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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 1)

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]?

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