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Smoking in the Boardroom

Many corporate executives still enjoy a great cigar.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

Jonathan S. Linen never leaves home without two things: his American Express card (he's vice chairman of the company) and a cigar.

"I started smoking cigars in Vietnam in 1968. I found that I could get very good Philippine cigars in the PX. They helped make the long treks in the underbrush bearable," he says. "They kept the bugs away." As a first lieutenant in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, Linen was a forward observer for an artillery batallion, calling in coordinates to the big guns in the rear. Enjoying good cigars helped ease a bad experience. "They tasted good to me out in the middle of nowhere," he says.

Linen dropped the cigars when he returned home but resumed smoking when he joined the American Express Co. in 1970. As Linen recalls, cigar smokers were far more numerous and welcome in corporate America at that time. "In the old days, you could smoke anywhere, at any meeting and anytime," he says. It was common to see people walking through the halls with an unlit cigar in their mouth, getting ready to smoke in an office or a conference room. Both cigar and cigarette smokers were abundant. "There was no distinction," he says. "The previous chairman, Howard L. Clark Sr., set the example."

Cigars and CEOs go together like wine and cheese, hardware and software or aces and kings. The image of the executive cigar smoker is a classic one. When cartoonists want to depict a character as the boss they give him a cigar. Film directors do the same: No movie about a big-shot executive would be complete without a cigar propped in the man's mouth. Te-Amo even makes an 8 1/2-inch-long cigar called the CEO.

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Charlie Sheen plays an ambitious young stockbroker who uses a birthday box of Cuban cigars to gain an audience with corporate raider Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas. The cigars impress the man who says "greed is good," and he introduces the youngster to the big time.

Although cigars are not as common in the executive suite today as they were 30 years ago, there are many corner offices where the fragrant aroma of a burning corona still can be detected. Today, cigar smokers sit in the upper offices of many of the world's largest and most well-known companies.

IBM chairman and CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is a cigar smoker. So are NBC President and CEO Bob Wright, New York Daily News Chairman and Co-Publisher Mort Zuckerman, Bernd Pischetsrieder, chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG (who prefers Davidoff Dom Perignons and Romeo y Julieta Belicosos), and Chairman Richard B. (Dick) Fisher of Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. Even President Clinton, America's CEO, has been known to light up on occasion.

In the early 1980s, a friend sent Phil Guarascio a box of Nat Sherman cigars packaged in a fine humidor. "It's been a love affair [ever] since then," says the General Motors vice president and general manager of marketing and advertising for North America. He calls himself "an eclectic cigar smoker;" he smokes Cuban cigars, Davidoffs and Avos, preferring thicker cigars. Guarascio has a special cigar for celebrations: Cuban-made Davidoff Dom Perignons, which he bought for about $60 apiece. He has one left.

While Guarascio will keep that one for himself, he is very generous with his other cigars. Walking through New York's La Guardia Airport one day, he saw a very frustrated cigar smoker haggling with a clerk at a shop. The store had no cigars, and the man was distraught. Guarascio overheard the man complain about how he had been traveling eight hours, had been subjected to two canceled flights and was now on his way to a business meeting with no cigars. Guarascio handed him two, including a Cohiba robusto. Although he enjoys giving them away, he likes smoking them even more. "My son once said to me, 'Dad, I've never seen anybody enjoy anything more than you enjoying a cigar on the golf course or in your study.' "

And enjoying cigars, of course, is what smoking is all about. Citicorp Vice-Chairman Christopher J. Steffen says cigars are cerebral enhancers. "There's nothing quite like playing golf and having a cigar, or having a cigar and playing bridge or just sitting on the beach and watching a sunset," he says, reflecting in his spacious Park Avenue office early one morning. "This is an accent on life."

He smoked cigarettes as a teenager, and began buying cheap cigars as cigarette supplements. He eventually dropped the cigarettes and took up cigars seriously when he became vice president and controller of Chrysler Corp. He smoked cigars with Robert A. Lutz, Chrysler's president and COO. "Bob gave me my first Cohiba," he recalls.

