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Interview: Frank Llaneza of Villazon

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

Frank Llaneza's love affair with cigars began more than 60 years ago. The president of Villazon & Co., a subsidiary of General Cigar Holdings Inc. since 1996, Llaneza earned his credentials by starting in his father's factory in Ybor City, Florida, sweeping the floors and learning the business from the ground up. Though his fortunes have changed dramatically, Llaneza himself hasn't changed much since those humble beginnings. He continues to travel to Central America to check on the company's factories firsthand, factories that he helped build in the 1960s after the American embargo of Cuba shut off access to the island. Today, after reaping millions of dollars from the sale of his company to General in 1996, Llaneza still goes to work every day and still sits in the office that he shares with his partner, Tino Gonzalez, just as he has for decades. The office is in the same turn-of-the-century factory that was once part of Tampa, Florida's booming cigar manufacturing sector, which is now one of the older sections of the city. The only concession to his fortune is a Mercedes-Benz station wagon.

Like many cigarmakers of his generation, Llaneza lived through several cycles of boom and bust. His reputation, however, surpasses that of many of his peers. He could easily be called the godfather of Honduran cigars, although he swears that the industry there was under development when he first visited in 1960, two years before the trade embargo on Cuba was imposed. And, there's the story about how he and his former partner, Danny Blumenthal, snapped up Cuban tobacco by the thousands of bales immediately before the embargo, and afterwards from companies that were jettisoning their Cuban stocks in favor of tobacco from other places. They bought enough to keep blending Cuban tobacco into their cigars well past 1965. Now, in his late 70s, Llaneza is making the transition to being a member of a big corporation. While he admits to not being used to the paperwork, he is excited by plans to launch some new brands as well as build on the marketing of his current stable of brands, which include Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey.

In a recent wide-ranging conversation with Gordon Mott, managing editor of Cigar Aficionado, Llaneza discussed his 60 years in the cigar business and his take on the future of the industry.

CA: Tell us how you got started in the cigar industry.

Llaneza: I started fairly young, at about the age of 15. I was still in high school and my father was superintendent of Schwab Davis, which was one of the big factories here in Tampa. He also had an interest in Villazon & Co., where he was partners with Mr. José Villazon and Mr. José Arango, and two or three other people. He would work on Sundays there. I used to go after school to Schwab Davis and work in the packing room, punching holes in the heads of cigars, and just being in the factory.

When I graduated from Tampa Jesuit High School, I managed to get a partial scholarship to Georgetown University. But that was during the Depression. There were doctors working in shoe stores. Architects had menial jobs. My father talked to José Suarez, who at that time was one of the key tobacco processors in Cuba. My father asked him to take me to Cuba to learn about the growing and the fermentation of tobacco and everything having to do with tobacco, so that I could maybe come in and run Villazon. That was in his mind. I didn't want to do it. I wanted to go to school. But I took my father's advice and I went into Villazon.

CA: What year did you go to Cuba?

Llaneza: That was about 1939. I kept going back and forth. I was in Cuba when Fidel Castro came down from the mountains into Havana. But we traveled to Cuba because we were making cigars out of Cuban leaf. That's what most of the factories in Tampa did at the time.

CA: What did you first do when you joined Villazon?

Llaneza: Well, I worked there; I had no financial participation in Villazon other than being the son of one of the partners. But I went to Cuba to learn from Mr. Suarez how to be a selector. My dad wanted me to have two years as an apprentice selector, to learn that trade.

CA: Selecting tobacco leaves?

Llaneza: Selecting wrappers. Selecting wrappers in a barrel. At that time we used to take the tobacco and select the leaves for the various sizes, based mostly on color. It was one of the key positions in the factory, and usually the selectors became foremen over the cigarmakers. I went from the selecting to working with a foreman around the factory. I learned about tobacco blends in cigars.

CA: How many rollers were in the Tampa factory at the time?

