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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

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.

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