Life Flip

How a soldier went to war with his unique brand of Cuban-style cigars

As a first generation American, born and raised in the Windy City of Chicago, veteran entrepreneur David Blanco learned the qualities of a great cigar early in life from his father, Cesar, and uncle, Francisco.

Both Blanco brothers left Havana, Cuba in 1961, headed for Miami, to prevent the assassination of their father, David's grandfather, also named Cesar. When Fidel Castro took over in 1959, the elder Blanco became one of his top cops and was the highest intelligence official to defect to Miami.

To reduce the refugee population in Miami, the U.S. government paid a six-month subsidy to help settle Cuban refugees to other parts of the country, and this is how the Blanco family ended up in Chicago in 1963. At the time, both Cesar and Francisco believed that they left the tobacco industry behind them.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, David started then Blanco Cigars to respond to a real need. In the early 1990s, when David was in his early 20s, he found that he was the only one in his circles who was smoking cigars. His friends were always wanting to learn and asking for cigars that were being sent to him from family outside the U.S. David gave them cigars and they kept coming back, eventually wanting to buy them. After discovering that everyone was trying to buy cigars from him, David approached his father, Cesar, and uncle Francisco, indicating that he wanted to start a cigar company to meet these growing needs.

Both elder Blancos informed David that if he was really serious, he needed to go all in and they would match him. So, David liquidated everything, and Blanco Cigar Company was formed in 1998.

Blanco Cigar

At the time, David had just left the Cook County Sheriff's Department, joined the Chicago Fire Department as a paramedic officer, and was proudly serving in the United States Army Reserve, assigned to the 12th Special Forces Group. Fortunately, the one day (24 hours) on, three days (72 hours) off schedule as a paramedic allowed David to grow his side hustle cigar business. His father started as President, handling all of the licensing, legal and corporate matters. His uncle ran tobacco operations in historic Ybor City, outside of Tampa, where in the 1920s there were more cigars being rolled than in Cuba. Meanwhile, David was beating the streets, building the business, securing accounts and overseeing a dozen other sales people.

In 1995, David's unit, the 12th Special Forces Group was deactivated as part of a drawdown of forces, and he crossed over to the Illinois Army National Guard. Given his paramedic background, he naturally became a 91B (now 68W) medic. At the time, his father was a Counter Intelligence (CI) Warrant Officer serving in the United States Army Reserves.

No successful business is void of obstacles and Blancos Cigar Company is no exception. In 2000, uncle Francisco, a 20-year Army veteran who is 100% service connected disabled, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis from his previous exposure to Agent Orange. This setback affected their Ybor City operations, resulting in having to close the factory in Florida and move production to Nicaragua, where other relocated family members could support.

If that wasn't a kick in the gut, we all know what happened on September 11, 2001.

As soon as this historic event in our history occurred, David's father, now a retired CW4 with 27 years of service, was activated to serve alongside multiple Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, as well as assist Ambassador Paul Bremer in the development of the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq.

Also Read: America's oldest World War II veteran is turning 109, and he still smokes 12 cigars a day

Cesar Blanco's last words before heading off to war were "Good luck kid, keep it running as long as you can."

Six months later, David was activated. He had to close up the business in two weeks, lost all 12 sales people, never to return again.

Once activated, David volunteered to go and serve as a line medic in the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, NY. Just showing up one day, his leadership did not know he was a called-up reservist. They just assumed that he was a medic that just PCS'd (permanent change of station) into their unit.

Entrepreneurs quit every day, but not this veteran entrepreneur.

As David says, "I've never quit at anything. I had everything invested. I told myself that it will just take longer." After returning from Afghanistan, David reopened in Chicago and resumed operations with family member running a factory in Nicaragua. He hit the road harder than ever before. David's veteran entrepreneur strength is his drive, believing in accomplishing the mission, and that there is no obstacle too high, too wide, or too deep.

Despite his uncle getting ill, deployments closing the company, a catastrophic collapse of the economy in 2008, David has been very resilient when many entrepreneurs would have quit. All of these events have made him stronger, forced him to creatively grow the business, and made him very proficient at running a lean organization.

One of the smartest decisions David made was leaving his Chicago roots for Clearwater, Florida. In 2011, when Rahm Emmanuel ran for mayor, David knew that smoking restrictions and tax increases would follow. The next indicator of his tremendous business acumen was his decision to open their Florida-based U.S. Customs bonded warehouse that same year.

David Blanco, founder of Blanco Cigar.

This move allowed Blanco Cigars to avoid the increased Federal Excise Taxes under President Obama, when taxes were increased from $0.025 per cigar to almost $0.41 per cigar. The new facility allows Blanco Cigars to forego taxes until the product leaves the facility.

In 2017, Blanco Cigars experienced a 200% growth to over $1 million (US) sales this year and producing over 1 million cigars. Under the Blancos' leadership, their direction and trajectory is growing due to great partnering alliances. Their largest affiliates are Hiram & Solomon (a Masonic Company) and Warfighter Tobacco Company.

Blanco Cigars' ability to blend, import, warehouse and drop ship for other cigar companies has allowed them to self-finance their business, while diversifying their product line. As they continue to grow, this will continue to be important. Banks are not going to loan you money if you're in the tobacco business. So, their ability to bootstrap all efforts is important.

Presently, a Company Commander in the United States Army Reserves and a successful veteran entrepreneur, David Blanco always has a smile on his face and you'll likely hear him to tell you to "Stay Smoky!"

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