember that the people from El Corojo [one of the top wrapper farms in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo], including Daniel Rodriguez, were tremendously pro-Castro. He collected money from most of the cigar manufacturers here in Tampa to support Fidel. Then, Rodriguez was one of the first ones that Fidel Castro took all his cattle from. A lot of people lost their factories and had everything taken. It was a catastrophe. But the majority of these people were really pro-Castro before the confiscations started. I mean, they wanted to get rid of Fulgencio Batista, because they figured he was a tyrant. But then they found out the other one was worse.

CA: How many times did you go back to Cuba after 1959? When did you stop going to Cuba?

Llaneza: The last time I was in Cuba was just about a week or 10 days before the embargo in 1962.

CA: So you continued to go back through 1960 and 1961?

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