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The First Family of Tobacco

For decades, the Oliva family of Tampa, Florida, has been supplying tobacco to many of the world's top makers of premium cigars.

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Michael Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. Remembering Angel
A few months before his death in August 1996 at age 89, Angel Oliva gave a rare interview to Florida-based writer Luanne Mathiesen. During the comprehensive conversation, he discussed, among other subjects, the creation and progress of his Oliva Tobacco Co. and his philosophy of growing premium cigar tobacco. What follows are excerpted portions of that interview.
CA: So you learned very early the secret to growing good tobacco.
Oliva: Secrets?
CA: There must be something that separates great tobacco from good tobacco.
Oliva: Growing tobacco is instinct and common sense. The only secret is not to change what you know is good.
CA: So you believe your company's success is attributed to instinct, and not a specific seed or fertilizer or maybe product marketing?
Oliva: If you grow tobacco, you grow the best tobacco. When you process the leaf, you do it only one way--the way it should be done. This is common sense. There is a way a thing should be done, and that is how we do it.
CA: So when there's an increase in consumption, as we've witnessed over the past few years, you can't do anything to speed up the process without affecting the taste of the cigar?
Oliva: Like what?
CA: I don't know. Like picking the leaves a little early?
Oliva: [He makes a face.] Oliva Tobacco is over 60 years old. I believe this is because of honesty, loyalty and integrity. This is the way people want to be treated, and this is how we believe it should be. I am proud to say I have been successful in passing this to my children. How I built my past is how I build the future.
CA: In 1944, your brothers Martin and Marcellino joined the company. What happened from there?
Oliva: In 1945, I created a subsidiary company in Cuba with two close, talented and loyal friends, Miguel Foyo and Jose Manuel "Pepin" Gonzalez. This is when things took off for us.
CA: What was the name of the company, and why in Cuba?
Oliva: Ninety-five percent of the tobacco we handled came from Cuba. We knew we could market large amounts of Cuban wrappers and fillers from the San Luis area of Cuba, especially the candela (green) wrapper, which was becoming very popular. So we formed Excelsior Tobacco Company.
CA: So Excelsior Tobacco was actually a brokerage company?
Oliva: Yes.
CA: And the company did well?
Oliva: Our profits grew very fast. We put everything back into the company; pretty soon we became self-financed.
CA: It sounds like you were working a great deal in those days. Did you find time for your family, or was your business more important at that time?
Oliva: My business came first--without it, I would have nothing to offer my family. But that doesn't mean that my family was second. You understand that my business came first because my family was most important to me--my business allowed me to do for my family the way I always dreamed.
My wife, Meca, worked and cooked alongside me every single day. What I was really proud of is that every summer I took my kids to Cuba and, in 1946, Meca and I took our first vacation. We visited every country in South America, for three months. From 1945 and up, our connections in Cuba grew stronger and stronger. We were now a major force in the cigar tobacco business. We supplied almost every manufacturer with some part of the raw material used in their cigar. Things were very, very good.
CA: What happened when Castro began to take power?
Oliva: I am proud to say that Fidel Castro never fooled me. Many believed him and stood behind him until it was too late. Even my father. But in 1958, I quickly chose to liquidate our corporation in Cuba and started to inspect other places that could supply the raw material that we would eventually lose to Castro.
CA: Your intuition was right. Do you believe your foresight was responsible for saving your company?
Oliva: It was important to my company, because it gave me time to plan. If I waited too long, it would have been too late.
CA: What happened to the company?
Oliva: I liquidated the company immediately. I knew the peso would be worthless in a very short time, and it was important for me to pay my employees in dollars.
CA: Why was it import-ant to pay them in dollars?
Oliva: Because they were very good people; good to me.
CA: I'll bet you would have loved to have seen their faces when they received American dollars.
Oliva: I did see them. I paid all my employees every week.
CA: You mean you literally handed your workers their pay?
Oliva: Oh, yes!
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