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Mariana and Nestor Miranda, Miami Cigar & Co.

In seven years, Mariana and Nestor Miranda have turned Miami Cigar & Co. into a force in cigar distribution.
| By Shandana A. Durrani | From Demi Moore, Autumn 96

The room is chalk white, with a table and chairs as plain as the walls. While the temperature outside inches toward 90 degrees and the air is humid, the ambience within is as cool and calm as the three people seated at the table. Nestor Miranda, his wife, Mariana, and their son, Daniel, appear at ease. Their faces are wreathed in smiles, smiles that speak volumes.

The Mirandas own Miami Cigar & Co., a seven-year-old firm that nationally distributes cigars made in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Spain. A modern-day success story, Miami Cigar began as a small, two-person firm in 1989, distributing just 40,000 cigars that year. That number rose to 3.1 million for 1995, thanks largely to the success of its flagship Honduran brand Don Lino and Dominican brands León Jimenes and La Aurora. Not bad for a mom-and-pop shop.

We are very happy with the profits, says Nestor Miranda, president and co-owner of Miami Cigar, in his slightly accented English. The total volume is over and above expectations. Sometimes we think in the middle of the night if it is real or just a dream. But I think we deserve it. We have worked very hard for it.

That the Mirandas' cigar business is a success is not unusual, especially with the recent cigar craze. What is unusual is that the couple, who are both 53, began the business when the industry wasn't booming. In 1989, premium cigar sales were flat. While other companies in the cigar industry were filing for bankruptcy or downsizing, the Mirandas launched their firm. It didn't hurt that many of their initial contacts in the liquor business were already dealing with Nestor.

As a sales representative for Southern Wines & Spirits, a California-based liquor importer and distributor, Nestor often traveled to shows and liquor shops, making contacts and developing liaisons with retailers around the country. In 1989, at a function for the Latin Business Association at the Viscaya Hotel in Miami, Nestor and Mariana forged a relationship with a representative from La Aurora cigars. Long a cigar aficionado, Nestor spoke to the representative about doing a cigar and brandy tie-in with his company. But Mariana had plans of her own.

Nestor got together with these people and said that he would like to have a humidor, she says. And they sent him a humidor from the León Jimenes family. And I said to Nestor that it was very nice. I was bored and I said it would be nice if I could sell cigars to the liquor stores. I represented the company and they were delighted.

La Aurora was not a well-recognized brand in the United States at the time. Its U.S. distributor, Campa Imports, sold them primarily in cafeterias and restaurants. Campa wanted to expand awareness for the brand in the United States, and the Mirandas had Nestor's liquor contacts.

I knew so little about cigars, Mariana says, laughing. Meeting her now, it is difficult to believe that there ever was a time when she was ignorant about the industry. You know this size called panatela? she asks. 'Panatela' in Spanish means pound cake. This owner from a liquor store said, 'Mariana, let us buy some of your panatelas.' And I looked at him and I said that 'I don't sell pound cake.' He started laughing and said, 'Mariana, for heaven's sake! You know so little. Panatela is a size.'

Now, Miranda is recognized as one of the foremost women executives in the cigar industry. While women have always played a role in the cigar world, few have had the opportunity to establish themselves in top-level positions.

I have never ever had any bad words coming from men in the business or any lack of respect. They love me and I have an excellent rapport with my customers, she says. It was funny at the beginning dealing with a woman, but they love it. I think it has been very, very good for me because I have taken advantage of being a woman in the business and I can get away with little things like, 'Oh, please come on, you have to buy from me.' They cannot tell me no, because I am a woman.'

It was a rough beginning. The Mirandas would put in countless hours in the business, sometimes working seven days a week. Mariana served as an account executive, but she also handled the billing and accounts receivable, and worked in the mail room, packaging and shipping cigars to the retailers. Nestor, still employed at Southern Wines & Spirits, usually helped at nights and on weekends. Danny worked part-time. Most of the work was conducted at their small office in the Calle Ocho section of Miami.

I would leave the house at about eight o'clock. I would go to all the liquor stores with Campa, only selling La Aurora, and I didn't come back until all the liquor stores got the product, Mariana says. I had a little answering service that I would get. When I would get to the office at about one o'clock, I would take all the messages, go to the warehouse, make the packages and send them.

Mariana worked with Campa until the end of 1989, when she decided to launch Miami Cigar. That same year, the Mirandas were approached by a representative for Don Lino cigars. The Honduran cigar maker was searching for a U.S. distributor, and the Mirandas, looking to establish their business, saw an opportunity. They acquired the rights and began selling Don Lino in the United States.

I really worked with Don Lino on the streets, trying to distribute them at all the different restaurants and tobacco shops, Mariana says. At that time, cigars were not that popular. But I always did pretty good, always had good sales. Nestor was in the company whenever he could help me.

On Saturdays, Nestor and Mariana would leave their home early in the morning, load their car with boxes of Don Lino cigars and travel from Miami to Naples, Florida, and all points in between, selling cigars to restaurants and tobacco shops. Their goal was to sell $1,000 worth of Don Lino cigars every Saturday; often they wouldn't return home until they reached that goal.

The cigar sales weren't very high, but we worked very hard, Mariana says. In the beginning it was very hard; some weeks I couldn't draw a single penny out of the business. I had to build it little by little.

The hard work eventually paid off. In its first year, Miami Cigar sold 100,000 Don Lino cigars. Several years later, at the 1993 convention of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America, Miami Cigar introduced the Don Lino Habana Reserve, a Honduran cigar with a Connecticut shade wrapper and Honduran filler and binder. It was an instant success. The firm followed with a new Don Lino in 1994, the Colorado, another Honduran cigar, with a colorado wrapper. It also has been well received. In 1995, the orders for all Don Lino cigars exceeded 2 million.

