How Michael and Nikki Simkins are building a luxury lifestyle empire

Full Article: South Florida Business & Wealth Magazine Online

Published: 02/28/22

Michael and Nikki Simkins. Married for 17 years with three children, their interests dovetail with each other’s and with the city they are helping to grow. Their E11even brand began with nightlife but has extended to include vodka, real estate and the cutting edge of fintech: In April 2021, the nightclub began accepting cryptocurrency, and, soon after, E11even Hotel & Residences followed suit. In sum, E11even marries the old and new Miamis: hospitality and the promise of an endless party coupled with the reemergence of Downtown and cutting-edge finance.

The Lion Roars

Born and raised in Miami Beach, Michael, now the CEO of Lion Development and an owner of E11even Partners (the company behind the E11even Miami nightclub, hotel, condominium, and sound equipment), started college in California but ended up returning home to graduate from the University of Miami, where he received a degree in finance. A law degree from Brooklyn Law School followed; then Michael practiced real estate law at Akerman Senterfitt until 2007. He’d lasted in the field for about five years. “The industry died,” he remembers of the period. “It was crickets, with no deals happening. I should have foreseen the financial crisis in September 2008 because the whole year had been extremely slow.”

In other words, it was a good time to be bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. His family was in the paper industry, led by Michael’s father Leon Simkins, a pillar of Miami’s business and charitable giving scene who died in 2017. “He operated 20 paper factories at one time,” Michael says. “He was a great investor. And he was active in the South Florida philanthropic community, particularly with Jackson Hospital and Diabetes Research Institute, two causes closest to his heart.” (For his part, Michael is on the board of directors of Miami Beach Jewish Community Center, and he just finished a four-year tenure as chairman of the board. He is also on the boards of the Miami Jewish Federation; Endeavor Miami, a nonprofit that supports high-impact entrepreneurs; and Refresh Miami, which supports tech initiatives in Miami. Nikki is on the executive committee for the Diabetes Research Institute.)

By the time Michael exited his law career, his father had sold part of the company. There was liquidity to spare and capital to invest, “so the time was good for me to start looking for real estate investments with my family,” Michael says. Finance came before development: Lion Financial, founded in 2008, still exists today as an active South Florida real estate lender. Michael says that the business provided both visibility and an understanding of Miami neighborhoods. Lion Development was founded in 2012. As president and CEO, Michael runs the company, with his siblings as partners. Lion quickly began purchasing properties, particularly in the Park West neighborhood, as well as in Overtown and Allapatah and portions of South Beach. Simkins is especially bullish on Park West, where his company owns 10 acres, and Overtown, where he partnered with Marcus Samuelsson on the celebrity chef’s lauded Red Rooster restaurant.

In the Club

In 2012, Lion acquired the property on which the E11even club is now located. “Initially, our plan was to lease the space to a nightclub operator,” Michael recalls. “Everyone in the country was interested in leasing the place.” But Lion tilted toward ownership. “Everyone thought we were crazy, and that it wouldn’t be successful, and that we would lose a lot of money. But what I believed, and what my partners believed, was that downtown Miami and Miami in general were on a high-growth trajectory, and were really poised to capture a lot of the entertainment that a lot of people had first visited South Beach for. That interest was being replaced by different neighborhoods in Miami that were offering something different culturally, different experiences. So, we were big believers in Miami, that it would become more prominent as a city.”

The club opened in February 2014 and has remained a big draw for its DJs, trapeze dancers, burlesque shows and appearances by performers such as Drake, Miley Cyrus, Usher, Cardi B and the Chainsmokers—in other words, for its peerless showmanship and spectacle.

Michael is quick to point out another key to the club’s success: It enjoys a 24-hour liquor license, which allows it to stay open all night. “Growing up in Miami, I learned that entertainment nightlife is part of our DNA and part of our brand,” Michael explains. “I felt that the 24-hour license would give us a competitive advantage compared to clubs that were required to close earlier. We had a unique identity that blended a lot of different concepts from theatrics—from Cirque du Soleil shows to performances by pop artists—and a high level of hospitality, where we treat everyone like a VIP. It was successful right off the bat, and we learned a lot of lessons that first year.”

A major lesson was somewhat unexpected: the power of merchandise. The club started earning millions of dollars annually—in baseball caps. Michael still seems a bit incredulous, but he came to understand that his clubgoers wanted to be identified as ambassadors of the E11even tribe: “They wanted to be a part of what the brand represents, living your best life. The cap was a badge of honor for some people to show that they’d had an epic night and wanted to relive the experience of being in the club, where they felt like a king. The merchandise really resonated with people. We have something that’s much bigger than a nightclub. We have a lifestyle brand.” Far-flung fans of E11even even can experience the nightclub’s sound quality, via DAS Audio, a state-of-the-art sound system available worldwide. The Simkins are marching toward ubiquity.

