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New owner looks to relight Cigarette

Thunderboat Row is history now, lost to waterfront gentrification.

The Apache and Cigarette builders who pioneered go-fast boating in Florida have moved off North Miami Beach’s N.E. 188th Street to make way for condominiums. The guttural growl of big engines and colorful parade of raceboat drivers and owners who hung out at Thunderboat Row’s docks and boatbuilding sheds is history, too.

But for Cigarette Racing Team, one of the enduring legends of “the row,” it is the start of a new era — in a new $9-million-plus plant, under aggressive new ownership and with a new vision for the future.

“When I bought Cigarette, I knew we’d have to move off 188th Street,” said Skip Braver, Cigarette’s 52-year-old president and CEO.

Nostalgia aside, the move to the 11-acre former Mako powerboat plant in the Miami suburb of Opa-Locka has been good for the 35-year-old company, Braver says. It has nearly tripled his shed space to 115,000 square feet, and the plant has been refurbished so that it looks virtually new now — and spotlessly clean. With help from the Beacon Council, an economic development agency, Braver secured $6 million in industrial revenue bonds to help finance the $5.4 million purchase of the 200,000-square-foot property and its $3.8 million renovation.

“We’re taking Cigarette from a hobby business to a real company,” says Braver, a Chicago businessman who learned about Cigarette and its go-fast boats as a devoted owner of a Cigarette 42 Tiger.

Braver’s spacious new office — its paneled cherry and mahogany walls, and black granite floors — are meant to convey to his clientele Cigarette’s image of quality and class. But his office isn’t just for show. It has a kitchen, shower, closets and bathroom. Braver practically lives at Cigarette, putting in 12- to 14-hour days there.

The client list for his muscle boats include some of the world’s rich, famous and powerful. Baseball’s Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez has owned five Cigarettes, the most recent one a 45-foot Maximus. Former President George H.W. Bush was a Cigarette owner (he now owns a 31-foot Fountain), as was President Richard Nixon. King Juan Carlos of Spain and the Crown Prince of Kuwait have punched the waves in their Cigarettes. Singer Enrique Iglesias is a Cigarette aficionado.

Some of the great powerboat racers — Dr. Bob Magoon, Tom Gentry, Vincenzo Balestrieri — went into the record books driving Cigarettes.

“Cigarette is a very unusual company, in the sense that it is not just a company,” Braver says. “It is a legend. Cigarette is a legend.”

The name — Cigarette — has become synonymous with the genre of high-powered, narrow-beamed, pointy-bowed go-fast boats popular with adrenaline junkies, day trippers — and for two decades now, drug smugglers. Braver says his buyers run the gamut, from doctors and lawyers and businessmen to a cop on the beat. The common denominator that draws them to Cigarette: They like to go fast.

Cigarette’s lineage goes back to the don of speedboat design, Don Aronow. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Aronow started and sold in quick succession some of the hottest companies in high-performance boating: Formula, Donzi, Magnum, Squadron XII, Cigarette.

Aronow unveiled his 32-foot vee bottom, The Cigarette, in 1969 for the 176-mile powerboat race from Long Beach, Calif., to Ensenada, Mexico. Cigarette, reputedly named for a Prohibition-era rumrunner notorious for outrunning Revenuers, won the race, and the legend was born. This prototype carried Aronow and his mechanic, “Knocky” House, to 192 victories, eight international wins and speed records in three countries. Cigarettes built by Aronow’s Cigarette Racing Team went on to win six grueling Bahamas 500 ocean races and seven world championships from 1969-’76.

Aronow sold Cigarette Racing Team in 1981, and on Feb. 3, 1987 he was gunned down in his car outside his U.S. Racing Team office on 118th Street. Ben Kramer, a convicted drug smuggler, world offshore champion and former partner of Aronow’s in U.S. Racing Team, pleaded no contest to the murder nine years later.

After Aronow, Cigarette went through a succession of mostly absentee owners. While its reputation for building high-quality, high-performance boats remained strong, its business performance never really lived up to the potential of its high-profile name.

Braver bought Cigarette in May 2002 from Glenn Laken, a Chicago futures trader who had been convicted the previous February of racketeering, bribery and fraud in a kickback scheme involving union bosses and plans to invest union pensions.

