Marc, a taxi driver, picks me up. “Ah, you’re visiting Fredje! He’s a great guy and also a fantastic employer. You’re going to have fun.” I’m excited. Having arrived in Handzame, I join a group that’s listening attentively to a presentation. The man standing up the front is not tall, but everyone is taken by his person. The speaker is Fred Vandermarliere, a bundle of energy, charming, captivating, a great joker. His audience – all of them specialists, members of the Jean Nicot fraternity. Until Fred finds time for an interview, together with the group I learn about the production site Handzame – the bobbins arrive here from Sri Lanka, where J. Cortès employs more than 2000 people. This is also where the cigarillos and shortfillers of the Neos and Amigos brands are manufactured. Jean Nicot campaigns for pleasure smokers in France and Belgium, much like Cigar Rights of Europe. We quickly start talking shop; our love for tobacco connects us. “I love to bring people together,” Fred says later to open our interview, “that’s why it was important that you came today, not just to meet me but also other friends of tobacco from Belgium.” Although Fred exudes a happy, casual manner, he’s both a strategist and a full-blooded businessman. “Work hard and play hard,” is the motto that he demands from himself and his employees. Derived from the company name J. Cortès, he calls all his staff members (himself included), the “Cortèsiens.” “This means being more than just someone who works for Cortès,” he explains. “People who want to get started with us need to have their specialized knowledge but, mainly, they need to uphold certain values. Our corporate culture is to be flexible and humble, to know what one can and can’t do, to trust each other, to help one another when there’s a problem.” Fred not only invests his energy in his company; he’s constantly fighting for the entire tobacco industry on a national and European level.
THE CORTÈSIENS BOSSFred is the youngest offspring of Guido Vandermarliere, whose father founded the family business almost 100 years ago. When son Fred joined the company in 2005 he was only 23 years old and after his studies wanted to gain experience abroad after completing his studies in applied economics. But his father asked him to work for the Gryson subsidiary. “He started an experiment there and, in case anything went wrong, he wanted to have someone in charge that he could get rid of easily,” laughs Fred. “And that was me.” In 2011, when Guido Vandermarliere withdrew from the company and took on a consulting role, he left big footsteps to fill. With the purchase of the brands Neos and J. Cortès in the 1970s, the company became a global player. Today, the entire firm is named after the successful brand, J. Cortès. Fred is taking over a more than solid, globally active company. He could have taken it easy at first; aged 29, there’s still enough time to shape things. But the Vandermarliere gene, a combination of energy, strategy and risk appetite drives him to take big steps. After only four years, he decided to buy the company shares from his two sisters.
“It was good that I was still so young, because you don’t see the dangers so much,” Fred says. “First of all, I dared take that step because I believe in our industry and am passionately behind it, and, of course, because my sisters believed in me. Apart from that, I wanted to avoid discussions within the family. Tobacco is not an easy business and silent partners will not understand every step that the active part has to take.”
A VISION BECOMES REALITY
In 2016, only two years later, the young entrepreneur took a second, decisive step. He bought the world-renowned brand Oliva Cigars, a family-owned business whose products are among the top cigars in the world. Just as Fred had come to the conclusion that family and business might be difficult to reconcile, the concerns of the four Oliva siblings were that too many owners within one family meant too many different interests. But instead of selecting one of them as boss, the family decided that everyone should sell. Not an easy step for a company that had been successful in the tobacco business for 130 years. “Selling a family business is like watching one of your children getting married, it’s a bitter- sweet experience. Your greatest hope is that it goes to someone who has the same respect and passion for your family’s work,” explains José Oliva, former CEO of Oliva, describing the feelings he had before the deal. It’s similar with Fred Vandermarliere, when you ask him what he feels three years after the purchase. “Yes, it’s becoming my brand more and more. I know that I should say, ‘yes – from the beginning, 200 percent.’ But it’s not my baby; it’s more like an almost adult child that I’ve adopted. I have to accept and respect that, and I want to give this child the best possible future it can have.”
