The Long Drive Home
Photography by Greg Grupenhof
On January 10, 1962, Ed Neyra didn’t much like Cincinnati. He had just gotten off a plane on a cold, snowy day under a trademark leaden, gray Ohio Valley winter sky.
It was a far cry from his hometown, the picturesque city of Cárdenas on Cuba’s north coast, near the resort hotel his family operated. Good thing, he thought, he would be here for only a few months.
Neyra, his older sister and a cousin were among the more than 14,000 Cuban children sent in the early 1960s by their parents to the United States because of the political turmoil in the country. Revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro officially overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day, 1959, but Neyra says many Cubans expected Castro’s regime to collapse quickly. In the meantime, Cubans who might find themselves in the new regime’s crosshairs were eager to protect their children.
The result, Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan), transported children under the auspices of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, part of the Diocese of Miami, Fla., to new homes across the United States. The church organization was instrumental in granting the children visa waivers, which allowed them legal entry into the U.S.
By the turn of 1962, however, the Bay of Pigs invasion had already failed, and, as Cuba-U.S. relations continued to deteriorate, it became clear that the children’s stay would not be brief. The Cuban Missile Crisis that October closed the door for good.
Neyra, who turned 12 the day before he landed in Cincinnati, was taken in by a family that had stayed often at his family’s hotel. Those tumultuous early years focused his energy and taught him two key lessons that he has taken to heart through a very successful business career.
The first was self-reliance. “If it’s going to be,” he says, “it’s up to me.” The other came from the calamitous miscalculation of Castro’s political savvy by the U.S. government and Cuban opposition leaders. “Never underestimate your competition.”
The year 1965 was a watershed. Neyra’s parents managed to emigrate, too, and he had to take on the role of cultural parent, helping acclimate them to U.S. life. It was also the year he began working at Cincinnati Pavement Sealing Co., which was owned by the father of a school friend.
That man, Martin Byrnes Sr., became Neyra’s business mentor and gave him the first of the many opportunities. By 1971, he bought the company, eventually renaming it Neyra Paving.
From there he branched out into other businesses, including a seal coating-manufacturing company, Neyra Industries, and a commercial real estate-development company, Neyra Properties.
By early 2008, Neyra had passed the leadership torch of his namesake companies to his sons. “They’ve earned that,” he says, by working their way up. “And I want them to actually run the business.
“I don’t want them to be in a board meeting and say, ‘This is a good idea, but I have to ask Dad.’ ”
Neyra is not the retiring type, though. “Oh, no, I had to find something to do.”
The next opportunity came quickly.
The Richard Lindner family wanted to sell its luxury auto dealerships, Jaguar Cincinnati and Land Rover Cincinnati. “They were looking at all their operations and focusing them,” Neyra says. They asked if he was interested, and he was.
Neyra had one key condition: That Jaguar and Land Rover’s announced sale to Tata Motors Ltd. had to go through. The outcome to that is visible in the elegant new facility on Blue Ash Road in Blue Ash, open since January, that houses both dealerships.
Neyra has an aura that’s both personable and relaxed but unmistakably focused. As he sat in the conference room of his dealership, he spoke about the reason for that condition of the sale. Jaguar and Land Rover had been problem brands into the 1980s as part of the nationalized British Leyland Motor Corp. and acquired a reputation for mechanical unreliability.
After a few years of independence, Jaguar and Land Rover had been bought by Ford Motor Co., which assembled a stable of high-end makes as its Premiere Automotive Group. Ford brought hugely needed improvements to the cars, Neyra said, but they were never a true focus for Ford. The collapse of the U.S. auto market in 2007 didn’t help.
Unlike General Motors and Chrysler, Ford didn’t file for bankruptcy, but it seriously retrenched, including selling its premiere brands. In 2007, Ford announced that Tata was the top bidder for the iconic British nameplates. Although it’s not a household name in the U.S., Tata is the world’s 17th largest auto manufacturer.
For Tata, Neyra says, the British luxury brands were a passion, and he wanted to be a part of that. Neyra also sees a kindred spirit in another successful family-built company. He has met the Tata Group’s chairman emeritus, Ratan Tata, and he came away impressed.
