Fathers and Sons, Part 2
The second part of our look at the important generational partnerships that define a large part of the cigar industry
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
(continued from page 3)
"When I was 10, we went to his farm in Pinar del Río," says Angel's son John Oliva Sr., sitting in the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. In this city built on cigars and tobacco, a street just steps away from the Columbia has been recently renamed Angel Oliva Sr. Street. "We used to stay at a little apartment on the farm. He'd say, 'Come here, I want to show you this. Aren't you interested?' I'd say, 'No, I don't want to look at tobacco.' But at 10 years old, he was working his ass off. He was picking up tobacco leaves, he was working—he had no choice. Let me tell you what, he was a hard worker. He was a hard worker all his life."
To describe his father's work ethic, and perfectionist streak, Oliva Sr. describes a marathon day spent repacking an entire shipment of 124 bales of candela wrapper—with only his family to help. "We repacked all that tobacco, carton by carton. Started at eight in the morning and stopped at three in the morning. I fell asleep on the way to bed," says Oliva Sr. "Let me tell you, he was 56, I was 21. I did the heavy work, but he worked right alongside me."
Angel Oliva had the look of a kindly grandpa in his later years, but he was a tough businessman. "He was on a rampage in Jalapa [Nicaragua]," says John Sr., describing an incendiary negotiation with another tobacco man named Pepe Cura that left the latter clearly out of sorts. John Sr. found Cura sitting on the hood of his Toyota, a pair of eyeglasses perched high above his eyes, a flustered look on his face. John asked him what was wrong. "He said, 'I can't find my car, and I don't know where the fuck my glasses are.' I said, 'Pepe, your glasses are on your forehead and your car is under your ass.' He said, 'Damn, your old man is really bugging me today!'"
As a younger man, Oliva Sr., now 64, wanted no part of Oliva Tobacco. In 1970, he was quite comfortable working in the computer industry. His older brother, Angel Jr., also didn't want in. So Angel Oliva Sr. pulled his trump card to persuade his son John to trade in PCs for petit coronas.
"The old man had to fake selling the business to get me in there," he says. A buyer came in, a deal was set, and in what Oliva Sr. calls "the greatest charade ever," Angel convinced his son he was prepared to sell to a man from Holland. John Sr. began working for his father. (Eventually, Angel Jr. would, too, starting in 1974.)
John Oliva Jr. didn't need as much convincing as his dad. He relished his early trips to Ecuador with his grandfather, and after trying the seafood business for a time, he eagerly entered the family tobacco trade, in 1992.
"He and I get along because I'm exactly like my mother," says John Jr. of working with his dad. "We're complete opposites. He doesn't want to look at tobacco and I don't want to look at the computer," he says with an easy laugh. John, a 42-year-old who looks much younger, sports a much more laid-back personality than his dad. He even speaks in a hushed voice, a few octaves lower than John Sr.'s, which booms with authority and enthusiasm.
The elder Oliva beams with fatherly pride when speaking about his son's talents in the tobacco business, which he claims outstrips his. John Sr. sees some of his father in his son. "John got more of my father's love of tobacco than anybody else," he says. "I love the business. [But if] I'm looking at tobacco, I look at it, I say, 'Here you go, it's worth this.' He actually likes it. He handles every sample himself. There's not a lot of people like that. He's much more like Dad than I am."
John Sr. is particularly complimentary of the way his son cases tobacco, a dreary process that, when done properly, involves careful handling of each tobacco leaf so it can be treated with water. "When he cases the tobacco, the acceptance rate goes up. Why? Because it's properly cased," says John Sr. "He takes every leaf at a time and separates them so it gets the water properly. That takes an enormous amount of patience."
He describes how one of their workers in Ecuador has been casing tobacco nearly his entire life. "This guy was born in tobacco, and his samples are OK. But they're not like his," he says, his arms crossed in front of his broad chest, nodding to his son. "And I'm not saying it because he's here. It's a fact. The acceptance rate ain't there when I cased."
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Robert Martin — Flushing, New York, Queens, — September 30, 2011 6:46pm ET
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