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An Interview With The World's Foremost Tobacco Growers John Oliva Sr. & John Oliva Jr.

Alex Svenson: Hello gentlemen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions for our readers. Your family certainly has one of the most appealing stories in our industry. Where and how did Oliva Tobacco start? Take us back to the beginning.

John Oliva, Jr.: Like a lot of dirt-poor immigrants after the turn of the century, my grandfather, Angel Oliva, Sr., left Pinar Del Rio, Cuba in 1925 to find his fortune in the United States. Having grown up around tobacco all his life, (my great-grandfather, Juan Francisco Oliva, was a manager of the Santa Damiana tobacco plantations of the Cuban Land Tobacco Co.) one would think that he would naturally have gravitated to the cigar industry, especially in light of the fact that he arrived in Tampa, arguably the biggest hub of the cigar industry outside of Cuba at the time. However, this was not to be. He got a job as a clerk at a small Spanish grocery store and set out to learn how to read and speak English, and to save his meager earnings.

In 1927, using the money he had saved from his clerk job, he went into the laundry business. In 1929 when the Depression hit, he and eleven other laundry businesses went under and he lost all his savings. He subsequently found employment at the Johnston Leaf Tobacco Co. where he excelled at moving tobacco products for the firm. After five years with no prospects for advancement and Mr. Johnston declining his offer of a partnership, my grandfather left the Johnston firm. In 1934 along with two partners, Jose “El Mochin” Suarez and his brother Emilio Suarez, he started Oliva Tobacco Co.

From the beginning, Oliva Tobacco handled various cigar tobaccos from Cuba, Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin, brokering them to a host of cigar companies around the country. As the company grew, my grandfather brought two of his brothers, Martin and Marcellino Oliva, out of Cuba to become partners in the business after the Suarezes sold their interest. A further expansion of the company took place in 1951 when my grandfather formed the Excelsior Tobacco Corp. in Pinar del Rio province, Cuba. Here he undertook the business of growing and packing fine Cuban cigar tobacco for the increasing demand of the Tampa and island cigar industry. The business prospered until the advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

1959 was a year of significant uncertainty for both Cuba and the cigar industry as a whole. With the revolution raging around him, my grandfather was prescient enough to know what a future in Cuba would look like with Fidel Castro in power. He immediately began urging Tampa manufacturers to build up their Cuban tobacco inventories. In 1960, with antagonistic Cuban officials holding the preponderance of available Cuban tobacco, he was able to persuade them to sell it and secured arrangements to acquire 80,000 bales for a host of Tampa cigar companies. It ended up being some of the last Cuban tobacco to enter the U.S. It was also at this time that he began exploring viable alternatives to Cuban tobacco outside of Cuba, most notably in Honduras. As an aside, it’s always been remarkable to me that this man with a fourth grade education had the foresight to advantageously position his company, and to some extent the U.S. domestic cigar industry, for the ensuing turmoil that would come during and after the Cuban Revolution. 

With the situation in Cuba untenable, my grandfather liquidated Excelsior Tobacco for pesos and paid his farmers and employees in dollars. At this time he also spent a significant amount of his own money getting a number of Cuban tobacco people out of Cuba (many of the names would be familiar to cigar smokers today). He immediately established his plans for alternative replacement tobaccos in Honduras, as well as North Florida and Connecticut. This was the candela wrapper’s heyday, so finding replacements for it was critical to sustaining the domestic cigar market. In addition to candela, this is when seeds from Cuba for natural tobacco found their way into Honduras for the first viable commercial crops outside of Cuba. Also during this time, and since we’re doing this interview with Cigar.com, I’ll note that my grandfather purchased Swann Products, at the time one of the oldest cigar mail order houses in the U.S. Swann was eventually sold to Rene Martinez, father of Yankee great Tino Martinez. 

In 1970 my father, and subsequently my Uncle Angel Oliva, Jr., joined the company when my grandfather intimated that he was ready to get out of the business and had an interested outside buyer. Not wanting to see the family business fall into outside hands, my father signed up. It was a brilliant ruse on my grandfather’s part. After a self-imposed silent apprenticeship of three years, my father assumed more of the day to day operations of the company and instituted technological changes like computerized inventory control systems (heady stuff at the time for an industry still operating on turn of the century principles). Around this time we also further expanded – first to Nicaragua, then the Dominican Republic, and subsequently to Ecuador (my grandfather’s personal favorite growing region). My grandfather had built Oliva Tobacco Company. My father made it bigger. 

Today Oliva Tobacco Company has consolidated its growing operations to two countries: Ecuador, where we concentrate solely on growing a variety of tobacco wrappers, and Nicaragua, where our focus is on growing fillers and binders but, more importantly, where the fermentation and processing for all of our tobacco takes place. Additionally, we still broker and process tobacco from eight different countries.

AS: Angel was one of the real pioneers of planting Cuban seed tobacco in Honduras. What were some of the difficulties in being one of the first growers in that region?

John Oliva, Sr.: Although my father is the most adept person I know when it comes to dealing with difficulties of any kind, when it came to producing and delivering quality cigar tobacco, he admitted that Honduras was one of the greatest challenges he had ever faced.  Beginning with the cultural aspect of what was in the early 1960’s a truly third world country, and with virtually no knowledge of the intricacies of growing Cuban style cigar tobaccos, along with the lack of infrastructure, we had to provide from scratch. The first growers were all Cuban refugees who had lost everything. Most were knowledgeable, experienced, and sincere farmers who were simply grateful for the opportunity to start over. A few were just criminals who were looking to “get out of Dodge” and gain a foothold in another part of the world.