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Interview: Frank Llaneza of Villazon

A discussion with the president of Villazon & Co., makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 20)

Maybe that's a result of being from the old school. Today, you look at the mentality that's out there, it's different from ours. Ours was: the value of a dollar is the value of a dollar. Back years ago, you thought about spending five dollars. Today, you throw five dollars as a tip.

I would have never thought that cigar companies like Hollco-Rohr, makers of Dominican Romeo y Julietas, would sell for $50 million, and that was just a label, not even really a business. I've had people tell me, "Man you're crazy, you sold too soon." I said, Yeah, maybe I did. At the time the business was still escalating. But I think we did right. We're trying still to give input into how the business is run. Now, it's up to them to take the advice.

CA: But at this point, do you feel they want to grow your company?

Llaneza: Oh, yes. And, they want to run it separately. That's one of the things that has destroyed most of these big corporations. They come in and they take a company, and before you know it, it all becomes the same company. That's just buying market share, and you start closing installations and put people out of work. General Cigar hasn't done that. They bought this building in Tampa. I think they'll keep making cigars here, and they will surely keep making cigars in Honduras. They're doing a great thing over there for the country, and the people. Giving them a good place to work, and they put in a school. They've done a lot of good things. They are in the cigar business to stay. I don't think it's like the other big corporations, where people sit on the board and say, "Wait a minute. That thing's not making that much money. Let's sell it or spin it off, or do something with it." They are dedicated cigar people. They smoke cigars. They get all

enthusiastic when they see something pretty.

CA: And it sounds as if they are pursuing new projects with Villazon to make it bigger.

Llaneza: Yes. They want to make the best product they can. I'm convinced of that. That's one of the reasons I'm with General Cigar. I've had that opinion of Edgar Cullman Sr. for a long time. I had offers for more money. But I knew the Cullmans. I knew what Edgar had done in Connecticut. I knew his focus on the quality of his cigars; no one can surpass the quality of Macanudo.

But I'm happy where we are. Right now, I don't need anything else, except that my daughter [Villazon vice president Carol Jean Llaneza] become one of the big successes in the cigar business.

CA: What has it been like to spend 60 years in the cigar business, your entire adult life?

Llaneza: When they told me as a kid that I was going into the cigar industry, I think I cried for two days because I hated it. I didn't smoke. I was going to go to a fairly good school. All my friends were going to go to college. I was very resentful. The first thing my father did was not to bring me in as a pretty boy to sit in an office; he threw me in with bulking tobacco and like a dog I sweated, working day and night in the blending room, casing tobacco, sweeping the floors. I had to do the janitor work after people left. It was a small factory. I had all that to go through. My friends would drive up in their cars--Manuel Corral and the Arango boys--saying, "Hey, Frank!" and there was Frank with a broom. That's the honest truth. But looking back, I think it was great that I stayed. I've been happy. I love it. I enjoy more being in the tobacco end of things. The headaches here all go to Tino. That's the personnel side of it. If I'm in tobacco doing something with it, I can make my wishes known, I can see what we should do. That's what I enjoy. And I'd miss it tremendously if I couldn't do it.

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