In May, Miami-based Lionheart Capital, an investment firm headed by Ophir Sternberg, partnered with attorney and entrepreneur John H. Ruiz to purchase Cigarette Racing Team for an undisclosed price. They are assuming ownership from Skip Braver, who had owned the brand since 2002.
Braver grew Cigarette’s reach by inking deals with Mercedes AMG and Ducati motorcycles, and expanding the customer base beyond the go-fast, poker run crowd. He also moved production from Cigarette’s original “Thunderboat Row” location on Miami’s 188th Street to its current home: a 200,000-square-foot factory in Opa-locka, Fla., the former facility of Mako Boats.
Erik Christiansen, who joined Cigarette as president in 2019 after 21 years with Mercury Marine, is expected to stay on the team. No other staff updates have been made available at the time of this writing. “The success of the company is not because of me, but because of the great people who have worked with me,” Braver says. “I’ve been a steward of the brand for the long range, not for short-term gain.”
Sternberg and Ruiz say they have aggressive plans to expand the business. They will continue to build vessels in the recently renovated factory, and are investigating other properties in the Miami area to build new products — including Cigarette-branded personal watercraft and a 120-foot Cigarette yacht.
Other expansion plans include building a broader dealer network, adding a service facility with proprietary Cigarette parts, increasing staff and production, and adding a “true fishing boat” that the company plans to sell under a new name, the Maverick.
“The boating sector is experiencing amazing exponential growth,” says Sternberg, a specialist in luxury brands, real estate and acquisitions. “As I investigated, Cigarette emerged as the gold standard within its space. But it was not on the market, was not for sale and had never been for sale.”
He visited Ruiz at his home and saw multiple Cigarette models at the dock. Ruiz has owned nearly every Cigarette model ever built, and today has four, including a 59 Tirranna and 41 GTR center console.
“As we talked about Cigarette,” Sternberg says, “I saw his passion and knew he would be an ideal partner for the business.”
Sternberg then asked Ruiz to sign a nondisclosure agreement. When Ruiz learned the company in discussion was Cigarette, “My jaw dropped,” he recalls. “I told Ophir I didn’t want any other investors in the deal.”
Sternberg and Braver closed the deal after meeting in Miami at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Miami Beach, which Sternberg developed. “Skip is a real gentleman, and he realized he had the right buyers who understood luxury brands,” Sternberg says. “And John is such a strong partner — he is so passionate about Cigarette.”
Ruiz purchased his first Cigarette in 2002 after owning a number of performance and sportfish boats. While working on a wrongful death case that centered around a plane crash in Bimini, he took his Cigarette Top Gun some 50 miles across the Gulf Stream 19 times. “It was a great feeling in an open boat — nothing handles rough water like a Cigarette,” he says. “I only took a bigger boat when I had to travel with more people.”
Sternberg is now learning about go-fast boats. “Sometimes,” Ruiz says, “you end up partnering with someone with a different background but the same goals.”
New Products and Passion
Sternberg and Ruiz see no clear leader — and thus, an opening for Cigarette — in the competitive PWC market. They are also looking to acquire other brands that might complement Cigrette in that space.
Cigarette’s new fishboat is tentatively scheduled to debut at the 2022 Miami International Boat Show. There’s no launch date yet for the Cigarette yacht, but the design team is expected to include Italy’s Giorgio Cassetta (who has worked on numerous Benetti Yachts builds, including last year’s 353-foot “gigayacht” Luminosity) and Alberto Mancini (known for his work with the Fairline, Overmarine and Azimut shipyards).
“The [Cigarette] yacht will have a European look, fine lines and details,” Ruiz says. “I think people are ready for Cigarette to enter the yacht realm. They want style, luxury and performance in one boat. We have the experience and can accomplish that.”
Ruiz, who created the IT platform for his companies, also wants to teach people how to drive a Cigarette safely. He plans to build interactive trailers to take to boat shows and other events. ”It’s already in the works,” he says, as is a new lighted channel marker program to aid navigational safety and law enforcement.
Ruiz says the new ownership team has sold 10 boats so far, with six of them headed to a new dealer in Puerto Rico. They are also eyeing dealer expansion in the Middle East.
Cigarette’s legacy dealer network in Florida — including Lip-Ship Performance in North Miami and Performance Boat Center in Hollywood — have each sold Ruiz a number of vessels in the past.
“I think this will be fabulous for Cigarette,” Performance Boat Center’s Mindi Doller says of Cigarette’s new ownership team.
Lip-Ship Performance principal Phil Lipschutz agrees, saying it will be exciting to work with Ruiz, “who’s owned just about every Cigarette ever made over the years.”
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.