When Manuel Balado left Cuba in March 1962 with his wife, the late Mercedes Balado, five months after sending his teenaged daughters to Miami, he left behind a chain of gas stations and a tire and auto service business, Gomera Nacional Balado.
He founded Gomera in 1949 in Havana and saw it grow into one of the main distributors of Firestone tires. United States-based Firestone company frequently honored the Cuban citizen as one of its top salesmen.
For decades, Balado kept a yellowed 1953 photograph in his desk that depicted him with two Firestone executives as they toured the company’s Akron, Ohio, plant. The image appeared in a Firestone company newsletter.
Balado, who died at 98 at his Miami home on Nov. 19, couldn’t have expected the same success when he started over in Miami in that spring of 1962.
“There was no business here. People didn’t have that much money and there was a lot of unemployment,” he told the Miami Herald in 1989.
Six months after Balado’s arrival, in September 1962, he restarted Gomera Nacional Balado, rebranded in English as Balado National Tire on Northwest 7th Avenue, north of the Miami River. “I didn’t know how far I was going to get, but I did know I wasn’t going to fail,” Balado told the Herald in 1989.
Far from it. Just a half dozen years after moving to Miami, Balado was firmly ensconced in Miami’s business community, helping to form the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A. and serving as its president for four years, through 1972. In 1989, he was honored by the organization as its Entrepreneur of the Year, and was its lifetime honorary president.
Three years later, in 1992, the family-run company had sales of $5 million, making it one of the Top 500 Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States, according to a Miami Herald article. The family still maintains three locations in Miami today, including the main outlet at 1633 NW 27th Ave. that he opened in 1974.
He always tried to guide us on the right path based on his life experiences. He is, and probably will always be the smartest, wisest, most humble person I will ever know.
Cristina Garcia on her grandfather, Manuel Balado
Said grandson Orlando Hidalgo Jr.: “We still get customers at the tire store who say they come to us because of the way el Señor Balado helped their parents and grandparents get used tires on credit when they first arrived from Cuba. His attitude of humbly helping others first while carving out a very comfortable life for our family in a very competitive market is his greatest influence on me.”
Born on New Year’s Day 1918, in Matanzas, Cuba, Balado began his career in the tire business in the 1930s, as a teenager, at a tire repair shop of a bus company. He parlayed that experience into a network of tire shops and gas stations in Cuba that made the Balado name synonymous with tires on the island.
“I will forever be grateful for all of the experiences and opportunities we were provided thanks to his wisdom, intelligence and business sense,” said granddaughter Alicia Hidalgo. Her favorite thing about him was his sense of humor, shown only to family and close friends. “He had all of these really funny phrases and expressions, which were his way of teaching us life lessons.”
Balado is survived by his daughters, Alicia Balado Hidalgo and Miriam Balado Olivera; six grandchildren; six great grandchildren; his sister Carmen Fleitas; and brother Jose Balado.
A Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Dec. 16, at St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church, 3475 SW 17th St., Miami.