Braver has both the business credentials and the love of fast machines to take Cigarette forward. A graduate in marketing from the University of Denver, he founded a manufacturers’ representative company that worked for industry leaders like Nintendo, GTE, Sunbeam and Canon, and has worked as a private consultant for gaming giant Bally and developed licensing agreements with Disney. He also has owned General Motors and Chrysler auto dealerships, and has sold and owned exotic cars — Maserattis, Porsches and Ferraris.

His specialty has been high-end marketing and branding.

Braver became friends with Neill Hernandez, Cigarette’s longtime production manager, while having some work done on his boat, learned a lot about the company through Hernandez and eventually approached Laken about doing some branding using the famous Cigarette 1 trademark. When Laken told him the business was for sale, Braver entered into negotiations and bought it a year later.

Hernandez — a 16-year veteran of Cigarette who started work there out of high school as an electrician’s apprentice and worked his way up to manufacturing vice president — joined Braver as executive vice president and a minority shareholder in Cigarette.

“When I looked to buy the company, one of the things that was important to me was that Neill stay,” Braver says. “He’s been working in the factory for 16 years. He’s a very talented boatbuilder. We make a very good team. He handles production; I handle everything else.”

Hernandez says his philosophy is very simple: Detail, detail, detail. “That’s the key to our boat,” he says. “We look at all the details.”

And he builds every boat for one person. “Each one represents the persona of the one buying the boat,” he says. From the cockpit layout to the power package to the signature hull graphics to the choice of interior upholstery colors and personalized embroidery, a Cigarette is an extension of the buyer. A “conservative” owner may be satisfied with an 80-90 mph boat, another may want a boat that runs 100 or 120 mph. Hull graphics — an important part of the customization of a Cigarette — can be in subdued oranges or browns, or in wild yellows and purples. The Rider 46, Strip Poker, an eye catcher on the Poker Run rallies that give owners a chance to rev their engines and show their boats off, is adorned with a bikini-clad woman along the entire length of its hull. All custom graphics — Strip Poker’s cost $60,000 — are done by artist Dean Loucks at The Art of Design in Elkhart, Ind.

Cigarette builds 80 to 85 boats a year. They range from the 30-foot Vice, a $200,000 entry-level boat that debuted at the 2004 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, to the 46-foot Rider, which retails for just under $1 million with big twin Mercury 1075 SCI engines.

Braver says his first two goals as owner were to move off 188th Street and “get Cigarette from a hobby business to a real company.” Those jobs are done. Now he’s developing new product. He just introduced the entry-level Cigarette 39-foot Top Gun Unlimited, an updated version of the popular 38 Top Gun, which sold 620 units. The 39 has staggered twin inboards for better handling and so it can take bigger engines. Steering can be either at center for ideal field of vision, or starboard. The “39” also has a hydraulic step for stepping back and forth between the cockpit and deck, power seats and a “cover girl cabin for the ladies,” with optional head and shower.

Braver expects to keep Cigarette’s production for the domestic market at 80 to 85 units a year while he grows exports. “Fifty percent of Don Aronow’s sales were outside the U.S.” he says. He has introduced a new line of branded Cigarette clothes and accessories, and is selling them through stores around the country. He also is establishing strategic alliances with his vendors, chief among them Mercury Marine. Braver says 95 percent of his boats will be powered with Mercury engines. Cigarette was one of the first builders that Mercury certified to install its new beefed-up 1075 SCIs. Braver has introduced a fingerprint identification punch clock on the shop floor. Every time workers start a job, they punch in with their fingerprint and when they finish it they punch out with their fingerprint. This enables Braver to track the time required for each job and get a better average cost for each model. He has introduced computerized embroidery to meticulously stitch designs on the upholstery. Cigarette has its own welding shop and does most of its own fabrication itself, and continues to hand-lay hulls. Every boat is race-rigged. Every wire connection is screwed in place so it doesn’t shake loose punching through the waves.

No one messes around with the Cigarette legend, so some things at Cigarette just don’t change. One is the Cigarette look. “A Cigarette has to look like a Cigarette,” Braver says. Another is boat speed. Cigarettes must be fast. This has required some improving on the Aronow deep vee. Cigarette hulls have been stepped since 1999, to keep up with demand for higher speeds. “We’re constantly tweaking the bottom,” Braver says. Third, the boats must be reliable. Cigarette became famous as a sea boat surviving races across the Gulf Stream.

“I used to boat on Lake Michigan, which is as rough — if not rougher — than the ocean,” Braver says. “I wanted a rough-water boat. That’s what Cigarette is. Cigarettes shine in rough water.”

He says they will keep on shining. Braver is keeping the legend alive.