DRIVE BEHIND THE DREAM
There were two reasons behind Fred’s vision of owning a longfiller factory: passion and strategy. When he started working for his father, over the course of four years he became acquainted with the complexities of raw tobacco in Sri Lanka. “I was fascinated by the fact that wrappers can be classified into 400 different shades of color. Back then, I fell in love with it all.” He admits that in his segment of the branch at first he lacked drive. “In Asia, it’s always about numbers; in Europe we mostly talk about bureaucracy and laws.” Vandermarliere traveled through Central America for three weeks with a leaf trader and visited almost 30 cigar factories. “I came home with renewed energy. I’d met people who were passionate about the product like I was. It was like finding brothers. At the same time, I felt a deep respect for their knowledge and ability, and realized how big my interest for tobacco growing and handrolled cigars is.” In addition to his passion for cigars, the Belgian also believes that the shortfiller market will completely change in the next 30 years but that the premium cigar market will remain stable. “People looking for indulgence, who love premium cigars and their variety in flavor will always exist. There is nothing that can replace this type of enjoyment.” That’s why Vandermarliere believes that the purchase of Oliva was also a strategically good decision.
OLIVA CIGARS. THE NEW ERA
“For things to remain the same, everything must change.” This quote from The Leopard perfectly applies to the change of ownership at Oliva Cigars. That was the change – and the rest was supposed to remain as it was for the time being. “My big fear was that the key figures at Oliva would go,” Fred says of his biggest concern. “What would happen then? I was reliant on their experience; wanted to be sure that the high quality would continue to be guaranteed.” José Oliva, from his perspective, always wanted the company, the employees, and the new owners to “do well.” “José and I knew that the acquisition should be gentle and natural,” Fred explains. “He was the deciding factor that all employees would stay.” And José Oliva knew exactly what the future owner of the brand should be, and Fred was his preferred candidate. “Fred Vandermarliere has been everything we could have hoped for. He is infinitely passionate about tobacco and deeply respectful of tradition. Working with him has been like having a whole new member of the family. He is a great combination of a forward-looking visionary and curator of history. Fred succeeds because he pays attention to the details and cares about people.” José, who is, meanwhile, in politics, is still behind Fred as a consultant. The Olivas still own the tobacco fields in Nicaragua and take care of cultivation. The deal is that the Oliva factory has preemptive rights and obligations with respect to this tobacco volume. “The biggest compliment is hearing our staff say, ‘Fred, hasn’t changed anything,’” the entrepreneur admits. Of course, this is not entirely true; naturally, Vandermarliere brings a great deal his global business experience to Nicaragua. A new box factory was built; the machines and rolling stations have been renovated; the work processes have been optimized, and the safety regulations in the factory are in line with EU standards. “The soul has remained the same, but the body has changed,” says Fred, describing the change. The “body” of Oliva has not only grown through an additional factory in Estelí, Tabolisa II, and the box factory, the new owner is also anxious to keep increasing the tobacco supply – currently his biggest investment. “I’d like to guarantee quality, and for that I need time, patience, money, of course, and a large warehouse,” says Vandermarliere. In addition, with the three lines Oliva, Nub and Cain, the brand is steadily expanding in Europe and Asia. “In this, Brian Shapiro continues to play an important role. He used to be the international sales manager of the company, and he also stayed on with us. He’s now Brand Ambassador and has taught our sales team an awful lot.” In Zwevegem, the logistics center of J. Cortès, Vandermarliere has a big and perfectly climatized warehouse for premium cigars. Here, depending on federal specifications, the boxes are labelled and sent on. Today, Oliva Cigars is present in more than 60 markets and has grown annually with double-digit figures since 2016.
On the way back to the airport, I meet Fred’s parents, Guido and Thérèse, on a short stopover. As mentioned, Fred loves bringing people together. I quickly feel so comfortable that I actually don’t want to leave, and would prefer to keep listening to Guido’s stories about the tobacco industry. The day with Fred has been an exciting journey through his life between Belgium, Sri Lanka, and Nicaragua. I still want to know where he really gets his noticeably large amount of energy. “My wife is fully behind me and slows me down when I say ‘yes’ too often to unimportant things. But I inherited my energy from my parents. They’ve passed on good genes, but also the gift of enjoying life. Seeing things in a positive light as a basic attitude simply gives you a lot of power.”
Copyright Images: Jef Boes