The small, charming Dutch city of Den Bosch, around 30 miles north of Eindhoven, was the perfect setting for Oliva Cigars’ first international sales meeting in February 2010. Not too far from here, about halfway to Rotterdam, Sasja van Horssen recently set up a logistics center for Oliva, which receives a monthly shipment from Nicaragua. The sizeable, modern warehouse allows van Horssen to practically push a button and instantly satisfy the demand of the EU countries (and beyond). “This speeds up the delivery chain from manufacturer to distributor tremendously”, says the Dutch cigar retailer, visibly pleased with the project. And the litmus test won’t be a long time coming – among the 15 wholesalers who took the trip up to the North Sea, a number acquired the Oliva brand for their portfolios for the first time – and the first big wave of orders is on the horizon.
Natalja Sokolova, from Tallinn, Estonia, is one of these: “It’s time to introduce Oliva to the Baltic countries.” Dimosthenis Kazaglis from Greece and Mario Lubinsky from Italy stocked up their cigar selections accordingly, as did wholesalers from Spain, Sweden and Russia. In other markets, like in Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Great Britain, Australia, China, etc., Oliva has been available for quite some time through specialty retailers. In other words, the plan is making progress. Oliva is no longer a major brand only in the US (where the cigars can be found in every decent shop), but can now begin to mingle with worldwide cigar business.
“This first international meeting with our European sales partners is a milestone in our history”, asserted José R. Oliva, who at 37 may be the youngest in the family business, but is considered their mastermind at marketing and distribution. “The driving force behind our international efforts was and is Brian Shapiro”, José speaks of the chief responsible person for the global expansion in glowing terms. Shapiro’s family is active in the cigar retail business, and in Connecticut runs the largest Oliva specialty brick & mortar shop in the world. But even greater challenges await the indefatigable and energy-laden international sales manager, as his boss notes: “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us in China.” Rounding out plans for the future, he explains, “It would be downright disappointing if, in ten years, we did not have a absolutely leading role within the international cigar industry.”
THE FIRST OLIVA CIGARS
The Oliva family originally comes from Pinar del Rio in Cuba, where in 1886 Melanio Oliva began cultivating tobacco; the productive farmer later turned the business over to his son Hi polito. “The fields were in San Juan, directly adjacent to those of Hoyo de Monterrey”, José explains, reflecting on the history of his ancestors. 50 years ago, the Cuban Revolution brought an abrupt end to the family’s tobacco plantations and drove the third generation into exile. But not without detours: the relatively short journey to Estelí in Nicaragua, where the Olivas today belong to the biggest tobacco farmers, ended up leading them halfway around the world. The Sandinista uprising of 1979 sent Gilberto Oliva Sen., today the 78-year-old father of the leadership quartet, to Panama, Mexico, Honduras and even to the Philippines, before he later finally could once again touch ground in Nicaragua.
During the 1980s, he was the first in the family’s history to build up a cigar manufacture in Panama. The first puro under the Oliva label, however, first appeared in 1994, when the fourth generation of Olivas entered the family business. Along with José they are Gilberto Jun. (49), who heads tobacco growing; Carlos (45) who heads production in Estelí as well as Danlí; and Jeannie, who directs the firm’s headquarters in Miami Lakes. While at first, the retail price of their cigars barely covered production costs – remember that during the so-called “cigar fever” America was flooded with cigars – but the quality of the brand was so good that it managed to retain a loyal following even after the waters abated.
TRAILBLAZING CONCEPT CIGARS
But the true “Oliva Renaissance,” as José likes to refer to it, began only five years ago. All of the family’s financial reserves were reinvested in order to refresh the brand with a new design and a new market orientation. The market reacted positively and immediately. After excellent ratings, the brand began to gain international acclaim and production grew quickly from six to today’s 13 million cigars. The family has proven its innovative potential since 2005, when they set new industry benchmarks with the creation of Nub and Cain. José Oliva: “Both brands come less from a traditional spirit and more from our drive to create something new. To us, both are important – on one hand to hold the family tradition high and on the other hand to take the reins as leader in the branch.” Sam Leccia, who was responsible for developing “concept cigars” Nub and Cain, transferred this fresh spirit into both new brands.
“Nub is probably the most meaningful breakthrough in the whole branch since the Fuentes developed the OpusX.” José is proud that the creation “comes from our stall”. The idea behind the Nub was to reduce a cigar to only the most flavorful parts of tobacco leaves, an idea that has been since copied again and again. Cain, on the other hand, sprung from the growing demand for ultra-powerful cigars. José: “With the Cain, we were able to prove that one can make a cigar very well from ligero leaves without losing aroma and flavor. It contains 82 percent ligero because in order to make a cigar smokeable, one needs a minimum quantity of other tobaccos.”
ON THE INTERNATIONAL LEVEL
“We almost exclusively use tobacco from our own production”, reveals José Oliva. “And that includes all Nicaraguan Habano wrapper leaves for the Series V, Series O, the Nub Habano and Cain Habano.” Note: due to copyright reasons, outside of the US all Habano versions are called Sun Grown. “Of course, we only buy in wrapper leaves from Ecuador, Connecticut, Brazil, Indonesia and Cameroon.” He’s so enthusiastic about his tobacco and blends that he not only does not avoid direct comparison with the best brands in the world, he seeks it out. “We’re not satisfied to be considered among the top non-Cuban brands. We want to stand head-to-head with the best in all markets … and, outside of the US, alongside Cuban cigars, of course.” The overhaul-motivated cigar businessman believes in pushing for further innovation in the cigar industry: “In 100 years, only one thing should not be subject to negotiation: that premium cigars should be manufactured purely by hand. But form, size, fermentation … all this will be rethought. It lies in our hands, to further develop these aspects and to offer the consumer the absolute best of which we are capable.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2010. Read more