Díaz-Oliver, Remedios: 1938—: Entrepreneur
Remedios Díaz-Oliver: 1938—: Entrepreneur
As a well-educated young adult in Cuba, Remedios Díaz-Oliver hoped to become a college professor, but Fidel Castro and his communist regime undercut her plans and caused her and her new family to go into exile in the United States. In southern Florida, Díaz-Oliver stumbled upon a greater use of her talents: international sales and entrepreneurial executive positions. She would succeed in business despite her gender and ethnic background, as well as retain respect as one of the most prominent Hispanic businesswomen even as she battled years of litigation.
Found Opportunity in United States
Born in Cuba on August 22, 1938, Díaz-Oliver experienced business dealings firsthand as a child. Her father owned a hotel and also distributed hotel supplies throughout Cuba. She often accompanied him on business trips to the United States and Spain. This exposure to international business would later be beneficial to her. An excellent student, Díaz-Oliver graduated from high school a year early. She matriculated at business colleges before earning a Ph.D. in education from the University of Havana. Fluent in English, French, and Italian, Díaz-Oliver's worked for Havana Business Academy and Havana Business College, which had exchange programs with U.S. business-people and close ties to the U.S. Embassy, and had plans to become a full-time educator when political upheaval sidetracked her course.
One day when she was pregnant with her first child, Díaz-Oliver and her husband, Fausto, encountered Fidel Castro, whom her father had known in the early days of the revolution. As she recalled to Paul Miller for the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, "'Nenita (which my father used to call me) how are you?' he said. I looked at him and I said, 'Surprised you didn't keep your promises!' he didn't throw me in jail right then and there probably because I was pregnant, but I was in jail a year later." Both she and her husband were jailed nine days during the Bay of Pigs invasion, ostensibly for protesting against government imposed mail inspections. Shortly after their release, the American Red Cross assisted Remedios, Fausto, and baby Rosa, along with others, to immigrate to the United States. DíazOliver's family arrived in Florida on May 11, 1961.
Although the wages were low, the couple found work to support their family: Fausto at a yacht company; Diaz-Oliver in the accounting department of Richford Industries, a container distributor. Soon Díaz-Oliver familiarized herself with the company's products and became the company's Spanish-speaking employee who communicated with clients in Cuba and other Latin American countries. The woman who had never sold anything before coming to America proved to be an excellent merchandiser. Within a year she was in charge of the newly created International Division of a company that had never exported products before and, furthermore, had generated so many sales that the company ranked first among companies exporting containers to Central America. President Lyndon Johnson recognized her accomplishment in 1968 by awarding her the "E" Award (Excellence in Export); she was the award's first woman recipient. Combating what Miller termed "double-barrelled stereotypes," Díaz-Oliver guided the International Division's (not to the mention the United States's) expansion of market share in a region previously dominated by exporting container companies from France and Italy.
At a Glance . . .
Born on August 22, 1938, in Cuba; married Fausto Díaz-Oliver; children: Rosa and Fausto. Education: Havana Business University, MA, business administration; University of Havana, PhD, education.
Career: Richford Industries, accounting department, international sales, and vice president, 1961-76; American International Container, president, 1976-91; All American Container, founder, president, and CEO, 1991–.
Selected memberships: The Round Table, board member; Hispanic Heritage; United Way; U.S. West Inc., emeritus director; the Public Health Trust, board member; National Advisory Council of the Small Business Administration; Advisory Board Trade Policy, Negotiations and International Policy, appointed by the U.S. president in 1988, re-appointed in 1992.
Selected awards: "E" Award (Excellence in Export) by President Lyndon Johnson; Outstanding Woman of the Year, American Red Cross; Outstanding Woman of the Year, Association of Critics of Radio and Television, 1983 and 1984; Entrepreneur of the Year, Chamber of Commerce of Miami, 1986; Entrepreneur of the Year, Inter-American Businessmen's Association; Business Woman of the Year, U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 1987.
Addresses: Office— All American Containers, Inc., 9330 NW 110th Ave., Miami, FL 33178.
Success Marred by Legal Troubles
Díaz-Oliver credited her Spanish mother with her determination. In her conversation with Miller, she recalled her mother teaching her that "the only way you can succeed in life is by working hard." In 1976, when Richford Industries was sold to a division of Alco Standard Corp., she left and founded American International Container (AIC) with her husband, Fausto, and glass manufacturer, Frank H. Wheaton, Jr.; she became the new company's president. Wheaton gave her $50,000 to launch AIC and verbally agreed on a 50-50 partnership. Wheaton Industries was Richford's top supplier of bottles and containers. "I could have started the distributorship on my own, but with Frank I thought I would have national connections—really worldwide connections. Many times Frank was called Mr. Glass," Díaz-Oliver told Miami Herald reporters Mimi White-field and Barbara DeLollis. AIC's rapid growth bore out her abilities as an executive. The company grew from $800,000 in sales its first year to an astounding $90 million in revenues in 1991. In that year South Florida Business Journal placed AIC 33rd on its list of top privately owned companies. Díaz-Oliver's abilities also caught the attention of other companies, which enlisted her for their supervisory boards. At one time she was the only Florida woman to be a board member of three Fortune 500 companies simultaneously: Avon Products, Inc., U.S. West Inc., and Barnett Banks (Bank of America). Furthermore, she took part in elite events. She chaired a ball honoring Dynasty 's Joan Collins for the American Cancer Society in 1983; represented former President George Bush at South American inaugurations; was in a group that met with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989; attended a dinner aboard the royal yacht for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1991; and was recognized by Hispanic Business magazine as one of the nation's most influential Hispanics, and her family, with a net worth of $25 million, as one of the wealthiest Hispanic families in America, in 1997.
