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Our Founder

 Remembering Angel

   by Luanne Mathiesen

August 1996


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.

Question: So you learned very early the secret to growing good tobacco.

Oliva: Secrets?

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: 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?

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: So Excelsior Tobacco was actually a brokerage company?

Oliva: Yes.

Question: And the company did well?

Oliva: Our profits grew very fast. We put everything back into the company; pretty soon we became self-financed.

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: Why was it import-ant to pay them in dollars?

Oliva: Because they were very good people; good to me.

Question: 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.

Question: You mean you literally handed your workers their pay?

Oliva: Oh, yes!

Question: But you must have had hundreds of employees!

Oliva: Sometimes 500. They knew my face, and I knew theirs. This was important to me.

Question: It must have made it harder to leave, knowing you wouldn't return.

Oliva: Yes, it was.

Question: How did you avoid losing all your tobacco supply to Castro?

Oliva: In 1960, Cuba cultivated the last crop of tobacco that would be sorted and distinguished by farms. I took 13 manufacturers that used Cuban tobacco to Havana as guests of a communist colonel. I was their representative. I gave them and all my competitors the opportunity to buy whatever they needed. Some took my offer and others saw no threat from Castro and passed it up.

Question: What happened next?

Oliva: I committed to purchasing the entire crop of 2.5 million pounds of tobacco from the Cuban government. I was the one who agreed to pay for the sorting, stripping and handling of the tobacco, under the condition that they would allow me to supervise the entire operation and keep the crop segre-gated by farms. We opened 14 different sorting, stripping and packing operations and handled the entire crop, plus an add-itional 1.35 million pounds of tobacco from more than 20 sharecroppers. We honored the commitment and shipped the last crop of tobacco grown in Cuba by independent growers.

Question: That was quite an impressive gamble on your part, don't you think?

Oliva: Not at all. It would have been worse to do nothing--to watch everybody lose everything.

Question: Where did you source your tobacco once Cuba was closed?

Oliva: We immediately began growing tobacco in Honduras and moved into Quincy, Florida, and the Connecticut Valley to replace the candela wrapper no longer coming out of Cuba. We formed a co-op in Quincy and another in Connecticut. We purchased a farm in Quincy and a 25 percent ownership in a farming operation in Connecticut. The operation in Connecticut was a group of three farms owned by one of the most respected families in the Connecticut Valley, Dan K. Christian, and his 12 children. Then we made the people from Quincy and Connecticut our partners in Honduras and began a 200-acre farm of wrapper tobacco in La Entrada de Copan, Honduras. When President Kennedy slapped the embargo on Cuba, we were in full swing in Central America.

Question: You make it sound so simple, but I'm sure it was a very chaotic and uncertain time. Were you ever concerned you wouldn't find adequate sources to replace what Cuba once offered you?

Oliva: I was too busy working to think about that. Just when I finished with one problem, it was time for a new one. After we settled operations in Connecticut and Quincy, the demands for tobacco grew even more.

Question: How did you accommodate those demands?

Oliva: We continued to open operations in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.

Question: Did each location have a different type of seed?

Oliva: We planted every variety of seed possible in Florida and Connecticut, and we smuggled from Cuba in order to achieve the highest quality of wrapper, filler and binder. We made enormous investments in those countries; they were very successful.

Question: So your problems were over?

Oliva: In 1979, the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. So we concentrated our efforts in Ecuador for the production of wrapper.

Question: Why was that?

Oliva: Two reasons: Number one, the government of Nicaragua nationalized all the farms in the same way that Castro had done in Cuba. He was their ideological leader.

Question: And number two?

Oliva: A very bad tobacco virus called blue mold spread like fire in Central America. It came in with Hurricane Fifi.

Question: Where is the bulk of your product grown today?

Oliva: Most of our wrapper production is in Ecuador, and our filler and binder production is in Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Question: Did all your family get out of Cuba before Castro took power?

Oliva: No. My brother, Felix, worked for Castro at the onset of his takeover. When he learned what Castro was all about, he then worked to get him out of power. So Felix and his daughter [Maruja] were taken political prisoners and were given a death sentence. After many years of torture, they were released in 1968.

Question: This must have been a difficult time for you and your family.

Oliva: The Revolution broke many homes and many hearts.

Question: How many in your family are involved in your business today?

Oliva: My youngest son, John, joined the business in 1970 after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in engineering. My oldest son, Angel Jr., joined the company in 1974. He graduated from the University of Florida too, but with a degree in architecture. And then my grandson Johnito [Oliva's face lights up]--he works very hard, always traveling, always working hard. We are very close.

Question: I find it impossible to ask about your business, without turning our discussion to your family. [Oliva smiles.] Your career spans 60 successful years. And when your family gathers on Christmas Eve, there are 250 people present. It's obvious that both have brought you a great deal of pleasure.

Oliva: I told you before how proud I am to see my children live with honesty, loyalty and integrity, the things that Meca and I have taught them. I believe Oliva Tobacco has allowed us to achieve and do more good than we could ever have imagined or dreamed. It was those challenges that pushed me to do more.

Question: What are your challenges today?

Oliva: It's not so different. Maybe just that it is bigger now.

Question: You mean Oliva Tobacco Co...?

Oliva: No--the world. The future is in the generations that follow. For this reason I dedicate a large part of my financial resources to help organizations like The Boys and Girls Club, the Children's Home, the University of Tampa and other institutions that guide young people to a good and productive life. Oliva Tobacco Company has provided scholarships to people who are now doctors, professors and engineers. This is not just in the United States. We also do this in Central and South America, where opportunities are not as many.

Question: You are not a common man, Mr. Oliva. You are unique and blessed in your life, and I thank you so much for sharing your life with me today. [Oliva smiles shyly.] You have to admit, you've had quite a life.

Oliva: It was just my life...that's all.