Llaneza: We used to maybe have 45, 50. Basically we made cigars for Faber, Coe & Gregg in New York and for the private clubs in the city, like the New York Athletic Club, and clubs in other cities.

CA: Were they private-label or were they brands?

Llaneza: Private-label. They were sold in their boxes. The biggest club we had was the Detroit Athletic Club, which supplied General Motors and all the other big industry that was around Detroit. I remember that the members would give Christmas gift orders that totaled three or four hundred thousand handmade cigars.

CA: Were they long filler?

Llaneza: Yes, they were all long filler, handmade cigars. From that modest start we kept growing. We got the Villa de Cuba brand and we also were making a few Villazon brand cigars. Then, the war came along and I spent four and a half years outside the factory in the service. When I came back from the service, I went right back into the factory, and that was when I really took charge of running it. Right away, I invested my savings into the factory and took a share in the company. It ended up that it was my father, my brother and myself. My brother ran the front office and I ran the factory. My father's trade was being a picker and packer in the packing room. He'd come in Saturday and Sunday and work for free, selecting and packing most of the production. He could do it by himself because he was very fast.

The company just kept on growing. Things were a little distressed after the war, and I started making some cheap cigars from scrap because the machines that we had ordered during the war, when we had a lot of business, came in after the war, when we had no business. So I started making a cheap cigar. It became fairly popular and from that I got into the bigger sizes. Other factories started faltering, and thanks to my father's good credit rating and good judgment, we were able to take over a lot of other brands, too. Jose Arango & Co. was one of the first ones we took over and then, Bustillo and Diaz. Then, we took over Preferred Havana and we took over the Cuesta factory of the Antonio Co. And then we were able through Danny Blumenthal, who was very friendly with the Palicios [owners of a major cigar factory in Havana before the revolution], to get their brands after they were unable to do business with Cuba. But those brands didn't come into our company until the 1960s.

CA: Were those cigars that you made in the 1940s all clear Havanas [cigars made outside of Cuba with all-Cuban tobacco]?

Llaneza: Yes, we made two blends. We made clear Havana cigars and we made the Villazon and the Villa de Cuba brands, which were Havana filler, Wisconsin binder and Connecticut-shade wrapper.

CA: Were these all candela [green] wrappers?

Llaneza: No, these were all-natural. All-natural cigars. Joseph Cullman, Edgar's father, used to come in to sell us a few bales of Connecticut-shade wrapper for those cigars.

CA: How often did you go to Cuba during that period?

Llaneza: I might make three or four trips to Cuba in a year.

CA: Were you buying tobacco?

Llaneza: Yes, we were mostly visiting the people who grew the tobacco. At the time there were good-sized farms in the Vuelta Abajo. We had a degree of friendliness with the farmers there. We visited them frequently. In fact, I was on one of the farms once with my wife, and some small planes flew over. There were a lot of Fidel Castro's people [at the farm], and they thought they were being attacked. I will never forget that.

CA: Were you buying the tobacco directly from the farms?

Llaneza: No, we weren't. But we went to the farm and saw the tobacco. We weren't big enough to buy the production directly. Angel Oliva bought the tobacco and he had stripping plants and processing plants in Cuba. He would set aside what we figured we needed. And then we bought from other leaf people, too.

CA: Were you buying specific production?

Llaneza: Well, most of the major manufacturers, like Corral and Perfecto Garcia, bought the tobacco directly and warehoused it. But we had limited resources so we bought the tobacco through Mr. Oliva, and we told him what we could use and he would hold it for us. He helped us an awful lot.

CA: You're talking about Angel Oliva Sr., whose sons run the Oliva Tobacco company today?

Llaneza: Yes, he was my teacher, my mentor.

CA: Yours and a lot of other people's.

Llaneza: Yes. He helped a lot of people in the cigar business, because he was a fellow who started from scratch. But we kept working with him as other factories in Tampa began to slow down their production. We were able to keep increasing our production.

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