In May this year, Heinrich Villiger turned 85. The Swiss cigar manufacturer has not only shaped the company Villiger Söhne for over 60 years, but also acquired a knowledge of tobacco that is unparalleled. In an interview on the occasion of his birthday, Heinrich Villiger emphasizes the role of his father, whose advice and guidance helped create the foundation for this knowledge of tobacco, upon which Heinrich still draws today. Graduating from high school in 1950 in Neuchâtel, his requisite skills had been developed – above all, the languages English and French.
For a period of one and a half years, his father then sent Heinrich to North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, where he was to learn about raw tobacco from scratch. In Maryland, North and South Carolina as well as Virginia, the young Heinrich participated in auctions for cigarette tobaccos – for, back then, Villiger Söhne, still had shares in a cigarette factory in the Swiss municipality of Münsingen. He then learned about Connecticut (Connecticut Shade) and Broadleaf in Hartford, Massachusetts, which was processed in Germany as a wrapper.
Villiger got to know Cuba before the revolution; in the Dominican Republic, he volunteered at the father of Hendrik Kelner, who would later build up Davidoff. In Europe, for one season, Villiger worked in Amsterdam at the Tobacco Exchange, followed by a stint with Austria Tabak in Turkey for the purpose of buying oriental tobacco. His “baptism of fire” came in 1958 with the lifting of the ban on mechanical production in Germany, where Villiger’s grandmother Louise had founded a subsidiary in 1910. Villiger Söhne was the first company in Germany to use extrusion machines for the production of wrapper strands. These were converted cigarette machines used to rationalize production. This was the next step in reconstituted tobacco binders, often wrongly referred to as HTL (homogenized tobacco leaf), but actually a registered trademark of General Cigar for strip tobacco.
Heinrich Villiger oversaw all these steps in the mechanization process, without which Villiger Söhne would never have survived as a global competitor. In 2014, the company produced 1.5 billion cigarillos and cigars, a percentage of which are trademarks. In Germany, this represents a market share of 24 percent; in Spain 21 percent; and in Switzerland 40 percent.
Mr. Villiger, you have a career and vocation of 65 years behind you. Are there any decisions that you would deal with differently today?
I would never go into the bicycle business again! My brother and I had a small company in Switzerland and invested substantial means in its expansion. But the factory burned down, and rebuilding it was expensive. Buying the Diamant bicycle factory in the former GDR also cost us a lot of money. At the end of the Nineties, we liquidated the bicycle business. It was financially a very expensive venture. We built excellent bikes; also, of course, with a lot of dedication and commitment. It would have been better to have invested in the tobacco business.
In sales comparisons, your company is among the ten biggest in the world rankings. How does Villiger Söhne hold up against the large corporations?
We do things differently to the others, look for market niches. Ninety-seven percent of the tobacco commodity market is cigarettes and is dominated by four large corporations and the Chinese tobacco monopoly. But these corporations also produce cigars and cigarillos and are thus among our competitors. But cigars are not part of their core business. Through our numerous products we can satisfy many customer desires, also in small countries.
Hostility from politicians and the public makes the success of your business difficult. Do you feel personally affronted by this?
When I talk to my wife about the work day in the evenings I always have to shake my head at the lack of understanding of politicians. For such an old family business that acts with so much heart, dedication and commitment, it is frustrating to see how legislation bulldozes through our products with huge restrictions. Unfortunately, we are lumped together with the large corporations that mainly produce cigarettes. Once, after a TV talk show in which I questioned the number of deaths due to passive smoking, I was even taken to court. Luckily, the judge had some understanding and put the incident down to freedom of speech.
At the age of 85 you are still fully active in the business operations. What course have you set for the future of the personnel in your company?
We have a very simple management structure. The various companies in Switzerland, in Germany, in Indonesia and the United States are combined in Villiger Söhne Holding AG. We have a three-member board of directors that is responsible for business operations. There are two managers, one each for technology/procedures and market- ing. That leaves me free to concentrate on what I enjoy, or on ‘problem issues’, which can also arise from time to time. We also have an active woman on the board, Hubertine Underberg, PhD., president of the board of directors of Underberg AG. One of my grand-daughters who came with me Santo Domingo and Cuba in February, is currently undertaking a management-trainee program on all areas of the business, and a second grand-daughter works in the marketing department in Switzerland.
What personal desires do you still wish to fulfil?
It’s a bit unrealistic, but I have in mind a Caribbean island where I can go fishing. With tears in my eyes, I sold my motorbike after 45 years of touring throughout Europe and also in America and Africa. But I still remain faithful to my mountain bike. And hunting still brings me a great deal of joy and variety.
With whom would you enjoy spending an evening smoking a cigar, why, and what would you talk about?
We would enjoy a good cigar with a fine whisky, and all the opponents of tobacco would be barred, because normally they are ‘emotionally charged.’ If he were still alive, I’d like to meet Ernest Hemingway. We would talk about cigars, hunting, and fishing.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2015. Read more