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Just Do It

Entrepreneur Tom Celani has built an empire of casinos, a Harley-Davidson dealership and a winery by always putting customers first.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011

(continued from page 2)

“I think cigars are a lot like wine,” he says. “You know when you taste it whether it fits your taste buds.

“I grew up in the beer business where people are loyal to one brand. But with wine, people enjoy traveling around and drinking different wines from different places. That’s why I have a wine cellar and collect wines. Cigars are the same way. I enjoy an OpusX at certain times, though it can be a little strong for my taste. But one of my favorites of all time is the Zino Platinum Chubby Especial from Davidoff. It’s got the easiest draw I’ve ever had. It hits me perfectly.”

Sipping wine and savoring a cigar, Celani is the picture of the successful entrepreneur and businessman. He inherited a business at 26—but in the subsequent 30 years, he has built an empire.

That empire includes his vineyard, casinos in various parts of the country and the largest Harley-Davidson dealership in the Upper Midwest, Motor City Harley-Davidson in suburban Detroit’s Farmington Hills (as well as Motor City Power Sports, which sells snowmobiles, Jet Skis, ATVs and the like).

Every facet of his various enterprises reflects his personality: a guy who loves to mingle and shmooze with his customers, to offer the personal touch in an era when corporate and multinational interests dictate just the opposite.

“I love the entertainment business,” he says. “I love being with people. I love that energy. The saying is that a casino is a bank surrounded by a circus —and I don’t like being in the bank. I can talk to anybody in the casino. I can talk to the whale who’s betting $10,000 a hand or the grandma who’s putting pennies in a slot machine, who wants to talk about the buffet.
“People love to know the owner of the casino is a gamer. I understand how they feel. I love the energy of the entertainment business with people having a good time.”

The office for his gaming interests, Luna Entertainment, is a few miles down the road from his Harley dealership, where he also keeps an office: “I’ve had the office at Motor City Harley for 14 years and I love the atmosphere—I love the energy in that building. I need people.”

If there’s a key to Celani’s success with people, it’s that he’s a natural salesman. “It’s a gene,” he says, one that he inherited from his late father.

Celani likes to say that “I learned the beer business with a broom,” growing up working in the Miller Beer distributorship his father built in Detroit, after years as a beer delivery truck driver. His father wanted Celani to skip college and come to work for him; Celani, however, had dreams of playing Major League Baseball. As an all-state third baseman in high school, he took a baseball scholarship to Central Michigan University.

At the end of his first semester, however, his mother was diagnosed with cancer.  “That was Christmas 1974—and so I left school to be home with her for the time she had left,” Celani says. “It was the right decision.”

Instead of returning to college, he went to work for his father, who had turned a distributorship for Hamm’s Beer into the biggest distributor for Miller Beer in the state. Though Celani had done physical labor in his father’s warehouse as a teen, his father “elevated me to the office. He put me on the street, selling to stores. I learned as much as I could there.”

But when his father died of a heart attack in early 1982, Celani found himself the new president of a beer distributor doing $50 million a year in sales.

“The first day after the funeral, I went into the office and looked at the paperwork and thought, how am I ever going to fulfill this the way he did?” Celani says.

He also had a phone call from Leonard Goldstein, then-president of Miller and a longtime friend of Celani’s father. Goldstein told him that Miller executives were worried that Celani was too inexperienced and were considering forcing him to sell. “Then he told me he had gotten me 12 months of probation, and for that period he was going to be my best friend and get me through it. I was 26 with no formal college education, so for him to step in and take me under his wing was huge. And it’s only because of his friendship that I got through.”

The key piece of advice he received from Goldstein?

“He told me to remember my dad’s core values—and what my dad did well was maintain his relationship with customers,” Celani says. “Leonard also told me to never be afraid to hire someone who was smarter than me. If you know your weaknesses, you hire to fill those holes. Sometimes that’s not easy to do, because your ego gets in the way. But the only way to grow a business is to surround yourself with smarter people. You never stop learning. You just keep asking questions. And you learn.”

Over the subsequent decade, Celani happened into several business opportunities that seemed small to start with but which grew into major moneymakers. At one point, Celani was offered the chance to buy a company that produced slot machines—and then won the contract to supply slots to the newly opened Native American casinos that began to spring up around the Midwest and the rest of the country.

Selling that company for a large profit, he joined a group that spearheaded a 1996 referendum to legalize commercial casinos in Michigan. He then brought casinos to Detroit, owning and later selling his interest in several casinos in Michigan and Lake Tahoe (including the Cal-Neva, which was once owned by Frank Sinatra). He currently owns casinos in Denver and Oklahoma, with hopes of opening one in California, north of his vineyard.