Steffen now smokes cigars regularly. Rather than stick to a favorite brand, Steffen delights in experimenting with new cigars. Every morning he selects a handful of smokes from his personal humidor or from his wine cellar, and brings his daily selections to work in a leather carrying case. He typically begins his smoking day with a mild choice, such as a Davidoff 4000 or 5000, and works upward. "As the day goes on, I like the cigar to get stronger," he says.

Gene Pressman, Co-chairman and Co-COO of Barneys New York, began smoking cigars 15 years ago. "Like anything else, you find your niche in what you like and you go with it. Unfortunately, the kind of cigar I ended up liking was a Cuban Davidoff 1000," he says. "It was strong, but it was small." Pressman smoked those cigars for about 10 years, buying them in Hong Kong and London, until they became scarce. Three years ago, he flew to Geneva and visited Davidoff's main store to search for more of his beloved smokes.

"I found they had about 15 boxes left of the 1000s. I took 'em all," he says. He paid $5 per cigar, a bargain considering the price that those irreplaceable boxes would bring today. "I have one left that I'll never smoke; [I keep it] as a memento at the bottom of one of my humidors," Pressman says. That prized cigar sits in the bottom tray of his three-tiered home humidor, joined by a handful of pre-Castro Cuban cigars, including a few Partagas rolled in 1957, along with some old Montecristos.

Pressman likes corona-sized cigars, but on rare occasions he'll try a larger cigar, such as a double corona. And he likes to smoke on a full stomach. He is confounded when friends light up a big cigar at 6:30 a.m. on the first tee. While Pressman occasionally smokes at work, he keeps his office humidor empty to reduce the temptation of smoking more than his limit of one or two a day. He's a runner and marathoner (he completed last fall's New York City marathon) and an enthusiastic collector of Bordeaux.

Pressman sees cigar smoking as a natural evolution of his wine collecting. "If you have a good meal and you have a great wine, you need a cigar," he says. "There are a lot of times when the wine is better than the meal, and there are times when the cigar is better than everything."

With his beloved Cuban Davidoffs no longer being made, he now smokes Cohibas. "I started smoking Cohibas a few years ago, and I didn't really like them that much," he says, "but now I really think they're one of the best cigars in the world." His wife, Bonnie, also enjoys Cohibas, although the ones she smokes are very thin, the size of cigarettes.

The only non-Cuban cigar that Pressman enjoys is La Gloria Cubana, which he says is superbly made: "There are only two things about a cigar: taste and how it draws. They really know how to roll a cigar."

Well, maybe three things. Fashion, of course, is Pressman's business. So the way a cigar looks in his mouth undeniably influences his choice in cigars. "The robusto is a nice cigar, but I think it's an ugly cigar," he says. "It really doesn't do it for me."

Alan "Ace" Greenberg is chairman of the board and executive committee of the investment banking firm of Bear Stearns & Co. Inc., but that's not evident upon first glance. His cluttered PC station looks nearly identical to the rows of stations that fill the floor at company headquarters. His phone receiver sits on his desk, off the hook, ready for action. His eyes are constantly moving, scanning the floor and the computer screen in front of him, and he uses words quickly and sparingly.

A cluttered ashtray is at his left side, a few half-smoked cigars propped up in various positions. He began smoking cigars when he joined Bear Stearns as a clerk in 1949; back then, Montecristos were passed out in the dining room. Bear Stearns still passes out cigars, but when the Cuban embargo began it switched to Dominican, Honduran or Jamaican brands.

Greenberg rose through the ranks, becoming a general partner in 1958, CEO in 1978 and chairman in 1985. In 1993 he dropped the CEO title. Over the years, he has cut deals for luminaries such as Donald Trump and Ron Perelman. Working with the billionaire owner of Consolidated Cigar was good for Greenberg's cigar supply.

"Ron kept me in cigars for quite a while," he says. He hasn't had to buy a cigar in years. He smokes about three a day, and when he's not running the frantic show at Bear Stearns he plays bridge, hunts or does magic. But he never calls them tricks. "I do miracles," he quips. "Dogs do tricks." Despite his success, Greenberg still refers to himself as "a simple salesman from Oklahoma."