The Don Lino lines continue to grow through name recognition and placement in tobacco shops throughout the United States, such as De La Concha Tobacconists in New York City, which was Miami Cigar's first tobacco shop client, and its initial step beyond Florida.

We were approached by Lionel [Melendi] of De La Concha, Nestor recalls. He came to Miami and talked to my wife and said he really liked our cigars and would really like to sell them in New York. So that was our first bridge from Miami to the big market. Every month he was ordering 10 or 15 boxes.

We have a very good relationship with them, says Melendi, De La Concha's owner and president. They are a very hardworking couple, with a lot of unique ideas for promotion and distribution. They follow through on all of their promises.

The success of Don Lino didn't go unnoticed. In 1993, Nestor was approached by members of the Brugal family, a well-known rum producing family from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The Brugals helped introduce the Mirandas to the León Jimenes family. Nestor and Mariana flew to Santo Domingo and made a successful pitch for the U.S. distribution rights, outside of Florida, to León Jimenes and La Aurora cigars.

The Mirandas returned to Miami and soon established León Jimenes and La Aurora in the premium cigar market. They sold 135,000 cigars in their first year; they project sales of 1 million this year and 1.5 million in 1997.

From nothing we built León Jimenes as a premium cigar, Nestor says. They changed the wrapper from a Cameroon wrapper to a Connecticut wrapper. That is a big change for the consumer because they were accustomed to the Cameroon wrapper, so it was shocking. But by the same token, at that time Connecticut was coming along very well. Ever since then they have been improving the wrapper.

The problem was that La Aurora used to be discounted, says Daniel Miranda, the 26-year-old director of marketing. It didn't have any type of brand recognition. We have tried to bring it out into view a lot, to put it in the right places.

Since 1992 Miami Cigar also has distributed the Spanish-made Ducados, a machine-made dry cigar with a natural wrapper, with projected U.S. sales of 1.2 million cigars in 1996.

The Mirandas usually work 12- to 14-hour days, five days a week, and sometimes on the weekend as well. The burden has been eased somewhat since they expanded their staff to include several customer service representatives, an accountant, a sales representative and a few packaging personnel.

They have also enlarged their office space, recently moving into a 6,000-square-foot office, complete with a 28,000-cubic-foot humidor. The larger space will come in handy with their latest addition, U.S. Tobacco International brands Don Tomás and Astral. The Mirandas acquired the U.S. distribution rights (outside of California) in January 1996; they consider it their biggest coup yet.

In 1995, we were approached by the UST company; that was the beginning of Miami Cigar & Co. going to the big leagues, Nestor says. When we were approached by UST, we felt like we had reached cloud nine.

Don Tomás, which is made of Honduran and Nicaraguan tobacco with a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper, is a well-established brand. Astral, which is also constructed of Honduran and Nicaraguan tobacco, has been well received since its launch in June 1995.

Just three years ago they had only one broker who conducted business in New York, the company's top region. Miami Cigar now employs about 20 brokers, who make sales calls to cigar shops around the country. But the Mirandas themselves are busier than ever.

The Mirandas were high school sweethearts from the town of Holguín, Cuba, but, like many others, fled their homeland in the years following Fidel Castro's rise to power. Nestor left for the United States in 1962, when he enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Mariana left Cuba the following year and settled with relatives in Madrid, Spain. For a while the Mirandas' relationship was tested by the distance, but when Mariana emigrated to California in 1964, Nestor traveled across the country to find her. And then, the couple says, fate stepped in.

I was staying at the Silver Lake Motel and from there I called Mariana to see where she lived so that we could get together, Nestor says. Mariana asked me where was I staying and I said the Silver Lake Motel. I said, 'I am far away from you, right?' and she said, 'You are just seven blocks away from my home!' I believe that it was destiny that pushed me to be with her. No question about it.

They married in 1965; their son, Daniel, was born in 1970. They left California in 1971 after a large earthquake rocked Los Angeles and moved to Miami, where Nestor found a job with General Wine & Spirits, a subdivision of Seagrams. He was transferred to Tampa, Florida, in 1974, at which time Mariana gave birth to their second child, a daughter, Tatiana. A year later the family relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Nestor became regional manager for New Mexico and Nevada. The Mirandas lived briefly in New Orleans from 1980 until 1981 when they returned to Miami. They have lived there ever since.

In 1981, Nestor joined Southern Wines & Spirits, where his brother-in-law worked, as division manager for the Latin market. He remained there for 15 years, until deciding last January to devote himself full-time to Miami Cigar.

What I am doing right now is traveling around the country, looking for accounts, working with brokers, checking distribution of my products and teaching my brokers how to expand the line and improve communication with customers, says Nestor. This is number one. You have to communicate with your customers so they know you--when they know you, they know your company. That is the big thing with Miami Cigar & Co.

So what's in store for Miami Cigar? The Mirandas' conservative estimate for total distribution in 1996 is 9 million cigars. They hope to have a signature cigar, created by the makers of León Jimenes, in the future, and intend to distribute a robusto cigar from La Aurora and a torpedo from León Jimenes. They also plan on redesigning their labels.

Other plans include a men's cologne, made by Franck Olivier in Paris, which they planned to introduce at the August 1996 RTDA convention in Cincinnati. The smoked-glass bottle is shaped like a pocket cigar case, and has been well received in marketing tests. But cigars remain the top priority.

I like to smoke a variety of cigars that we represent to know the quality, because I am like the quality controller of Miami Cigar & Co., Nestor says. When I find something that I don't like too much, that doesn't mean that the cigar is bad, it just means that it needs a certain improvement. I communicate that to my importer. It is like every one is my kid and I love every one of them. Like a good mother and father, we take care of our kids.

A mom-and-pop shop indeed.

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