The Harley dealership was another case of being in the right place at the right time, thanks to a lawyer friend who had a client who was about to lose the dealership. Celani was able to use his contacts with Miller Brewing, which is a Milwaukee neighbor of the Harley-Davidson corporate headquarters, to make a call and help him buy the franchise.

In turn, his involvement with Harley-Davidson has helped his work with tribal casinos: “When you’re on the reservations, dealing with the chief, they never trust developers—here’s another white man, and the white man took our land and left us with a lot of desert and swamp,” Celani says. “But when they heard I was a Harley guy, the conversation changed. They knew I wasn’t some Slick Willie from Vegas, that I have some values. Because either people are Harley riders—or they want to be.”
He’s proud of his involvement with Harley and well aware of just what the name means.

“No one has the kind of brand awareness that Harley does, except maybe Coke and Pepsi,” he says. “Harley-Davidson is right with them. It’s the No. 1 tattoo in the world—I don’t remember people putting ‘Coca-Cola’ on their arms.”

Celani himself owns two Harleys, including a vintage 1992 Moonglide (“They made 2,500 of them.”). “I get a new bike every year,” he says. “When I go touring, I take the new one, which has GPS, fuel injection, an iPod dock — the works. But in the city, I’ll take the ’92, which is loud and shakes a little.”

Celani’s Bloomfield Hills estate includes a 10,000-square-foot home built on 20 acres on a lake, with a pool house. His garage contains a couple of Celani’s prize possessions: a beautifully restored 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 1966 Ford Mustang Cobra (“It’s so loud and it leaks oil. I run it on racing fuel”).

“I do love American muscle. That 1960s, early 1970s period was phenomenal,” he says.

He also owns a Ferrari Enzo and was just selected to be one of 17 people in the United States to buy the new Ferrari SA APERTA, of which only 80 were built. To get it, he had to submit a resume and an essay on why he deserved to be chosen.  “And then someone told me that once they heard I had a vineyard, the Italians thought I’d be a good guy to have one.”

The cost? “I don’t know yet—probably in the $700,000 range,” he says. “But I’m a car guy. To me, it’s like buying a piece of art.”

As engaged as Celani is with his casinos and his motor sports business, it’s not hard to tell where Celani’s heart really is: in Celani Family Vineyard, the 20-acre vineyard he bought in 2005 in Napa Valley. He quickly hired noted winemaker Mark Herold and produced wine that very year—and continues to expand the boutique label. The vineyard sells out its annual production of 5,000 cases (divided among five varieties), though, as Celani puts it, the enterprise is “still a nonprofit.”

“I spend a lot of time on wine,” he says. “I’ve got a great winemaker and I enjoy going out and selling. We’re nurturing our national growth. It would be easy to just nurture our Michigan business, but I’m taking it to the national level, building a core business with fine restaurants like Morton’s, Capital Grille and McCormick & Schmick’s. We’re going up against 5,000 wines and the list at Morton’s is only 250 or 300 wines—including ours. The same with McCormick & Schmick. Their list has maybe 100 wines. It’s the shortest list I’ve ever seen. And we’re on it.”

The key to getting his foot in the door at restaurants? “I won’t sell it to them unless they let every waiter taste it,” he says. “You can’t sell a wine if you don’t believe in it yourself; the only way for the waiters to have the confidence to recommend it is to taste it.”

Celani is so convinced of the appeal of his product that he offers restaurants a guarantee: If a restaurant customer orders a bottle of Celani wine and doesn’t like it, Celani Family Vineyard will refund the price of the bottle to the restaurant. So far, he says, it’s never happened.

“We’ve got a great winemaker and passionate owners who are putting their tools together,” he says. “It does take time to build a reputation—but once they try our wine, people become ambassadors for it. Because, if you enjoy a product and you like the story behind it, you tell it to someone else. And they’ll buy it and try it themselves.”

Celani and his wife have three children: Vinnie, 21; Olivia, 19; and Benny, 17. His success has fostered a concomitant belief in philanthropy: The Celanis’ foundation is a major contributor to Central Michigan University, the College of Creative Design in Detroit and benefactor to a variety of hospitals and arts organizations in Detroit.

“Some guys want all the credit for things like that, but Tom isn’t like that,” says Gary Burkart, president of Celani Family Vineyards. “He does it; he just doesn’t talk about it.”

“If you do well in life, you should give back,” Celani says simply.

At the end of the day, Celani likes nothing better than opening a bottle of wine, lighting a cigar and pulling up a chair at the outdoor fireplace overlooking the lake in his backyard.


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