A Conversation with Nestor Miranda
The founder of Miami Cigar & Co. talks about the rise, fall and rebirth of his Don Lino brand.
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A: Yes, it was cigars, a company that sold cigars all over the U.S. golf courses, big business. They controlled all the golf courses of the U.S.A., and UST supplied them with cigars, but they had to go through me.
Q: They were cut off?
A: They were cut off, and they lost a lot of millions of dollars. And the lawyers said, "We want to represent you. You do have a case." I said, "No, I don't want to spend all my money in fees." We worked a deal, and out of the blue sky we sued them.
Q: So you wouldn't have sued otherwise?
A: Well, probably they were not expecting me to sue. Because I'm a little guy. They had the power. So I was kind of afraid to sue them and consume all my savings for nothing. So when I saw these people and I saw this letter, I was really, really mad. I got together with my family. My wife said, "We have to do a lesson." So I said, "Let's go." We went. We sued them—$100 million for damages.
Q: How did you come to the $100 million figure?
A: The calculation was made by a company in California. It was a $100 million suit, and it was done in Miami. They wanted it to be brought to Connecticut, but my lawyers won the right to have it in Miami. They sent an entourage of about 10 lawyers to Miami. My lawyers were two people from Texas. I said, "There's no way we can win this." And we won. We won the suit.
Q: The original judgment was for?
A: Forty-two-point-five million dollars, and we were on the front page of The Miami Herald. Then they appealed, the appeal went on, we finally settled the whole thing. It's OK.
Q: How much did you get?
A: I can't say.
Q: OK, so you got less than $42.5 million. When was it all over?
A: In 2002.
Q: So you got some money in 2002. But you also sued Southern Wine. You must have felt odd about that.
A: It was very, very hard for me to do that, even though they pulled the line for me. I respect, so much, the owners of Southern Wine. And I had been with them for 15 years. To me, it was hard to believe that things like this can happen. I'm just a little guy. But that's water under the bridge.
Q: You have other cigars besides Don Lino now. Can you talk about them?
A: In 1996 I was interviewed by your magazine. My daughter was in Gainesville, [Florida, at college]. I saw my picture with my wife and my son [Daniel], which was very nice. My daughter saw that picture at the university and said, "Oh, my God." And then she called me, and said, "Dad, how can you forget about me?" I did not forget about her. I said, "Tatiana, I feel so bad." I had to come out with something. And I said, "I'm going to come out with a cigar called Tatiana." I sent her a letter with a band, and it was a flavored cigar. So I started making and selling a few boxes, but then they started selling. Then I came out with the canister, the mini. I was flying to Los Angeles, and I wanted to come out with a little cigar. Having been in the liquor business, I knew I had to come out with something small, for the counter. So we made miniature cigars—the cigar was unbelievably horrible, but it smelled good. They had no boxes. They came with rubber bands. It was horrible.
Q: Did it sell?
A: It sold. Look at what we have today. It is unbelievable. Then we created gorgeous boxes—we got the second prize in Europe for the design of the Dolce. This becomes a big brand. So Tatiana was born. And I am more than happy to see the success of Tatiana.
Q: Does it make your daughter happy?
A: Oh, my God. (Laughs.) The only thing is—she wants royalties now.
Q: So you have Don Lino, you have Tatiana, named for your daughter, and you're still the exclusive distributor of La Aurora.
A: Next year, we're coming out with the new Don Lino signed by me. I'm going to have publicity. I want to have my dynasty.
Q: Why Don Lino? What does that mean?
A: Lino was the name of the person at the factory, and we used that. It was just a name. And it sold so well, why change it?
Q: How do you feel now about where Miami Cigar is?
A: I am blessed with having a great son. He is unbelievable. He lives for the company. And I have great support—my wife is there, too, but my son is the one running the operation. I give him the support of my experience in sales in the market, but my son is the one who makes the decisions in the company. I do not make decisions without consulting with him. I come out with ideas that we put together. For example, I was in Africa hunting in a safari. It was my dream, and I think it's every man's dream to be in Africa. I went hunting in Africa, and I had such a great time. I was on a plane for 21 hours. I was thinking it's such a great country, Africa, so I designed a box of cigars on the plane. When I came to Miami, I said to my son, "Let's come out with a cigar, Africa." He said, "Let's do it." We wanted to put on the front of the box the name of the mountain, Kilimanjaro. It was taken. I said, "OK, Let's come out with Don Lino Africa." They are gorgeous boxes. I wanted to put the name of the African animals—but in the Masai language. Intead of calling it Cheetah, we call it Duma. Instead of Zebra, we call it Punda Milla.
Q: Does it do well?
A: We did very well. We did 250,000 cigars the first year. My expectation was 200,000.
Q: Is there African tobacco in it?
A: We have Cameroon in the filler blend. So when I went to Nicaragua, we started making blends. I told the blender, "Why don't we use a leaf of Cameroon in the blend?" No one had ever done that before. I tried it and I said, "This is it." It has oily Nicaraguan wrapper, we use Costa Rican, we use Dominican, we use Cameroon. I understand some of the empty boxes are [being] sold. It costs much more than regular boxes.
Q: Describe the roles your family plays?
A: Danny is vice president of sales, my wife is president of the company and I am just the director.
Q: Have you always been that way?
A: Always. I don't go by titles. I go by the end-of-the-month sales, and the profit that we make.