But cigar-smoking executives aren't all big shots. Andrew L. Tepper is only 28, but he runs IronSoft, Ltd., a tiny Pittsburgh software company. Tepper smokes one or two cigars a week, a practice he picked up at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.

"When I was in prep school, smoking was strictly prohibited, except once a year when we had something called casino night. It might have been a cruel joke, but they told all these kids, 'Well, you can smoke cigars that one night, but you have to do it downstairs.' And it had about seven-foot ceilings. So, it was packed shoulder to shoulder with high school kids all smoking bad cigars," he says with a laugh. "The air was practically liquid."

Traveling to the pharmacy to pick out cheap cigars was a ritual for Tepper back then, but today he relishes sampling a variety of Honduran, Dominican and Cuban cigars. Romeo y Julieta Churchills are his favorite. When he smokes he does it outside, either while walking or reading. "I like the larger cigars, so I spend a couple of hours, and I just enjoy that," he says. "I just drop everything and have a cigar."

Many cigar smokers trace their roots back to cheap smokes bought in drugstores. Not Stephen L. Ruzow, president and COO of stylish clothing manufacturer The Donna Karan Co. His first puff was first-class: His grandfather gave him a Cuban cigar at his bar mitzvah when he was 13 years old. Today, Cuban cigars are his regular smoke. Ruzow smoked Cuban-made Davidoffs until the company shifted production to the Dominican Republic, and now he smokes Cohibas.

He can't smoke at the office, so Ruzow takes his cigars on vacation, where he found that they can help strike up a friendship. While visiting Anguilla, he met Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken. "I was the only one smoking a cigar on the beach at 8:30 a.m.," Ruzow explains.

When Ruzow tried to duplicate his grandfather's generous gift at his son's bar mitzvah, his son declined. But recently, his son, now 23, asked for a cigar to smoke while playing poker with his friends. And Ruzow's 30-year-old son-in-law likes to share a cigar with him.

For John A. Balch, cigars and success go well together. Eight years ago, he was struggling to find space on store shelves for his new product, a handheld vacuum cleaner called the Dirt Devil. His company, Royal Appliance Manufacturing Co., had sales of $28 million, and it was searching for the break that would open up the U.S. market and introduce Royal to the big time. Then he got the phone call. K-Mart was going to carry his product. "That was the day we popped a bottle of Champagne here in the office and lit up," recalls Balch. "Sales really took off."

Today, Cleveland-based Royal has sales of $280 million, and Dirt Devil vacuums are everywhere. Chairman and CEO of the company, Balch is even semifamous, known for his TV spots with his Golden Retriever named Sam (and, more recently, a pack of puppies), his gleaming red vacuums and his ever-present cigar, usually a Dominican H. Upmann.

Smokers are well received at Royal. The company not only has a separate section in the cafeteria for smokers, Balch also has an open-humidor policy. Cigar lovers can come into his office (equipped with a special ventilation system) and help themselves to the treasures in his 200-cigar Davidoff humidor. "It's a great big sucker," he says. "I think my wife paid almost as much for my humidor as my mother paid for her house in 1941."

The boss's smoking has influenced some of his younger lieutenants. On a company trip a few years ago to the Virgin Islands, some 30 Royal employees gathered around Balch with cigars in their mouths, mugging for the camera. The photo hangs in company headquarters. Two of his sales executives, men in their late 20s, are regular cigar smokers who help themselves to Balch's cigars. "They come in the office and say, 'A cigar sure would taste good'," says Balch. "I say, 'Help yourself.' "

Perhaps few people are as married to a cigar as Gene McGovern, chairman of the construction firm GMO International, Inc. in New York City. As he explodes from an elevator with its bright red NO SMOKING sign, a lit Churchill is pointing the way. The stogie sticks out from beneath his black cowboy hat that trails a feather, his cowboy boots beating a quick, steady rhythm on the carpet as he chugs into his sanctum.

His trademark cigar and shaved head have traveled the world. He has managed the construction of London's Canary Wharf, the Ampang Tower Project in Malaysia and the high-profile--and high-stress--renovation of the Statue of Liberty.


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