FRED VANDEMARLIERE

With Oliva Cigars, Fred 'Cort├Ęs' Vandermarliere hooked up with a family business rolling out longfillers at top level. A dream come true, although he didn't get that crown jewel from the cigar world as a gift.

The difference between a cigarette and a cigar? With a cigar you sit back, with a cigarette you're on the edge of your seat. The intention to 'light up one' is completely different. It's the difference between enjoying and consuming,' says Fred Vandermarliere. He knows it: he is CEO of J.Cortès, one of the most iconic Belgian luxury food brands. The cigarillos with their instantly recognizable dark blue packaging enjoy world fame. Fewer people know that in 2016 he also took over Oliva, a brand that has a very good reputation among cigar lovers. Had you told me five years ago that I would bring in such a popular high end lung filler brand, I would have declared you crazy," he says.

But since the deal is done,it seems obvious that the two family businesses are a perfect match. We share a lot of values. Oliva is like a second family to me,' says Vandermarliere. Yet the takeover was totally unplanned. I knew Oliva for a long time, of course. Cigar Aficionado, the most renowned trade magazine about cigars, already wrote regularly about the brand. In 2014 the Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado received the award for best cigar in the world. 15 years later, Oliva never fell out of the top 25 of Cigar Aficionado. In 2016, 2017 and 2018 they achieved one third and two eighth places. To put it bluntly: Oliva is a class winner, a stayer in the top segment.

Volkswagen Phaeton

Already in 2012 Fred Vandermarliere got to know the family behind Oliva personally. I immediately felt: we share a history of passion across generations. They have been for five generations, the three of us,' he says. Melanio Oliva founded his cigar business in 1886. The Vandermarliere family of West Flanders has been making cigars since 1926, the J.Cortès brand has only been in their hands since the 1970s. Currently the company has 3500 employees worldwide. J. Cortès is active in the segment of cigarillos: say the intermediate between a cigar and a cigarette. The Dutch invented the cigarillo,' Vandermarliere knows.

Spaniards brought tobacco into Europe from Central America. Through them it spread all over the continent. The Dutch were jealous of that commercial success, so they introduced tobacco in their colony Indonesia. And they turned it into a new pleasure product: cigarillos. 150 years later, the cigarette was introduced. And as a result, tobacco was marginalized and vulgarized from a stimulant to a mass consumer good. At Cortès we once tried to make our own longfillers, but we failed. It was a bit like the Volkwagen Phaeton, the flop 'premium' Volkwagen. The customers did not find our repositioning credible. The cigar does not fit within our product family. Then I realized: we have to work together with a company that has know-how and a name. During a study trip through Central America - Honduras, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua to be precise - Fred Vandermarliere got to know many family businesses that have been producing cigars manually for decades. He visited more than 40 of them in total. 'A journey never to forget,' he remembers. With some entrepreneurs the "click" wasn't there immediately. But a few families really stayed with me because of their know-how, authenticity, quality, modesty and history. On that journey I learned Gilberto

Know Oliva. We did a first project together, and the intention was to market a lung filler together. That sounded like a perfect scenario. But then it turned out that Oliva would almost be taken over by one of the big cigar brands in the world. A disappointment for Vandermarliere, who saw his lung filler dream explode. But when he polled again six months later, it turned out that the deal didn't go through. Fred showed interest again and was finally able to take over Oliva

Incredible resilience

Going through the business with the coarse brush was by no means Vandermarliere's intention. He wanted to maintain the family tradition at all times, so he changed the 'house of trust' as little as possible. He also kept the Oliva family on board in the daily management. Continuity is assured in this valuable family business, which employs around 1,300 people who make about 20 million cigars by hand every year. 'We have improved productivity and logistics here and there. But the quality is still just as high,' he says. For the Oliva family, Vandermarlieres acquisition is an evolution rather than a revolution in their rich history. Great-great-grandfather Melanio Oliva successfully cultivated tobacco in Cuba from the late 19th century onwards. Business went well, until 1959 when Castro's Communist Revolution broke out. From one day to the next the Olivas had to give up their land and harvest, in exchange for food stamps. Gilberto Sr., Melanio's grandson, wanted to leave Cuba, but in Havana airport they feared - and rightly so - that he would not return. So the customs officers forced him to hand over his Mercedes, which he had sold in the meantime. Gilberto first had to buy back his own car and then hand it over to the regime. Absurd. The idyllic image of Cuba as a walhalla of cigars and vintage cars is just a façade,' says Vandermarliere. In search of new land to grow tobacco, Gilberto ended up with two Cuban families who had already set up tobacco plantations in Nicaragua, via the Dominican Republic. There they built a new farm, which functioned for 15 years. Until the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua and the family had to flee again. For the second time in their history they lost everything. They then fled to the Philippines, but a typhoon destroyed their entire barn complex in which the tobacco hung to dry. In 1995 they returned to Nicaragua, where production is still concentrated today. Unbelievable how much bad luck the family already had. But it proves once again that the Cuban people are enormously resilient'

Affordable luxury

In homage to the family, some of the most important cigars in the Oliva range are named after their ancestors, Melanio and Gilberto. Meanwhile, the fifth generation is in power at Oliva and the company is based in Nicaragua and Miami. For J.Cortès, Oliva's hand-rolled cigars are a worthy addition to their range of machine-made cigarillos. You know what I'm most proud of? That 99 percent of the employees work with a passion for Oliva,' says Vandermarliere. Since the takeover, deliveries for America have been streamlined to meet demand. But to say that the taste has improved since we are on board would be blasé. As J.Cortès,we can only learn from them. The advantage is: Oliva are top quality cigars, which are still affordable, especially when compared to the big brothers. It is the family philosophy that good quality cigars don't have to be very expensive.