However, in 1991 Díaz-Oliver may have thought a hex had been put on her charmed life. Unhappy with the performance of Wheaton Industries, some of Frank Wheaton, Jr.'s relatives started investigating his handling of company operations. What they found out caused them to oust him, and later Díaz-Oliver. Their investigation revealed that, contrary to what Díaz-Oliver had been claiming for years, she did not own American International, nor did she even own half the company, because she never signed a written contract with Wheaton. Moreover, the investigation revealed business irregularities, including more than $1 million off the books, the use of company money to pay for personal expenses and contributions to charitable and political causes, and shell companies. Díaz-Oliver provided explanations for all the irregularities. She said it was common practice for Wheaton executives to use company money and resources for personal expenses instead of drawing a large salary; her 1991 salary was only $75,000. As for claiming full ownership of AIC and setting up shell companies, she did that because some companies wouldn't do business with a Wheaton subsidiary.
Explanations not withstanding, AIC's new management charged Díaz-Oliver and her family and friends with embezzling $3.5 million while she ran the company. She and her husband countered by suing Wheaton Industries and ten of its executives for $50 million for slander. The legal wrangling caught the attention of federal investigators, who uncovered fraudulent bank accounts and records believed to have been set up to avoid paying customs duties and taxes. At the heart of the investigation was the now-defunct Spanish Foods Inc., whose minority shareholders were Díaz-Oliver's son and a longtime friend. The scheme involved claiming phony business expenses to hide some revenues from the IRS and the submitting of phony invoices to U.S. Customs to deflate the true value of goods being imported from Spain. The probe resulted in an 18-count felony indictment against Díaz-Oliver, as well as charges against her husband and others.
Determined to continue in a business she knew thoroughly, Díaz-Oliver, her husband, and two children formed All American Containers, Inc. (AAC) in 1991. Under her guidance as president and CEO, AAC secured accounts with McCormick, Schering, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, and other large companies and set up a marketing network reaching into Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, the company sells more than five thousand different types of glass, plastic, and metal containers and caps to manufacturers.
As she built AAC, Díaz-Oliver lured many AIC employees back into her fold and engaged in years of litigation. In 1995 she dropped her slander suit against Wheaton in return for being able to buy AIC for $3.7 million. At the time it was valued at more than $11 million. After the settlement Díaz-Oliver started selling Wheaton bottles again. Son Fausto is president of AIC, which remains a separate company that competes with AAC. In 1999 another of Díaz-Oliver's legal problems was settled when federal prosecutors dropped their 18-count indictment against her and allowed her to plead guilty to two misdemeanors. She received three years probation for her part in customs fraud and tax evasion in connection with Spanish Foods. Her plea, however, unexpectedly garnered national attention and embarrassed the presidential campaign of Texas Governor George W. Bush when reporters revealed she was the host of a fund-raiser in Florida.
Continued to Help Others
In their Miami Herald article, Whitefield and DeLollis described Díaz-Oliver as not only a prominent business-woman but also as "an untiring worker for charitable causes, a champion of women in business, a symbol of Hispanic success and a friend of political leaders." No matter her tribulations, she remains actively involved in civic, business, and charitable organizations. She is the national president of the American Cancer Society's Hispanic Development Center and is on the boards of Infants in Need, Hispanic Heritage, and the Public Health Trust. She served several years on the presidential Advisory Committee of U.S. Trade Policy and Negotiations. In the 1980s she worked for both Republicans and Democrats, and even served as national co-chair of Hispanics for George Bush during the 1988 presidential election. She has received accolades from Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush, the state of Florida, the City of Miami, and Metropolitan Dade County, as well as numerous awards from organizations.
Díaz-Oliver believes she has been supported during her difficulties because she often has helped others. "It was a different and difficult world for women when I started. I think I was a pioneer in my own city and I haven't turned my back on women on the way up. That's why I think a lot of people are here for me now," she explained to Whitefield and DeLollis.
Florida Trend, January 1995.
Miami Herald, July 5, 1999; November 3, 1999.
South Florida Business Journal, September 23, 1991.
"Remedios Diaz-Oliver," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 20, 2003).
—Doris Morris Maxfield
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