My name is Heinrich Villiger, and I was born on May 30, 1930, in Menziken, the canton of Aargau, Switzerland. Menziken has no geopolitical importance. However, it was once the center of the Swiss stogie industry, comparable with Bünde in Westphalia, Germany, the center of the German cigar industry to this day. There are numerous manufacturers who still actively produce in Bünde. However, in the Swiss “stogie country,” only one manufacturer is left, who also makes stogies, but mostly focuses on cigarillos and machine-made “closed-head” cigars. Furthermore, these are not produced in Menziken but the neighboring Pfeffikon, which is part of the canton Lucerne. That manufacturer is Villiger, the company founded by my grandfather in 1888.
The Swiss cigar industry experienced its golden age in the last century. The entire stogie country gave a home to dozens of manufacturers, with thousands of employees making stogies. Predominantly for the export to America, where the two armies fought the American Civil War. I am not aware of how these stogies were shipped to America.
I joined the company in 1950, at the age of 20, after completing my apprenticeship at the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce in Neuchâtel, the French-speaking part of Switzerland, with the so-called “Matura,” comparable to the high school exit exam in the USA. I would have liked to continue studying, but as the oldest child in the family, my father wanted me to join the company as quickly as possible. I spent the following year and a half undergoing further training in the tobacco sector, chiefly in the USA and the Caribbean – Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. At the time, we still had holdings in a cigarette factory in Switzerland. Additionally, I received extensive training in the southern states of the USA – racial segregation between “Whites” and “Coloreds” still existed then – to become a state-certified grader of flue-cured tobacco for cigarette manufacturing. Then I worked as a trainee in the raw cigar tobacco sector in Connecticut and Massachusetts – sorting wrappers: Connecticut shade and broadleaf.
Back in Europe at the end of 1951, I continued working in the family company. The training in the raw tobacco sector continued with visits to Brazil, Turkey, Germany for purchasing tobacco, in the Palatinate region, and the Netherlands at the tobacco exchange in Amsterdam. At this time, I also switched the production of stogies, cigarillos, and cigars from manual to mechanical, which kept me quite busy. Villiger was the second company to redesign cigarette machines for the production of cigar fillers. (The first were the Austrians – AUSTRIA TABAK – in their former production in Schwaz, near the Swiss border.) At that time, we also developed – at the same time as Arenco (Sweden) – the first machine for spiral rolling fillers with a homogenized wrapper (sheet tobacco). I also clearly remember a visit from a US cigar manufacturer who had never seen anything like it and could not believe his eyes.
In 1954, my father’s brother and co-owner, Hans Villiger, retired from the company and sold his shares to our family because he had no children. I was appointed to the Management Board of our companies in Switzerland and Germany. My grandmother founded the German subsidiary in Tiengen (today Waldshut-Tiengen) in 1910, which celebrates its 110th anniversary this year. Thus, I was fully ‘integrated’ into our company.
After getting married in 1958, I moved to a small farming village across from Waldshut on the Swiss side of the Rhine. Since then, I have been working as a ‘cross-border commuter’ in Tiengen in the Federal Republic of Germany, in the head office of our German companies in Tiengen and Bünde/Westphalia, where we have a plant with an annual capacity of about one billion cigarillos.
Another milestone in my career was 1989 when my brother Kaspar, a graduate engineer ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich), previously also a partner in our companies, moved into politics and sold his shares to me. He was a member of the Swiss parliament for many years and a member of the Swiss government for eight years, first as defense and then as finance minister. Kaspar, who is 11 years younger than me, has long since retired and is not an ‘oddball’ who works until he is 90.
In 1977, all the Swiss newspapers carried the headline “Tabak-Villiger made F-1 history in Austria with the first Swiss Formula One victory for the cigar manufacturer. The only cigar provider worldwide to ever actively participate in Formula One auto racing.” The driver at the time was Alan Jones, who later became world champion. It was also one of the highlights in our company’s history.
In 1989, Cuban Habanos SA and I founded the 5th Avenue Products Trading GmbH in Waldshut-Tiengen, the world’s first joint venture company for the exclusive import and distribution of the legally protected Habanos cigars from Cuba in Germany. Austria and Poland followed later. Then the Intertabak AG was founded in Basel in 1995, the exclusive direct importer of Havana cigars and cigarillos for Switzerland. In 1999, we expanded into the “raw tobacco” segment for the first time with the foundation of a subsidiary in Indonesia, VILLIGER TOBACCO INDONESIA, to produce wrappers for our cigar and cigarillo production in Europe. We employ about 1,000 women in Indonesia. And finally, yet importantly, in 2018, we opened a company in Brazil – the VILLIGER DO BRASIL in the state of Bahia – to produce hand-rolled Brazilian cigars.
In 2020, I’m not only celebrating my 90th birthday, but also my 70th work anniversary. At the same time, the German Villiger Söhne GmbH celebrates its 110th anniversary.