WELLSWOOD — In his first few years as an American, Aurelio Llorente — whom everyone called "Junior" — may have questioned his decision to come here from Cuba.
He was 19 when he left Cuba in 1961, part of the wave of Cubans who fled their home after Fidel Castro took control. After brief stops in Jamaica and Miami, the Llorente family settled in Tampa.
Just a couple of years later, young Mr. Llorente was drafted and sent to Vietnam.
About a quarter of his life as an American had been spent in an Asian war. But Mr. Llorente ended up becoming an almost stereotypical example of the American Dream.
With his brother Roger, Mr. Llorente founded a business supply company that grew from a tiny operation with one customer to a company with several locations that has thrived for decades, even in the face of competition from such giants as Staples and Office Depot.
Mr. Llorente passed away May 24 from complications of heart surgery. He was 68.
He and his brother had founded Apex Office Supply & Furniture in 1981. Mr. Llorente worked at Apex every day until he went into the hospital six weeks ago. Mr. Llorente's passions were business and family, and the two were inseparable in his life.
After he came back from Vietnam, he attended the University of South Florida and studied engineering. He never pursued an engineering career, though, and instead went to work at his father-in-law's wholesale food business.
Meanwhile, his younger brother Roger worked for an office supply company in South Florida. In 1981, he approached Mr. Llorente with the idea of starting their own company. They opened Apex in a 1,500-square-foot space near the airport. Apex offered office supplies, but did it without a storefront. It was just a warehouse and everything was sold to corporate clients.
"The business, when it first opened, was very, very small," said Alma Llorente, who was married to Roger Llorente. "It looked almost like a garage. They had one customer and one driver."
A natural businessman, Mr. Llorente paid close attention while working with his father-in-law in the wholesale food business.
"My husband knew the office supplies, and Junior knew business," Alma Llorente said. "He could be a shrewd businessman."
At first, Mr. Llorente kept his job with the food wholesaler, and his brother ran Apex during the day. Mr. Llorente would go to Apex at night and tend to business matters. By the time Apex moved to its current location, on Howard Avenue near Hillsborough Avenue, the business had grown to the point where Mr. Llorente could devote all his working hours to it. When his brother died in 1997, Mr. Llorente became the sole owner.
Apex now also has a furniture showroom on Kennedy Boulevard and locations around Florida.
"He definitely enjoyed life," his son said. "He loved work, but he loved going out. He loved good food and a good wine and good friends."
In addition to his son, Mr. Llorente is survived by daughters Sara and Marisa, his brother Roberto and two grandchildren.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]