Major Expansion

Nowhere are their ambitions more evident than in Park West’s E11even Hotel and Residences, designed by Sieger Suarez Architects. Michael says the first tower of two (65 stories, 375 units), slated for completion in 2023, sold out in seven months. Units in the second tower, called E11even Residences Beyond (65 stories, 461 units), currently are on the market, with groundbreaking expected this year. E11even Partners—Michael Simkins, Dennis DeGori and Marc Roberts—along with PMG are the developers. In a city where new residential towers keep outdoing each other in terms of wow amenities, E11even Hotel & Residences will boast a wellness center curated by Chopra Spa & Studio, a five-star gourmet food hall, a casino-style sports lounge, and a members-only rooftop experience with a VIP pool and bar area. Michael says that the project represents the first pre-construction condominium in the country to accept cryptocurrency as a deposit, through its first-ever real estate partnership with FTX, the world’s leading cryptocurrency exchange.

For Nikki, something much more tangible than blockchain sets the brand’s tone: E11even Vodka. “I’ve always been a vodka drinker because I care about what I put in my body,” she says. “I’m not a big drinker, but when I do drink, I’ll have vodka. Vodka is the cleanest spirit in the market; it doesn’t contain any congeners”—substances that contain a small amount of such chemicals as methanol, acetone and tannins—“and it’s really difficult for your liver to process them. If you’re trying to avoid a hangover the next day, vodka is the best spirit to drink.” (Studies have shown that darker drinks, such as cognac and whiskey, are responsible for the hangover effect due to their high congener content.)

The opportunity was hiding in plain sight: With the nightclub moving so much vodka, it was a natural fit for Nikki to license the intellectual property of the brand to create her own vodka. “With Michael and I having been born and raised in Miami, it was really important for me to have a Miami-made vodka,” Nikki says. “I spent more than a year designing the bottle.” What emerged was the distinctive aqua-necked vessel we know today. Of course, what’s found inside—distilled six times, made with non-GMO corn, and produced through a seven-step filtration process—is far more important. The company ran taste tests marked by the diversity of their tasters, and produced multiple iterations before the vodka—which Nikki affectionately calls “juice”—was deemed smooth enough.

“We did blind taste tests and it would beat every competitor,” Nikki says. Her passion propelled her into the CEO role, and the nightclub began selling her clear concoction in 2019. The response in the club was so encouraging that the company created a website, began promoting the vodka on social media and Nikki hired her first employees.

Taste Tested

The vodka in the memorable bottle transcends the Miami market; it is carried in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville, and in every Total Wine & More store in Florida. Nikki hopes to get her juice onto shelves in more big box retailers. Though Nikki has fielded offers from New York and Los Angeles, her current focus is to dominate Florida. (In five years, she envisions being present in “all the major cities.”)

And given the changing habits informed by the COVID-19 pandemic, e-commerce has offered a boost; the bottles can be found on ReserveBar’s high-end liquor site. “E11even Vodka is a fit for any celebration,” says Lauren White, ReserveBar’s vice president of creative. “Not only does the bottle look like the life of the party, but the taste is subtle, slightly sweet, and pairs nicely into a wide variety of cocktails. This vodka simply embodies the Miami spirit. We are thrilled to be featuring E11even Vodka on the ReserveBar site and appreciate their partnership with us.”

Activations also play a role in the sales and marketing of E11even Vodka. “We did a pink-label campaign last year for breast cancer awareness,” Nikki says. “We sold out of every bottle that we had. That’s something that we’re going to do every year. This vodka company is a big platform to really focus on empowering women. That’s going to be the focus of E11even Vodka in 2022. It’s pretty interesting to be a CEO in a male-dominated industry.”

From two teenagers who met in high school in Israel during their junior year, Michael and Nikki have triumphed as Miami players in the city’s quintessential industries (their daughter is planning to attend the same program that brought her parents together). Theirs is a truly synergistic relationship. Long before E11even anything was even a whisper of a concept, Nikki was a highly successful gemologist and diamond dealer. Michael delights in telling the story of Nikki selling a flawless 15-carat blue diamond to Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. “In that one transaction,” Michael remembers, “her commission was as much as four years of my salary. That got me thinking that practicing law wasn’t for me. And that gave me a lot of confidence in this current venture in vodka—her experience with sales and interacting with people showed me what was possible.”

Photos by Nick Garcia