Going up in cigar smoke can be a good thing
A sharp eye for a good cigar and an investment of less than $150 has Miami man puffing on success.
Sure it's a cliche, but to Kaizad Hansotia, a smoke is not just a smoke, regardless of what non-lovers of tobacco say.
Nineteen years ago, Hansotia, a Miami-based entrepreneur, wasn't so sure.
But then, while on vacation in his native India, Hansotia stumbled across a cigar called Gurkha, named for the legendary Nepalese colonial soldiers who fought during Britain's rule of India.
He tried a couple and liked what he smoked. So he bought the brand - for less than $150. That was because a Gurkha, while tasty, fans say, was unfairly receiving little more consideration by cigar aficionados than a convenience mart Swisher Sweet.
Today, Gurkha cigars are considered a Rolls-Royce of smokes, according to the 2008 Robb Report. Gurkha's Majesty's Reserve brand goes for $750 apiece and $15,000 per 20-cigar box. And stars from Alex Rodriguez to Matthew McConaughey to Jackie Chan can be seen puffing on them.
And that, friends and rivals say, is the story of Hansotia's life - taking something simple, keeping it simple, and yet making it high end, too.
In a recent interview in his west Miami office, adorned in enough oak wood and blanketed by enough multicultural historic artifacts to make a museum curator jealous, Hansotia pointed to his family's personal mantra to explain his good fortunes.
"You take something good, and you make it better," the 40-year-old said. "You don't do anything to make it worse. That's it. That's my business philosophy."
As a child growing up in Hong Kong and London, Hansotia recalled his parents repeatedly sharing that philosophy as they built the family's custom watch-design business.
But the love he had for nice watches almost never got developed, because Hansotia had his heart set on more "official" type work.
"Because of where I grew up, my language skills were superior," he said. "I speak several Middle Eastern languages, and I always thought that I'd go through college and work for the U.S. government, in federal law enforcement in some capacity. But in the end I decided to stick with my family."
Sticking with his family meant dropping out of Miami Dade College after just a couple of years in the late 1980s and redoubling his watch design efforts - until he found Gurkha.
Hansotia is an interesting man without many hobbies or distractions, beyond spending quality time with his wife and sons and target shooting for relaxation.
"Otherwise, I work seven days a week. I really love my job that much," Hansotia said.
And that job?
"Maintaining the hard-to-find nature of Gurkha," he said.
In an average week it's not unusual for Hansotia to field calls from any number of Saudi princes, Hollywood actors and the office of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said friendly competitor Charlie Torano, the fourth generation leader of his family's Torano Cigar Co.
"You have to understand a couple of things about Kaizad. First, he's a unique player in the cigar industry," Torano said. "I like his honesty. He's not a guy who comes in and says I have 10 generations and this pedigree. He came over from the watch business and brought that knowledge with him, and you can see it in Gurkha."
The "it" that you can see, Torano said, are the frosted glass tubes in which Gurkhas are individually packaged, the gold caps on the tubes, and the unique design of each new line of Gurkha boxes, from hand-carved wood in one line, to boxes covered with leather and lined with suede for another.
As for the celebrity interest in Gurkha, Torano said, "Go into any humidor in any good cigar shop in the country, and you can't help but notice the Gurkha, because of their look. Then you smoke one and find you like them, too.
"He is definitely a pioneer in that sense, because he's pushed the envelope and has forced people in our business to come out with their own unique looks and high end lines. I say he's good for the business. He's a good human being and a good guy."
The irony here is that Hansotia was not a big fan of cigars before he stumbled across Gurkha. In fact, he said, he and buddies smoked them occasionally during "boy's night out" in college, but nothing more serious than that.
"In '88 or '89 I was in Goa, India, on vacation. And I saw these Portuguese gentlemen making cigars," Hansotia said. "I sat and started talking to them. We shared a bottle of Scotch. One thing led to another and I bought their business for $143.
"But the thing is, I wasn't thinking about selling cigars. I knew nothing about that. My intention was to give those that I bought as business gifts."
And that's what Hansotia did, until he ran out of gifts and colleagues on the receiving end began sending him purchase orders for more.
"That's when I began to take them seriously," he said.
Mike Giordano of Quality Importers Trading Co. in Pembroke Pines likened Hansotia's building of Gurkha to a chef learning to cook and to Indiana Jones searching for an elusive artifact.
"Kaizad sifted through all the mediocre stuff and found the best ingredients, the best tobacco," Giordano said. "That's why he produces so few cigars at a time, because he will literally travel to the other side of the planet for a high end tobacco. But there may be only enough of it to produce 50 boxes of a particular line of cigars. And you don't sell custom boxes of cigars for $100,000-plus if they're no good."
Further, what makes Hansotia stand out in the cigar business, Giordano said is his hands on approach.
"I have sat in a production room and watched Kaizad and a designer spend hours going over one minute detail of a cigar wrapper," said Giordano, whose company has helped Hansotia design Gurkha packages.
Aside from his family and the pleasure of smoking Gurkha's, there is one leisure activity Hansotia allows himself - the collecting of fine art, especially Tibetan paintings and Oriental Mandalys.
But even in his hobby, work is never far from Hansotia's mind.
On this day he holds up a black metal box, bearing an elaborate red and yellow dragon design painted on its cover.
"You like this painting," he asks, and not waiting for an answer says "It's a box of Gurkha."
Source: Miami Herald