Cigar hall-of-famer Frank Llaneza always put family first

TAMPA — Cigar manufacturer Frank Llaneza measured his work by a simple standard. When you finish a good cigar, he said, you are ready for another one.

For 60 years, the former owner of Villazon and Co. made cigars for all tastes and budgets. He survived the Cuban embargo by blending Havana leaf with tobacco from other countries, eventually creating a comparable cigar all his own.

Eventually, he created cigars that resembled the aromas and flavors of Cuban cigars. In 1996, he sold Villazon for millions. A year later, Cigar Aficionado magazine inducted Mr. Llaneza (ya-NESS-a) into its hall of fame, which has just six members. Four of the members have ties to Tampa.

An orderly man with a soft voice, Mr. Llaneza ran a tight schedule that reflected his priorities. At 4 p.m. every Friday, he packed his wife and four daughters in the car and headed for a beach house in Boca Grande for weekends of fishing. Friends and boyfriends were welcome to come along, but not anyone who wanted to do business — unless they too were willing to grab a pole and hop in the boat.

Mr. Llaneza, who crafted a life as rich and full as his famous cigars, died March 18, of heart failure. He was 90.

"A bit of history dies with the Llanezas and people like them," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. "Those folks helped build this place and gave jobs to so many people."

He was born in 1920, at the front end of the cigar industry's 50-year heyday. Jose Llaneza bought into Villazon in Ybor City while his son was an infant. Mr. Llaneza worked in the factory during Tampa's "Cigar City" boom years, when 30,000 employees of 200 companies produced hundreds of millions of cigars. He entered the family business in 1936, after graduating from Jesuit High School.

Mr. Llaneza learned the art of turning tobacco into good cigars, selecting the just-right leaves for fillers, binder and wrappers.

"He was one of the grandmasters of the industry, like you would consider in chess," said John Oliva, 67, whose family business supplied Villazon with the tobacco for its premier cigars.

Jose Llaneza eventually bought out Villazon's other partners. He handed over the business to Frank Llaneza in 1953. On business in Managua, Nicaragua, he met a woman named Diana at a party. They were engaged a week later and married in 1954.

He turned the 1962 U.S. trade embargo with Cuba into an asset, cultivating Cuban seeds in South and Central America. "He liked a cigar that was a little more full-bodied but not biting," said daughter Carol Jean Llaneza, who followed her father into the family business.

Mr. Llaneza never had a son with whom to bond over a cigar. He enjoyed smoking with his daughters' husbands on the back porch of his home, overlooking a canal in the West Shore area. As his wife's and daughters' birthdays approached, he scoured the drugstore aisles, searching for a card that came with just the right message.

"Stuff he couldn't say directly," said daughter Ruth Hudson. Family was the centerpiece of his life, the reason he refused all business calls over decades of fishing weekends.

After decades in decline, the cigar industry enjoyed a resurgence of several years in the 1990s. The boom surprised Mr. Llaneza, whose business doubled to 70 million premium cigars a year at factories in Tampa and Honduras. In 1997, Mr. Llaneza and partner Dan Blumenthal sold Villazon for $81.4 million to General Cigar Co., according to Cigar Aficionado.

He joined in partnership with Nicaragua American Tobacco S.A. (NATSA), which produces 100,000 cigars a day in Nicaragua, and was working in an office out of his former factory on Armenia Avenue until two weeks before his death.

In November, the U.S. Patent Office approved NATSA's newest product: the Frank Llaneza line of fine cigars.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

Frank Llaneza

Born: March 9, 1920.

Died: March 18, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Diana; daughters Ruth Hudson and her husband Rob, Mary Frances Baker and her husband Tim, Lynette McKown and her husband Stuart, and Carol Jean Llaneza and her husband Robert Jones; sister Olga Valdes; and 10 grandchildren.

Cigar hall-of-famer Frank Llaneza always put family first 03/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 12:59am]

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