“He is a man with a plan,” Neyra says. He’s also impressed by the Tata family’s philanthropy: The major shareholders of Tata Sons, the holding company for the various businesses, including Tata Motors, are philanthropic trusts endowed by the founding family. That means much of the company’s profits are directed toward philanthropic causes.
That sense of wanting to give back was a strong motivator for Neyra’s acquiring the dealerships. “I really wanted the chance to run a community business,” he says. His other businesses have customers as far afield as Hong Kong and Singapore, but there wasn’t much connection within Greater Cincinnati.
All Neyra had to do was to convince Jaguar Land Rover North America to approve him as an owner. The Lindners vouched for him, but he had no experience in the car business. “They want someone who has at least been a general manager,” he says. He made his pitch: He would assemble a crack management team, build a new, state-of-the-art facility worthy of Tata’s vision for his new brands and learn the business himself.
Neyra is a persuasive man when he’s committed to a goal. Fortunately for Neyra, Jaguar Land Rover North America relented.
The separate Jaguar and Land Rover dealerships were consolidated in the old Land Rover dealership while the adjacent site was cleared for the new facility. Neyra believes it’s one of the most luxurious in the country. With Italian tile floors, wood trim, etched glass around the open sales desks and subtle lighting that creates the feel of a museum, it’s not difficult to see why.
The dealership is “a divine gift,” Neyra says, and, like his life’s other opportunities, he won’t let this one slip by. This opportunity, however, isn’t for him. It’s for the community he now can’t imagine not calling home.
Walking through his facility, we enter the service entrance. One would expect a high-end dealer’s service entrance to be clean, and this one certainly is that. What one might not expect is Neyra’s collection of vintage Jaguars, all in immaculate condition, dating back to the 1950s.
The space is available to be used for special events – it would make a very cool cocktail reception site – but not for money to the dealership. It’s free to any community group or business that will use it to raise money for a good cause, especially in support of children’s health. That’s become Neyra’s top cause, particularly the Ronald McDonald House.
He does this in part because he’s easily emotionally overwhelmed by the plight of the children. “I can’t do it,” he’d said emphatically in the conference room, pressing his palms on the table in earnestness. “I told my wife, I just can’t.”
He relented once and attempted an in-person visit. He started to cry – “I told you this would happen,” he recounted saying – and had to leave. “I’m not embarrassed to cry,” he says, “but if I go and do that, it becomes all about me, not them. I become a distraction.”
The tour continues through the service bays. Tires squeak as they’re turned on the shining surface. They really do oil changes and brake work here? We could eat off this floor.
“They have to put the racks up at night,” Neyra says. “A crew comes in at night to repolish the floor.”
Outside now, behind the building, Neyra becomes excited as he shows his finishing touches. Where most auto dealerships have a parking lot for inventory, Jaguar Land Rover Cincinnati has a pond, with shining new sculptures and a boardwalk with benches to look out over it.
Customers and employees can use it to unwind, but he built it, he says, “for the kids. They can come out here and have fun.” It’s also available for charitable events.
Behind the pond is the off-road race track. Again, it’s available for community use, whether corporate team-building or charitable events.
The spaces were inspired in part by his car brands: The Jaguar, elegant and refined, is about heritage, reflected in the vintage vehicles, and the Land Rover, ready to take on the wilderness, shares its spirit of adventure with the track.
As we loop back toward the main building, we pass a crew at work on a large garage space. There’s already a retired Terrace Park fire engine in it, and it actually looks small in the big space. Neyra says he will add a small tank (yes, a tank) and several military vehicles to the collection. “Kids are gonna love climbing all over those,” he says with a smile.
Between the garage and pond, a circle of carved stone, perhaps 10 feet across, surrounds a small pedestal under a stone pergola. The pedestal will soon hold a red, white and blue metal sculpture, designed by Neyra. Around the circle are six plaques. Five honor the branches of the U.S. armed forces; the last bears an inscription, a poem by Neyra expressing his love for America and all it has given him.
The boy who walked off a plane into a snowy Cincinnati winter has come a long way.
Jaguar Land Rover Cincinnati is at 9115 Blue Ash Road, Cincinnati, OH 45242. You can reach them at 513.791.1000 or visit their website at cincyjlr.com.